Not all is well with mango farming in Manglaur

In the 1990s, growing up in Uttar Pradesh was synonymous with devouring tasty Langda, Dussehri and Chausa mangoes with one's bare hands in the sweltering summer. I still swear by the langda

Not all is well with mango farming in Manglaur

No Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent perfume has ever come even remotely close to the fragrance of washed and chilled langdas in my refrigerator

Ketaki Garg

Having lived abroad for the better part of the last five years, I have sorely missed mango season in India. And while mangoes are no stranger to the supermarkets of the West, no self respecting Indian would quite call the fruit sold abroad, a mango. The aroma is not quite the same and the skin seems a little too perfect and glossy. But worst of all, it's usually sold cut up into neat little pieces, thus eliminating the opportunity to enjoy the mango-gorging experience thoroughly. Moreover, it's no fun eating mangoes when the temperature outside is only 25 degrees C at its war2mest.

Flash back to the 1990s when growing up in small-town UP was synonymous with devouring tasty Langda, Dussehri and Chausa mangoes with one's bare hands in the sweltering summer. A long-lasting memory is of sitting on the banks of the Ganga in the evening at Har Ki Pauri in Haridwar, chilling a bucket full of mangoes in the water. And while everyone has their favourite variety of mangoes, my family (the husband is a recent convert – from Alphonso loving to langda worshipping) and I swear by the langda. No Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent perfume has ever come even remotely close to the fragrance of washed and chilled langdas in my refrigerator.

In fact, my mother tells me that as a two-month old in the scorching heat of June in UP, when I was given a couple of drops of langda mango juice, I slurped them up, coo-ed and smiled up at her for the first time (and then kept sucking at the spoon asking for more). From that day on, my elder sister gave me her stamp of approval for being a true GARG family member. Prior to that apparently, I wasn't GARG enough for her!

Suffice to say then that there is nothing "aam" (ordinary) about this king of fruits. If the mango is the king of fruits, then the langda is the undisputable king of mangoes. No offence to those who think the Alphonso wins that beauty pageant. You have obviously never met the langda. As you can no doubt tell by now, my association with the langda goes back a long way. To be precise, to the mango orchards my grandfather owned in the small town of Manglaur (now in Uttarakhand but previously in UP) more than 20 years ago. I will never forget my first sight of the orchards, and I doubt I will ever see another sight as pretty as a whole orchard blanketed in mango blossoms ("baur") in early spring.

While I was too young then to understand all the nitty-gritties of the mango trade , it became clear to me that my grandfather contracted out the produce to a thekedar (contractor) who had been hired to protect the crop from animals, intruders and infestation, to harvest the mango crop and finally to sell it in the mandi. In return, the contractor agreed to pay a flat sum of money for one or two years of harvest, depending on various factors such as the mango variety, the size of the orchard etc. He would also commit to keeping aside a certain fraction of the harvest for our consumption, free of charge.

Although the practice of contracting out produce continues today, a lot of other things have changed since then, including in and around the town of Manglaur. It is no longer a part of UP after the state of Uttarakhand was carved out at the turn of the millennium. There are some signs of development –a national highway connects Manglaur to New Delhi, motorcycles have replaced bicycles, cell-phone toting youth is the norm- but not everything has changed for the better. Large swathes of the town are littered with single-use plastic. Large-scale migration to cities has meant farming has taken a backseat. In many families, the father has stayed behind to tend to small farms and orchards while the mother and children have taken up a wardrobe-sized room on rent in the nearest big city for access to more lucrative opportunities and better education.

More worryingly, no new cultivable land is being bought (most land is bought for real estate development and industrial purposes) which means that the same piece of land is passed from generation to generation and ends up being divided into many small portions, chiefly between the brothers in the family. This has left most plots of land to be too small for any sort of viable farming. Irrigation continues to be a challenge even after 70 years of independence. Only a few rich landowners and farmers have access to borewells (the cost ranges from INR 75k to a few lakhs depending on the depth).

Drip irrigation doesn't seem to have caught on here as it has elsewhere in the country and as a result farms and orchards are still susceptible to the vagaries of the monsoon. No surprise then that despite being the world's largest producer1 of mangoes (c19.6mn metric tons in 2016, almost half of global production), India's per hectare yield2 of mangoes is among the lowest in the world. Some states in India such as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Maharashtra have adopted the UHDP (Ultra High Density Plantation3) technique to increase yields and have seen very good results.

But for reasons I am yet to fathom, UP and Uttarakhand don't seem to have seen large-scale adoption of this technique despite together accounting for c.25% of India's production of mangoes4. The government has zeroed in on some of these issues and has taken identified certain challenges that need to be addressed immediately. Among the nine stated objectives5 of the Uttarakhand Horticulture and Food Processing Department, one relates specifically to increasing the adoption of high-quality and high-yielding mango farming practices, while a third identifies drip irrigation as an area that needs popularization. So, there is still hope for the mango growers of Manglaur.

Now that I have moved back to India, a trip to Manglaur is imminent. And even though the orchards my grandfather owned were sold off a few years ago and it is too late this year to smell the mango blossoms, langda mango season is just around the corner. Most of all, I think the time is right to introduce my four-month old son to the nectar of the langda, the same way my mom introduced me to it.

Ketaki Garg is based in Mumbai and an avid traveler and lover of all things green. She was born and raised in Roorkee, a 10 min drive from Manglaur, where her family owned a few mango orchards.

(Views are personal)

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