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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Virus attack, bandh leave sour taste for Darjeeling orange growers

West Bengal horticulture minister claimed 104-day shutdown prevented the administration from delivering benefits of a scheme to the orchards that have been affected by a virus

india Updated: Nov 11, 2017 09:38 IST
Pramod Giri
Pramod Giri
Hindustan Times, Siliguri
Darjeeling oranges are famous for their thin peel and sweetness.
Darjeeling oranges are famous for their thin peel and sweetness.(HT Photo )

It’s not just tea. The famous Darjeeling orange too has been affected by the 104-day shutdown in the north Bengal hills as the bandh has prevented the administration from delivering benefits of a scheme to the orchards affected by a virus, the Bengal government has claimed.

“The orange industry of Darjeeling was affected by a virus attack even before the commencement bandh. A Rs 19-crore package was sanctioned, but the money could not be spent as due to the shutdown we could not deliver pesticides and medicines needed to tackle the problem,” Abdur Rezzak Mollah, West Bengal horticulture and fruit processing minister told HT.

Orchard owners, however, alleged that the orange industry has been pushed to the brink by the virus attack, lack of scientific management and administrative apathy, and did not link it directly to the bandh that paralysed the hills from June 15 to September 26 over the demand for a separate Gorkhaland.

Darjeeling oranges are famous for their thin peel and sweetness, but the cultivators of Mirik, Kurseong and Darjeeling hills are facing tough times.

“I had to destroy half of the 500 trees in my gardens as they were either dying, or, were not bearing fruits,” Madhukar Malla, an orange cultivator from Selphu under Kurseong sub division told HT.

He thinks global warming is one of the culprits.

Significantly, the industry is largely unorganised and growers and their associations hardly have any statistics on production and land under cultivation.

Kamal Gurung another orange cultivator from Sitong said, “We have no idea as to why the orchards are dying and why they have suddenly stopped bearing fruits.”

“I have to convene a meeting with the orange growers and exporters,” said Arijit Mitra, the executive director of horticulture department of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration about the problem.

The minister told HT that now that the bandh is over, he would fast-track the package to address the troubles of the growers. “I might visit the area once,” he said on Friday.

Both Malla and Gurung admitted that the sizes of the Darjeeling oranges have decreased and they have started losing their sweetness. Both have alleged no help is forthcoming from the state government.

Krishak Kalyan Sangathan (Farmers Welfare Association), in Kalimpong said that the north Bengal hills produced about 15,000 tons of oranges in 2016. But they apprehend the figure will dip this year.

The fruit is harvested between end-November and end-January.

“We are facing a strange situation whereby new areas are being brought under orange cultivation but the existing orchards are bearing fewer fruits,” admitted Mahadev Chhetri, senior scientific officer (research and development) of horticulture department, Darjeeling.

In 2001 oranges were cultivated on 930 hectare of land and the production was 1562.4 tons. A few years ago the Cinchona plantation directorate has started cultivating oranges on about 325 hectares in Darjeeling.

According to Chhetri, the number one culprit is the Citrus Tristeza virus that destroys orange orchards from the top. Greening bacteria is also creating havoc.

“The life span of an orange tree is about 25 years. But if a tree is attacked by the virus, a new tree planted at the spot is also affected,” he added. He thinks scientific ways of cultivation and use of organic manure have to be introduced immediately.

Orchard owners also claimed lack of disease-free seedlings is another area of concern. Though the department of horticulture produces 8,000 to 10,000 disease-free seedlings, the annual requirement is at least one lakh.

Bishnu Chettri, secretary of Krishak Kalyan Sangathan, Kalimpong pointed out that the lack of any minimum support price for orange puts many farmers to distress. “Though the mandarin orange is one of the few cash crops of the hills, there is no minimum support price of the fruit, as a result of which farmers continue to be at the receiving end,” he said.

“No government programme has reached the farmers.”

He added that the lack of gram panchayats has also added to their woes. Had the panchayats been functioning, the farmers could have directly interacted with the local representatives.

Tariff barriers in the export markets of Bangladesh have added to the woes. “Bangladesh has imposed heavy import duty on oranges from India. But there is no duty for the fruit procured from Bhutan,” alleged Prem Sherpa, an orchard owner from Namring in Darjeeling district.

Bhutan, Sikkim and Darjeeling that share similar topography and climate, also produce similar quality of oranges. But the denial of Bangladesh market, the nearest export market, has come as a double whammy for the north Bengal growers.

First Published: Nov 11, 2017 09:38 IST

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