Cultivators of the famed ‘shahi’ litchi of Muzaffarpur had high hopes of a bumper crop this season, but westerly winds lashing North Bihar may presage a deficient supply of this luscious fruit for its connoisseurs across the country.
“The litchi crop, including its shahi variety, is getting burnt because of the dry westerly wind sweeping across the region. There are reports of fruits dropping from trees”, said SK Dubey, a litchi grower from Sakra (Western Muzaffarpur) and a recipient of Kisan Bhushan award.
Bihar’s annual litchi production has been in the region of four lakh tonnes, but this time the production is expected to be about two and a half lakh tonnes. “Already, reports suggest 15 to 20 % produce in litchi orchards has been destroyed”, said another farmer.
There may be quality issues, as well. “The fruits are small in size and colourless”, said Muralidhar Sharma, a litchi planter and trader from Kanti in Muzaffarpur.
Scientists from the National Litchi Research Centre at Mushahri (Muzaffarpur), with help from kisan mitras, are busy educating farmers on how to water the trees to protect the fruit.
Director of the center, Vishal Nath, said the dry spell had undoubtedly restricted the fruit from blossoming well and increased burn cases. “Litchi growers are advised to water the orchards in case of no rainfall happening in their areas”, he said.
“Litchi has fixed buyers in New Delhi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Chennai and Mumbai and they purchase orchards at the time of flowering. But they are having some anxious moments following reports of the produce being smaller in size and some fruits dropping,” said Sanjiv Kumar, a trader from Bakhari area under Bochaha block.
Dildar Singh, a buyer from New Delhi, said he had asked his local helpers to water the trees extensively to protect the fruits. All buyers from big cities now plan to get the fruits plucked from May 21 or 22, to meet the market demand.
Litchi buyers have 70 to 100 trucks at their disposal to take consignments from Muzaffarpur and its nearby areas to New Delhi, Allahabad, Lucknow, Chennai and Mumbai.
“We prefer to ferry it by truck rather than railways, except in the case of Mumbai, so that it reaches the market on time,” Singh said.
Litchi growers of the district are upsets with media reports suggesting some experts had blamed litchi for the spread of the deadly disease, acute encephalitis syndrome (AES), now termed Encephalopathy.
Litchi grower Muralidhar Sharma said evidence at hand did not show any co-relation between litchi and AES cases. “We harvested a bumper crop last year. But, AES related deaths was very few in comparison to earlier years,” he pointed out.
Sharma said there appeared to be an attempt to give a bad name to the famed litchi of Muzaffarpur, with an eye on promoting the fruit’s cultivation in other regions of the country.
AES, a mysterious disease, has claimed more than 2,500 lives, mainly of children in north Bihar, in the last one and a half decades.
A Vellore-based paediatrician and epidemiologist Dr T Jacob John has taken the view that a toxin in litchi causes AES. The finding was published in ‘Current Science’, a journal of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Dr John wrote: “Our research confirmed both ripe and semi-ripe litchis contain a toxin called methylene cyclopropyl-glycine (MCPG) that causes hypoglycemia in children, which leads to death.”
Rejecting Dr John’s finding, local researcher and senior doctor at Sri Krishna Medical College, Muzaffarpur, Dr Gopal Shankar Sahni, linked the spread of AES to humidity. “When the temperature is between 38 to 40 degrees, with 65% to 80% humidity recorded, it is the best time for the spread of this deadly disease”, he claimed.