The Fading Fragrance of Desi Betel Leaves in Munger, Bihar
Renowned for its fragrant paan leaves, Munger district in Bihar is struggling to keep up its cultivation. Rising heat, increasing drought like conditions and erratic weather are shrinking betel leaf cultivation and farmers fear that soon the famous paan leaves of Munger will be no more.
Rahul Jha 14 March 2023 8:43 AM GMT
Not more than 15 years ago there were about 1,000 families who were engaged in cultivating or trading in paan leaves (betel leaves) in Patam village in Munger, Bihar.
“Our paan travelled as far as Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, but now we are hard pressed to sell them even in our own district, and there are barely 13 odd farmers who cultivate paan,” Amar Chaurasiya, a 57-year-old from Patam village in Jamalpur Block, told Gaon Connection.
Writer Parmanand Premi who lives in the neighbouring district of Bhagalpur in Bhadariya village said that Bihar was known for cultivating several kinds of paan. Patam in Munger district was famous for its Sanchi, Kapoori, Bangla and Maghai varieties. But, paan farmers fear the cultivation of the paan leaf may become a thing of the past very soon.
Paan farmer Shivnath Shan from Patam had a disastrous year in 2022. “I cultivated paan in two bighas of land and 40 per cent of my produce went bad because of a drought,” he told Gaon Connection.
“I had a loss of more than Rs 50,000. Farmers had to pay about Rs 150 an hour to use pumpsets. And, to water one bigha of land it takes about seven to eight hours. Which means an expense of anything between Rs 700 to Rs 900 a bigha. And, despite that, we could not save our crop,” Shah said.
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Paan farmers hit by erratic weather
According to Bihar’s agriculture department, last year in 2022, the state had declared 7,841 villages in 11 districts as drought hit. Munger was one of those districts that were affected.
“For the paan crop to flourish, the temperature should not go beyond 40 degrees [celsius] though it routinely touches 45 degrees and more in the summers. The cycle of rain and sunshine has completely gone awry,” Kailash Chaurasiya, a 72-year-old farmer from Patam, told Gaon Connection.
According to him, the westerly winds that were only occasional have increased during both summers and the winters and has adversely affected paan cultivation.
“Now there is no ideal time left to grow paan. Besides, the paan plant has to be looked after like a child and cultivating it is labour intensive. There was a time when the farmers from this village got farm labourers from other places. Now there is not enough work for the farm labourers in this very village, ” Kailash Chaurasiya said.
If the paan is sown in March, it is ready for harvest in August. It is a six month-cycle, explained Vijay Chaurasiya, another Patam farmer. “Each plant yields paan leaves for five years. And the expenditure on each bigha of land is about Rs 4,000,” Vijay told Gaon Connection.
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Hybrid paan varieties on rise
“There was a time when many varieties of paan grew in our village, now only the Bangla and Maghai varieties are grown to a limited extent. The demand for these varieties have also gone down,” Vijay said.
That was because of the fact that there was more demand for hybrid varieties, despite the fact that they were not as tasty as the indigenous varieties, he said.
“It is not that less people are eating paan these days. The fact is hybrid varieties have taken over. While the local varieties of Sanchi, Kapoori and Bangla grown in Patam and Munger area are more fragrant and grow well in the hilly soil of the region, they are labour intensive,” farmer Vikram Kumar told Gaon Connection.
Financial support to paan farmers
The farmers need help in the form of grants, the farmer said. If that happens, the paan cultivation may revive. But so far, farmers have received no help of any kind, he said. “Most of the farmers have given up the cultivation of paan as they have run out of money to irrigate their crops and keep them safe from pests,” he added.
In 2020, the government of Bihar had started a scheme that would provide a grant of up to Rs 4 lakh each for paan farmers. In the village of Patam, just one or two villagers have received the grant. “My father Rajkumar Chaurasia, received the grant of Rs 4 lakh in 2021,” Rahul Kumar, the farmer’s son, told Gaon Connection.
“But it is only a handful of farmers in Patam that have received this grant. It should be made available to more farmers,” Bikram Kumar, a paan cultivator himself, told Gaon Connection.
“It will take some time to make the grant available to all the farmers, but we are doing everything we can to help out the paan farmers,” Anil Kumar, horticulture officer, Munger district, told Gaon Connection.
Shailendra Kumar, a researcher at the Pan Research Centre, Islampur in Nalanda district in Bihar, sounded a note of optimism. “Bihar has begun production of oil from the paan leaves to be used for medicinal purposes. Very soon the farmers in Munger and other districts will be included in the project, and work is underway,” he told Gaon Connection.
It takes a huge volume of paan leaves to extract the oil and as a result the oil is very expensive. According to him, the oil sells at approximately Rs 50, 000 a litre, depending on the quality.