A cyclone robbed my kaju katli: Farmers in leading cashew producer Odisha pummelled by Cyclone Fani

The impact of the devastating Cyclone Fani will be felt well beyond the shores of Odisha, one of the leading cashew producers of the country. Cashew plantations in Puri, Khordha, Cuttack and Jajpur districts are affected. In Puri's Rameshwarpatna village each cashew farmer claims to have lost at least a lakh worth cashew crop. A formal assessment is yet to be made.

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   22 Jun 2019 12:12 PM GMT

Like any other day, on May 3 morning, Mamina Swayam woke up early and took a bath. She then woke up her daughters, aged 14 and 11, and decided to make a quick trip to the kirana shop in her village — Rameshwarpatna, about 10 kms from Puri town — to buy eggs for breakfast.

Since her husband, 32-year-old Mangu Swayam is a cashew farmer, the family lives outside the village (about 300 metres away from the main village), close to their cashew plantation of over 40 trees. The trees were already loaded with cashew seeds and flowers, soon to be harvested [cashew crop is harvested the same time as mango crop, in summer season].

Odisha stands third in cashew cultivation, production and processing in India. It produces about 100,000-125,000 metric tonnes of raw cashew nut a year, which is more than 13 percent of country's total raw cashew nut production.

Around 8 am, when Mamina left home with her daughters, winds had started to blow. Rainfall had started, too. Mamina had heard on radio and television that cyclone Fani was expected to hit Odisha's Puri coast the same morning. But, her village Rameshwarpatna was more than 10-12 kms away from the coast, hence there was no cause for worry, she thought.

"Living in a coastal district, we are used to cyclones, high speed winds and heavy rainfall. That day when I left home, I had no idea when I return from the kirana shop, there would be no home left," said Mamina trying hard to stop her tears.

Once she reached the kirana shop, she knew something was not right as the winds had picked up pace and coconut trees were swaying all around making an eerie noise. She bought eggs, but decided to wait at the kirana shop. With my daughters around, I didn't want to walk back home in such a storm; we had never experienced anything like that before, she added.

Meanwhile, Mangu was getting restless at home as the storm was building up and his wife and daughters had not returned home. He walked up to the nearest brick and cement house to take shelter, as it became imminent his house of mud and bamboo would not be able to withstand the high speed winds of Fani.

"Soon the brick and cement house started to collapse. First, the asbestos roof flew away exposing us to high speed winds and rainfall," narrated Mangu. "I put a corner of my wet gamcha [kind of a scarf] in mouth. It tasted of salt indicating rainwater was mixed with seawater. I was confused and worried," said Mangu.

He knew he had to reach his family. And, started to walk towards the village. By that time, cyclone Fani had hit with full force, gusting over 200 kilometre per hour. "I couldn't see much, but kept walking. The wind kept pushing me this way and that. Coconut trees were lying on the ground and I kept jumping over them. Soon an electric pole fell behind me," reminisced Mangu, who finally managed to reach his wife and daughters in the village. They all took shelter in a pucca house in village and waited. Waited for more than four hours for the cyclone to pass.

At around 1 pm on May 3, when Mamina and family returned home, there was neither any home left, not the cashew plantation. Cyclone Fani had flattened everything.

"I had cashew plantations in two parts — about 40 trees near by house and another 40-50 trees along Puri-Konark road, over a kilometre from Rameshwarpatna. I have lost all the trees and entire cashew crop worth Rs one lakh at least," lamented Mangu, who said it was hard to put a price on each cashew tree which takes about three years to grow into a fruit bearing tree, and gives crop once a year. In four months [cashew crop cycle], Mangu Swayam used to earn Rs 1-1.5 lakh from his cashew crop.

Swayams are now living out in the open with uprooted cashew trees lying all around.

Odisha: Third largest cashew producer

India is the world's third largest producer and exported of cashew next to Vietnam and Nigeria. It is estimated that India produces 23 percent of the world's total cashew production.

A large number of small and marginal farmers in coastal belt of the country depend on cashew farming for livelihood. Of the eight states that commercially cultivate cashew, Odisha stands third in cashew cultivation, production and processing in India. The state government has been promoting cashew plantation under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to provide livelihood to coastal farmers.

Cyclone Fani has hit state's cashew farmers hard. There is no formal assessment of the number of farmers affected, but those in Puri, Khordha, Cuttack and Jajpur districts are the worst affected.

Rameshwarpatna village, which Gaon Connection visited 11 days post Fani cyclone hit Odisha, wore a deserted look. It has 45 families (that's total number of households in the village) who cultivate paddy. About 20 families also grow cashew. All have lost their cashew plantations.

"Some farmers in the village own land and have their own cashew plantations. Others take cashew plantations on lease for four months [cashew crop cycle] to make a living. Each cashew farmer has lost entire cashew nut crop and cashew trees," said Sandhya Rani Mahapatra, a resident of Rameshwarpatna, who works at the village anganwadi as a helper. Fani tore down her pucca house, which is now a heap of debris.

Mangu offered some quick calculation of losses: "Each cashew tree gives about 8-10 kilogram cashew nut. And, we sell raw cashew nut to middleman for Rs 100-200 depending on the size. I had over 80 cashew trees that have been destroyed by the cyclone Fani." As a conservative estimate, this adds up to a loss of Rs 96,000 to Mangu alone (8 kg cashew per tree sold for Rs 150 a kg). And, there are 19 more cashew farmers in his village who claim to have suffered similar losses. This amounts to a loss of Rs 1,824,000 to cashew farmers of Rameshwarpatna alone.

When this is extrapolated to other cashew farmers in Fani-affected Puri, Khordha, Cuttack and Jajpur districts, the losses may as well into several crore.

Lease farmers worst affected

Even within the cashew farmers, those who take cashew plantations on lease for four months are the worst affected. Take the case of Narayani self-help-group (SHG), a samiti of 12 women of Rameshwarpatna village, who, since 2013, are doing business in food products and cashew crop. Each woman of the SHG contributes Rs 100 a month towards the kitty, which is used by all the members for livelihood activities.

"SHG women make papad and dal vadi, which is packed and sold to a middleman, who comes to the village to pick up the packets every month," informed Sandhya Rani. The SHG earns Rs 10,000-12,000 a month, which is distributed equally among the members. Women members also take loan from the SHG kitty at two percent interest rate per month. This keeps them away from private money lenders who charge six percent per month interest rate.

Narayani SHG also does cashew cultivation on lease. "Early this year, we decided to lease an acre of cashew plantation for four months period from a large cashew farmer. We paid Rs 50,000 as lease rent and were hoping to earn Rs one lakh or so. Fani has destroyed everything. Our Rs 50,000 is lost," complained Mamina, who is a member of the SHG. The group now only has about Rs 2,000 in its kitty. ""We are finished," said Mamina wiping the sweat drops off her forehead.

Mitali, a resident of Rameshwarpatna, studies in standard 9 and her parents take cashew plantation on rent, too. She has a younger brother and sister. The family has lost all 30 cashew trees. "Apart from studying in school, I also help my parents in cashew cultivation. Once the flowers and cashew nuts mature, I clean the ground under the tree, as cashew is a delicate crop. Once cashew nuts fall, I collect them in a basket and bring them home, so that my parents can sell to middleman," said Mitali. "This time we have lost our entire cashew nut crop and cashew trees," she added. Her house is destroyed, too.

The residents of Rameshwarpatna have received immediate relief of 50kg rice and Rs 2,000 per family from the state government. But that is nothing compared to the losses that have suffered.

"My entire house of two rooms and a kitchen on three dismil area [a local unit for area; 1 dismil = 0.01 acre] is flattened. The stored ration is lost. All important official papers, television set, sewing machine, etc is broken," said Sandhya Rani, who hasn't resumed work at the anganwadi, which is shut post Fani.

We only stare blankly at the sky, she said.

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