The makhanas of Bihar get a GI tag, but a sudden price crash leaves the farmers in a fix
Three months ago, in August 2022, fox nuts from Mithilanchal region of Bihar earned the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag. But farmers have little to cheer as the makhana market has plummeted leaving farmers high and dry.
Rahul Jha 11 Nov 2022 7:37 AM GMT
Nearly 90 per cent of the world's makhana (fox nuts or Gorgon nuts), a super snack, is produced in the Indian state of Bihar. Three months ago, in August 2022, fox nuts from Mithilanchal region of Bihar earned the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag too.
Apart from Mithilanchal, makhana (also known as phool makhana) is cultivated on a large scale in Seemanchal and Kosi regions in the state. The fox nuts, which are the edible seeds of a species of water lily, are cultivated in large tracts of water bodies by millions of farmers for a living.
While the GI tag should have been a cause of celebration with farmers looking forward to increased demand for their produce due to quality assurance, and therefore an opportunity for more income, the reality is far from it.
Makhana farmers complain that they are not even able to get a return on their investment on the crop and the price of the fox nuts in the market has plummeted.
"Till a year or two ago, makhana was once selling for anything between Rs 500 and Rs 600 a kg, is now selling for Rs 300- Rs 400 a kg," Ranjit, a fox nut farmer from Bina panchayat in Supaul district, told Gaon Connection. The 38-year-old farmer said that he has been cultivating fox nuts for almost 12 years now as a contract farmer on more than 20 bighas of land.
Also Read: Water chestnut is 10 times costlier than it was 35 years ago — but have the cultivators benefitted?
"This time, we did not even harvest the makhana from four bighas. We get about five quintals of makhana from one bigha of land, which is going for not more than Rs 5,000 a quintal. This is half of what we got earlier," the farmer said, reiterating how the amount did not even cover the expenses of growing the crop.
Devshankar Khan is despondent too. The farmer from Bangaon village in Saharsa district cultivates fox nuts in three bighas of a waterbody. "I have been cultivating makhana since 2019 and earned nearly a lakh from it. But the price went down and this year I doubt I will be able to make a profit of even Rs 40, 000," he told Gaon Connection.
Makhana cultivation on the rise, prices fall
Makhana is a high value commodity commercially cultivated only in Bihar and certain parts of eastern India. Besides this, it is grown as a natural crop in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Tripura, and Manipur.
As per the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), total area under makhana cultivation in India is estimated to be 15,000 hectares (ha). It yields 120,000 metric tonnes (mt) of makhana seeds, which after processing yields 40,000 mt of makhana pop. The estimated value of the production at farmers end is Rs 250 crore and it generates revenue of Rs 550 crore at trader's level.
Makhana cultivation is getting popular, claim the farmers. "Just two years ago there was only 60 bighas of land under cultivation in our panchayat. Now that has increased to 500 bighas," Ranjit from Bina panchayat in Supaul district, said.
"In the lower reaches of the village where once wheat and paddy were cultivated, it is all fox nuts. Obviously, with the glut the prices will fall, even though the demand for them has risen," he pointed out.
Also Read: When Guddu, a water chestnut farmer, taught lessons on urban wastewater and agricultural livelihoods
"Nearly 40 per cent of the cultivable area in the village is under water and that is the reason most of us decided to cultivate fox nuts and jute," Gulshan Mahto from Kariho panchayat in Supaul, told Gaon Connection. The 38-year-old Mahto said that while the farmers got good money for the jute, they barely recovered their cost on the makhana.
Manish Anand of Mithila Naturals, who is also known as the Makhana Man of Bihar, acknowledged the price drop of makhana.
He said that last year his food processing company, which is one of the largest buyers and sellers of makhana, bought raw makhana at about Rs 18,000 a quintal. "This year the price is no more than Rs 9,000 a quintal. Ideally, the raw makhana should cost no less than Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a quintal," Anand said. He hoped that things would look up in a couple of years.
Mithila Naturals is the first start-up in Bihar that was selected for a grant by the Union agriculture ministry. It was also selected for a grant of a subsidy by Bihar government's industries department and by the horticulture department.
Also Read: Photo feature: The worm collectors of Pune's Mutha river
Traders lobby to be blamed?
"Too many people have come into the business of makhana. Just two years ago there were not so many businesses around makhana," Anand said.
Some experts blame the traders lobby for the price drop. Indu Shekhar Singh, principal scientist at the ICAR RCER Research Center for Makhana, Darbhanga, said that the falling of makhana prices could be on account of the dominant makhana- trading lobby.
"The traders have not bought the makhana this time and that could be a reason for the prices falling," the scientist told Gaon Connection.
According to Singh, after the pandemic many startups came up that used the makhana and this caused a loss to some of the traders. "But, if the production has increased, so has the demand for makhana. So an increase should not really lead to a fall in prices," the scientist said.
Raj Jha, founder of Madhubani Radio, who also teaches journalism, agreed with the view about the traders' hand in the fall of the prices.
"Another reason is that in Saharsa and Supaul, where the makhana is cultivated, there are no processing units nearby. The closest units are in Darbhanga and Madhubani nearly 100 kilometres away," Jha pointed out. The prices were high then because the transportation was by private vehicles. "Now there is a train connection so it does not cost that much to transport the produce," he told Gaon Connection.
Also Read: In Photos: From Nahay Khay to arghaya — how people in Bihar and Jharkhand celebrate Chhath Puja
Makhana farmers demand MSP
"The crashing prices of the makhana are going to adversely impact many families," Supaul-based Uday Mukhiya Mallah, who is associated with the makhana cultivation, told Gaon Connection. "Ordinary people like us are finding ourselves in the crossfire between traders who rule the market. We are not to blame. If the production is high then the government should support us by declaring a minimum support price for it," he added.
"There is a grant (of Rs 30, 000 per farmer) given by the agriculture department to farmers who are growing crops other than wheat and paddy. There are several grants available for makhana and jute, etc. But it is only on paper," an official from the agriculture department of Supaul, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Gaon Connection. "Not everyone gets it. It is already pre-decided how many farmers in which districts will get the grant," he added.
When asked about the reasons behind makhana not making it to the list of food crops included under the ambit of the minimum support price (MSP), Sanjeev Kumar Jha, agriculture coordinator in the state's Agriculture Department in Saharsa, cited multiple reasons behind it.
"Earlier, the makhana was cultivated in the districts along the Kosi river at such a large scale as it is done in the districts of Madhubani and Darbhanga. It is because it is an expensive crop and requires intensive labour. So far, farmers themselves never raised demands to be included in the MSP list," Jha told Gaon Connection.
"Also, the makhana crop is sold to traders at high prices which is why farmers have not been interested in demanding an MSP for it which is why the government has also never paid heed to the issue. It is for the first time that farmers' organisations are raising this demand but the situation will definitely change in a year or two," he added.
Health Benefits of Makhana
The nutritional value of makhana is attributed to its high fiber content, low glycemic index and phytochemical constituents. It is low in calories. Its fiber content acts as an absorbent. Because of this property, it is commonly used for treating diarrhea.
100 grams makhana (fox nuts) contains 350 calories from which 308 calories come from carbohydrates and 39 calories from protein content. It has an insignificant amount of fats and no trans-fat. Moreover, it is high in potassium and provides a little amount of calcium.
Unflavored makhana has almost no cholesterol, low fat and low sodium. It is an ideal snack for people having frequent hunger pangs.