After wheat and mango, it is litchi that takes a hit due to the early arrival of heatwaves this year
Bihar produces more than half the total litchis in the country. But the early arrival of heatwaves this year in March has affected the litchi harvest as farmers report a decline in production and pest attack on fruits. Agricultural scientists acknowledge the negative impact of the heat on the litchi crop. A ground report from the litchi orchards of Muzaffarpur in Bihar.
Lovely Kumari 7 Jun 2022 4:06 PM GMT
Wheat production in the country has reported a drop this year. Similar trend has been noticed in mango production too. And now litchi farmers are also worried as the harvest has been way below their expectations.
All this because of the early arrival of heatwaves this year, which swept large parts of the country in March, a period crucial from the crops due to fertilisation, flowering and fruiting period.
In the litchi orchards of Muzaffarpur in Bihar, the state which produces the highest quantity of the fruit in the country, farmers are already counting their losses as the production is low, the size of litchi fruit small and the fruit has also been infected by pests.
Just two months back, Ramesh Roy was waiting excitedly for the sight of ripe red bunches of litchis to hang from the trees in his orchard spread across a quarter of an hectare of land in Muzaffarpur district, which is world famous for its litchi.
"It all seemed like I was about to reap great profits this year. But the onslaught of the heatwaves ruined my produce in the days that followed," Roy, a 45-year-old cultivator based in Patiasa village, told Gaon Connection. "The litchi fruits developed black spots and a rot set in due to the oppressive heat. More than 500 trees in my orchard have been badly affected," the worried farmer added.
The impact of the early heatwave on the litchi crop in Bihar was confirmed by SD Pandey, the Director of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) - National Research Centre on Litchi in Muzaffarpur.
"Normally, February-March is the ideal time for flowering of the litchi tree. A temperature of 25-26 degrees centigrade is ideal for the blossoming of the litchi tree. These flowers mature as fruits by the last week of May or the first week of June but unfortunately the presence of an unprecedented heatwave during March resulted in significant damage to the litchi flowers," the agriculture scientist explained to the Gaon Connection. "Also, the ongoing heatwave makes it difficult for the ripened fruits to stay safe from rotting," he added.
Thousands of litchi cultivators in Bihar, which alone produces more than half of the total litchi produced in the country, are staring at losses as the heatwave has impacted the production of the fruit, which is cherished across the country in the summer months as it helps beat the heat.
Prior to this, the production of mangoes, lemons, wheat, mint and many other crops has been compromised due to the impact of the early arrival of heatwaves in the country.
Litchi woes in Bihar
Bihar is the leading producer of litchis in India. As per the data maintained by the Indian Horticulture Database, the state accounted for 51.22 per cent of the total litchi production in India in 2011 (the latest year for which state-wise data is available).
Bihar produced a total of 216,900 metric tonnes of litchi (in 2011) which was followed by the production in the neighbouring state of West Bengal that recorded a yield of 81,200 metric tonnes (see map: State-wise litchi production in India).
Globally, India produces the highest quantity of litchi next only to China. According to the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, litchi is cultivated in about 83,000 hectares across the country. Bihar has litchi orchards spread over 35,000 hectares. In Bihar, most farmers cultivate Shahi and China varieties.
As per a press statement issued by the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry on March 21, 2022, in a major thrust to exports of geographical indication [GI]-tagged products from Bihar, the first shipment of 524 kilogrammes of GI tagged Shahi Litchi was exported from Muzaffarpur district of Bihar to London in May last year.
But this year, litchi farmers in Bihar are worried as it is the third successive year of losses for them.
"Three years ago, our sales were affected by the chamki (encephalitis) fever when litchi was rumoured to be causing the disease," Lal Babu Singh, a litchi cultivator from Hemanpur village in the Bochahan block of Muzaffarpur, told Gaon Connection. "In the next two years, we faced losses due to logistical issues arising out of the Corona. We were finally hopeful of a good profit this year but the heatwave has dashed my hopes," he said.
"I was expecting to get at least sixty rupees for a kilogram of litchi. But I have hardly got Rs 40 per kilo this year. It is because the quality of litchi is tainted due to too much heat," he added.
Calculating his losses, Lal Babu explained that a hectare (one hectare is 2.47 acre) of orchard yields about 8.1 tonnes of litchi fruit. The cost of spraying pesticides, irrigation and labour cost comes to about Rs 50,000 per acre and an added cost of Rs 10 lakh of purchasing the orchard [on lease], his orchard would have still provided him with an income of Rs 1.5 to 2 lakh per acre, but due to heatwave most of the fruits have been damaged. Litchi cultivators like Lal Babu usually buy the land from local farmers on lease.
"Currently, I have to sell 50 kilogrammes of litchi at the cost of Rs 2,000 in the market, where I have to pay transportation charges of around Rs 2,600 and another Rs 400 labour charges," the farmer added.
Meanwhile, Chandan Kumar, a 25-year-old farmer from Mohanpur village in Muzaffarpur district's Minapur block pointed out that it's not just the production of litchi that has dwindled this year but also the size of the litchi fruit is bahutaye chhota [too small].
'Pesticides not working due to heatwaves'
Hari Narayan Sahni, a 53-year-old litchi farmer from Bochahan block complained that the pesticides that he has been using every year to save his crop from pests and insects have been rendered useless by the soaring temperatures during the heatwaves.
"We farmers have used all methods to save our crop from getting damaged but the garam hawa [heat wave] is so intense that nothing brings respite. We sprayed water on the trees to cool them, we sprayed many pesticides to prevent the pests from destroying the fruit but to no avail," Sahni told Gaon Connection.
"China litchi (a variety of litchi) has sustained more damage than the shahi litchi as the former takes longer to ripen, leaving it at the mercy of the heatwave for a prolonged period. As per my estimate, almost 40 per cent of the China litchi is spoiled this year," Sahni added.
Pandey, the director of the National Research Centre on Litchi, told Gaon Connection that it is important that the cultivators who spray insecticides over litchi trees do it cautiously on the advice of farm experts and strictly follow the advisory issued on the spray of insecticides.
"It is crucial to ensure that these chemicals are sprayed in the right timing (early morning and evening) and in the right season (during flowering and after growth of fruits). It is also vital to ensure that the trees are irrigated in time before they get exposed to the heatwave," Pandey said. "Our initial assessment shows that the damage to the litchi production in Bihar as a result of the heatwaves is expected to be between two per cent to 10 per cent this year," the agricultural scientist added.
Farming in a changing climate a big challenge
Alemwati Pongener, scientist at the Muzaffarpur-based National Research Centre on Litchi told Gaon Connection that short term knee-jerk reactions to crises cannot help the litchi farmers in the state.
"In agricultural, we cannot go for the short-term solution. If the fruits have fallen, nothing much can be done now but we need to come up with a solution in the long term. Climate change is a big challenge," he said.
"Litchi requires a warm temperature for fruit development and this stage of maturing of the flower into fruit between March to May is crucial. During this period, we need to check fertilisation, need to manage nutrients, water management and soil management are vital too. So, the farmers will have to be better informed while cultivating in a radically changing climate," the scientist added.
Pongener recommended fruit bagging as a viable option to save the litchi orchards from heatwaves.
"In this technique, we cover a whole bunch of Litchi with a bag, usually polyethylene bags. So, there is no direct sunlight on the fruits and because of that sun burn injuries could be reduced. These bags are cost effective as well. They cost two to three rupees per bag," Pongener said.
Meanwhile, his senior colleague Pandey pointed out that the decay of litchi starts within two days after harvesting and some sort of refrigeration is needed for storage.
"To maintain shelf life, a kind of refrigerator service should be promoted in the state. This will help farmers in minimising the losses to a great extent," Pandey said.