By Stella Paul
India’s Jampui Hills – a picturesque hill station in the north eastern province — has been know for decades as the Orange Bowl. But a changing climate has led farmers on a search for sustainable agriculture.
JAMPUI HILLS, India , Feb 24 2020 (IPS) – Hillol Datta, 26, travelled for two days from Kolkata to Jampui Hills – a picturesque hill station in the north eastern province of India – to see its fruit-laden orange orchards. However, after driving for several hours, all the young traveller saw were bald patches along the hill slopes and scattered rows of areca (nut) palm trees.
“This is disappointing. I had heard so much about the orange orchards of Jampui. Even my father had said that there would be gold against the green all over the hills here. But I only saw supari (areca palm) trees,” Datta tells IPS, visibly miffed.
Datta had not been lied to: For decades the picturesque Jampui Hills in Tripura state were known as the “Orange Bowl” as hundreds of farms across the hills produced dark golden, smooth and juicy oranges which won several awards at agricultural exhibitions across the country.
There are 10 villages in Jampui, which has a total population of 12,000, according to the last national census (2011). The cultivation of oranges first started here in the 1960s, but gained popularity in the mid-1980s when almost all the villages began growing oranges, making the cash crop their main source of livelihood.
India is dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 23 percent of its GDP and employs 59 percent of the country’s workforce.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) states that agriculture, “is the largest source of livelihoods in India. 70 percent of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82 percent of farmers being small and marginal“.
Since the cultivation of the fruit here in the 1960s it has attracted traders and tourists in equal numbers.
In fact, the oranges were the main attraction at the Jampui Orange Festival – an annual cultural event organised each winter, which celebrated the hill landscape and the art and culture of the local indigenous Mizo tribes during the orange harvest season.
Good quality, high demand
In India, Nagpur remains the most popular orange-growing district. Yet in the markets of eastern India, Jampui oranges usually fetched higher prices — 240 to 300 rupees ($4 to $5) a dozen — compared to 100 to 150 rupees ($1.5 to $2.5) for oranges from Nagpur. Besides, tourists and buyers of the oranges came from the neighbouring states of Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal.
“My oranges were always bought [by the] tree by traders from Assam,” Zoram Sailo, an orange-grower for the past 30 years, tells IPS. The 67-year-old farmer from Tlangsang village had a regular clientele who would usually take a tour of his orchard and offer a price. His neighbours, who had fewer trees, usually preferred to sell in local markets to tourists and local fruit vendors.
“Each of my trees sold for 5,000 rupees ($70), sometimes even more. So, on an average I used to make one and a half lakh ($1500 to $2000). We used to start preparing for Christmas right after that,” recalls Sailo.
However, around 2008, Sailo started to lose money as the trees in his orchard begun to die after a pest attack. It was the powdery mildew, which discolours the leaves, weakens the tree and causes fruit drop.
In 2016, after several years of recurring fruit drop (where trees drop fruit prematurely) and gradual ‘dieback’ (a condition where a tree dies from the tip), Sailo finally gave up orange cultivation altogether and started planting areca nuts instead.
Erratic climate aids the loss
According to Debaprasad Sarkar, director of agriculture in Agartala, Tripura state’s capital, mildew infection spreads through the air but can be controlled if an entire village is sprayed from elevated ground. But farmers in Jampui lacked the resources and infrastructure to do this.
Many locals also say that although the pest attack isn’t always fatal, the changing climatic conditions made it grow out of control, leading to mass dieback of trees in orchards.
“For example, in January [during winter] this year, the mid-day temperature was as high as 25 degree Celsius. We are seeing heat waves even in October which is normally the dew season. Previously, storms usually came in the summer and heavy rain occurred only in June or July. But now we are having cyclonic storms all through the year. So, we don’t know whether the pest came first or the weather brought them here,” Dockchoro Reang, a former school teacher in Phuldungsei village, tells IPS.
A 2018 study by Feroze Mohammed Sheikh of Central Agricultural University, Manipur, also highlights the rising temperature and changing climate in Jampui Hills. The study, titled “Study – Central Agricultural University” says that the Jampui Hills have been experiencing delayed monsoons, a rise in temperatures and the loss of its usual cool breeze — all of which appear to have aided the pest attack and dieback.
State lends a helping hand
According to the Food Sustainability Index, created by the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), among other middle income countries India has a score of 65.5 out of 100 when it comes to sustainable agriculture, where 100 is “the highest sustainability and greatest progress towards meeting environmental, societal and economic Key Performance Indicators”.
It is an above-average score for middle income countries that include Brazil (64.2) and China (60.7).
So the loss of orange crop has not gone unnoticed by the state government.
In a recent press conference held in Agartala, state agriculture minister Pranajit Singha Roy admitted that the orange cultivation in Jampui has come to an end.
“The production of orange in the Jampui hills is lost and even though the productivity is still on in other places of the state, the taste cannot match with those of the Jampui Hills,” Roy stated.
To help the distressed farmers, the state government has been providing monetary and technical support to grow areca nuts under the country’s flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Enacted as an act of parliament in 2005, the programme aims to “enhance the livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work“.
Besides, the 200 farmers who are still growing oranges have been provided with financial support of 15,000 rupees ($200), Sarkar said.
The state’s current five-year agricultural policy also promises to promote areca nut farming across Tripura state, especially in Jampui Hills.
On average, the areca nut can be harvested three to four times in a year and a single tree can produce 200 to 300 kgs of nuts. With a year-long demand for the nuts both within and outside of the region and the average market rate of 300 rupees a kg ($5), the farmers of Jampui Hills are hopeful that their financial woes would end soon.
“Like oranges, areca can also be planted on the slopes of a hill which is a big advantage. Above all, like oranges, we have the options of selling both before and after the harvest,” says Sailo, who is expecting the first crop later this year as his plantation turns five.
However, for the tourism and hospitality sector, the bad days are far from over as there is a cascading effect of the vanishing orange orchards.
Ranjan Sen, 38, has been driving tourists around Jampui Hills for over a decade. During the peak orange farming season, he would make between 7,000 to 8,000 rupees ($100 to $120) on each trip as tourists would usually prefer to stay a night or two in the hills.
But with the orchards gone, there is not enough there to hold their attention.
“Earlier, tourists would visit the orange orchards and markets to buy oranges. But now they drive straight to Beliangchhip (the highest peak in the region) and return home. So I can only charge them 2,000 to 3,000 rupees ($27 to $41),” Sen tells IPS.
Local eateries, once popular with tourists, are also struggling to survive.
“Business is down because there are hardly any customers. People now return quickly and prefer to eat at restaurants in bigger towns,” says Lalnun Puii who runs an eatery at Vanghmun – the largest village in Jampui Hills.
To survive, Puii is now selling dried up orange trees as firewood, which she buys from farmers at a cheaper rate.
“Areca may be good, but it’s not enough to bring back our customers,” she tells IPS.