Ravi Vittalrao Malode is a worried man. A farmer with 26 acres of orange cultivation in Mowad village in Narkhed taluka of the Vidarbha region, he has thrown up his hands in despair at the ongoing heatwave. The produce is spoiling on the trees and falling to the ground in heaps.
The high temperature that has been consistently touching 44 degrees Celsius has not been good for the oranges. Coupled with the fungal infection – fruitlet blight – the oranges are dropping off the trees. Malode, who has so far spent several lakhs on the maintenance of the orchard, is distressed at the destruction of his crops.
He said, “There will be no produce to harvest if this heatwave continues. These plants need intensive care and we are at it through the year. This year the production of oranges in the Vidarbha region will be less as compared to other years.”
Malode’s orange and sweet limes orchards are located in the Mowad village, a red zone of the heatwave. With four heatwaves hitting the Vidarbha belt since mid-March this year, orange-growers like Malode are clueless about protecting the crop from the heatwave.
The orange farmers in Vidarbha said the power outages have compounded their woes. Power cuts during the day continue even as the heatwave is on.
Master Yeole told Outlook, “For four days a week, we get power during the day until 6 pm. But it is so hot that it becomes difficult working in the fields under the hot rays of the sun. For three days a week, we get power at night from 12-6 am.”
Farmers let the grass and weeds grow in the orchards to retain the moisture in the soil.
Rajesh Chaudhari narrated, “The fields are wet after we irrigate the orange and sweet lime plantations. There are snakes, scorpions, wild boars and nilgai lurking in the fields at night. We have to go to fields at night for irrigation. Since farmhands are not available, the entire family is out there trying to irrigate the plantations.”
Snake and scorpion bites are common in these parts, said farmers.
“When we get bitten by snakes and stung by scorpions, we do the jadhi-booti treatment. It is difficult to rush to any hospital at that time,” said Yeole.
The Nagpur variety of orange was brought to the region by the late Raghujiraje Bhonsle – the erstwhile ruler of Nagpur – who grew the orange plant for the first time as a “kitchen garden plant” in 1896. The successful attempt spurred the cultivation of the Nagpur oranges in the region. In 2014, the fruit bagged the GI (geographical index) tag, which gave the farmers of this region the sole right to use the words “Nagpur orange”.
The orange farmer has been pushed to a corner by the vagaries of nature and the uncertain market conditions. The Nagpur oranges do not have an established export market, thereby putting the pressure on the domestic market. With a limited shelf life, much of the fruit is wasted, said Rahul Dawde.
While it is the Ambiya Bahar which is grown from September to December and is slightly sour in taste, the Mrugh Bahar variety is grown in January and is sweeter in taste. Though the farmers grow either of the varieties, it is the Ambiya Bahar which is best suited for Vidarbha, said Dinesh Chaudhari, a farmer.
“The Mrugh Bahar is not suited for this patch. The farmers here prefer to grow the labour- and care-intensive Ambiya Bahar,” said Kunal Thakur, agriculture officer of the Maharashtra government. Though attempts have been made by various market players to produce different by-products of orange, these attempts have remained largely unsuccessful.
Orange orchards spread across hectares are one of the most visible landscapes in Nagpur and the Vidarbha belt. It is one of the largest cultivators of the fruit in the country. The mandarin oranges – widely cultivated in Nagpur – is the most popular amongst the varieties of oranges available in the country. Grown in Nagpur, Amravati and Wardha districts of Maharashtra, which is also a part of the Vidarbha region, the produce is sent to all parts of the country, said farmers.
“The Nagpur oranges are a mix of sweetness and an acid aftertaste which is not there in other varieties of the fruit. It has very loose skin and can be easily peeled,” said Nilesh Guru, a farmer.
The first organised attempt was made in the 1960s when farmers came together to form the Nagpur Orange Growers’ Association (NOGA), with its plant at Motibag in north Nagpur. It ran into losses and prompted a government takeover in 1972. It was brought under the purview of the Maharashtra Agro Industries Development Corporation (MAIDC).
The government set up NOGA’s new plant at Hingna and produced the orange squash and juice. Now NOGA’s products are off the shelves and are only sold to corporate buyers like hotels – both private and government-run. According to farmers, when tetra-packaged juice entered the market, NOGA lost its share as its financial crunch did not allow the establishment of a tetra packaging unit. Finally, the NOGA plant was shut down.
Presently, the majority of units making orange juice import the fruit as it is cheaper due to the low customs duty. Sources pointed out that the orange lobby is not as powerful as the grape growers of western Maharashtra or the Alphonso mango farmers of the Konkan region.
In fact, the farmers of western Maharashtra created a market for pomegranates and grapes in this region. The farmers in the orange belt of Vidarbha do not have much information and knowledge about the advantages of the GI tag, said sources.
According to Kunal Thakur, an agricultural officer of the Maharashtra Government, the quality and quantity of the oranges are being affected by the heatwave.
Thakur pointed out, “The size and taste will be badly affected this season. The higher the temperature, the lesser sweetness the fruits will have. These are easily perishable, so the produce may reduce this season. The orange needs well drained and porous soil. The heatwave is drying out the soil. The aeration and moisture is less in the soil which is affecting the plantations.”
The farmers are unanimous in their demand for the Maharashtra government to give orange the same attention the grapes plantations get.
“The grape cultivators are a very strong lobby unlike orange-growers. Wine is a money-earner for the state, while by-products of oranges are not. We need support from the state to stay in this business,” said Lalit Khandelwal.