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Sweet and Sour: The journey of a mango, from orchard to plate

The journey of a mango, from orchard to plate, is a story of what’s wrong with India’s most romanticised fruit.

Written by Uma Vishnu | New Delhi | Published:July 20, 2014 1:00 am
mango-main A girl having mango

Nyader Manauta is “small and dark” and, in the lookist world of mangoes where no one bothers about political correctness, “ugly”. But beneath its coarse skin is one of the most flavoursome fruits. “A man called Nyader from Manauta village grafted this variety on a whim. Is aam ki baat hi alag hain. Aap ek pe nahin rukenge (This mango is a class apart. You can’t stop with one),” says Shafiq Ahmed, a farmer in Hasanpur, the tehsil in Amroha district that is one of Uttar Pradesh’s three major mango belts, besides Saharanpur and Malihabad-Lucknow. The unremarkable Nyader Manauta stayed back in local mandis while its statuesque cousins — the Chausa, Langda and Dusseri — got loaded onto trucks and made the long journey to bigger markets in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.

Till the Mughals first grafted mangoes, a practice they brought with them from Afghanistan, mangoes were just another summer fruit packed with nostalgia, to be plucked straight off the tree and bitten into, the juice running all the way down your arm. With grafting came the orchards, the first step towards commercialisation and large-scale production.

in July, it’s time for a harvest of Langda mangoes in July, it’s time for a harvest of Langda mangoes

Over the years, dominant varieties such as the Alphonso, Bagenpalli, Langda and Safeda survived while several others like the Nyader Manauta got left behind. The mango tree was no longer what it used to be. Now, there were many others between the mango tree and you — the orchard owner who usually has nothing to do with the mangoes on his land, the contractor who works on the orchard, the transporter who takes the fruit to the big markets, the commission agents or adhathiyas who control the network, the distributors and loaders and the masha khors who take the fruit to smaller retailers. By the time it completes this complex supply chain and lands on your plate, the mango has changed enough hands and is now a pricey fruit that sees vain fights over who should be anointed king — the Alphonsos of Maharashtra or Bagenpalli of Andhra Pradesh, the Malda varieties of West Bengal or the Dusseris, Langdas and Chausas.

In May, the mango is a tiny green fruit in an Amroha orchard In May, the mango is a tiny green fruit in an Amroha orchard

“When the 1956 zamindari abolition Act came into force, orchards were exempted. That saw a huge rush by the rich to convert their land into orchards. None of the mangoes now associated with the Moradabad-Amroha belt are intrinsic to that region. The Dusseri is from Malihabad (Lucknow) and the Langda from Banaras. When the new orchards came up in Amroha, they grafted these varieties and they turned out well. Also, since they are on the national highway to Delhi, these mangoes could reach bigger markets,” says food historian Pushpesh Pant.


It’s 2.15 pm and Mehboob Akhtar “Sufiji”, 62, is lounging on a stringed cot in a mango orchard in Sehali village in Hasanpur. It’s a vantage point from where he keeps a watch on each one of his 30 labourers as they pluck the low-hanging Langda variety and pack them into wooden boxes or petis. The final rush of mangoes every season comes from this part of western Uttar Pradesh, after the Bagenpalli and Totapari from the south, the Alphonso from Maharashtra, Malda varieties from West Bengal and the Malihabad-Lucknow mangoes.

Sufiji is a contractor or thekedar, essentially a mango farmer. The land isn’t his — he has taken the orchard on lease for two years, paying Rs 6 lakh to the owner who lives in Delhi — but the fruits are his and he has to make sure the trees bear enough for him to break even in these two years. He can’t afford crop losses from pests such as the mango hopper and fruit flies and he’ll do everything he can to keep the fruits healthy, even if it means dousing the trees with tankers full of pesticide eight times a year.

He has 12 such orchards in Hasanpur and his costs are mounting. “I have to spend on the labourers, do the dhulayi (pesticide spraying) on the fields and pay back the money I borrowed from the commission agent in Delhi,” says Sufiji, who sends out 700-800 petis of mangoes from one orchard. “And because I have borrowed from the commission agent, I have to make sure I take the mangoes only to him. Dhoke ka kaam hum nahin karte,” he says, stopping to hurl abuses at a worker, who almost snaps a branch as he playfully swings from it.

Sufiji takes a drag of his beedi and continues, “The mangoes are small this year because of the loo winds. But the real problem with Indian mangoes is the dawaiyan (pesticides). Hamare Hindustan ke aam kaise bhi ho, bahar mulk jakar reject hote hain. Kyun? Dawaiyon ki vajah se (Indian mangoes always get rejected in foreign markets because of pesticides).”

“Pesticide is not a dirty word. It all depends on how much is used on the crop and when. It’s usually meant to be done between harvests but most contractors have no emotional connect with the tree or the soil. All of them have loans to pay off and they can’t afford to have mangoes that don’t sell,” says Sujay Vardhan Bhal, who till a year ago owned a 15-acre mango orchard in Deeppur village of Hasanpur but now grows vegetables that he supplies to retail giant Big Bazaar. Having worked with Reliance Retail during which he helped set up their retail chain for fruits and vegetables, Bhal knows exactly how the system works.

Mangoes are India’s most romanticised fruit, but they have taken a rough ride to get there. Nobody owns the mangoes; it simply gets passed down a long chain of people who talk “margins”, “cuts” and “commissions”. The owners own the land and the trees but not the fruit. Contractors such as Sufiji own the fruits but aren’t particularly worried about the trees or the quality of soil — they usually have a two-year contract during which they harvest the fruits and move on to another orchard, another set of trees. “So in a sense, the mango is a child with two mothers and neither is particularly involved in its upbringing,” says Bhal.

It’s a world where everything depends on the looks of the mango, the bigger the better. “Is baar chhoti hai,” says Sufiji wistfully. Farmers have, over the years, devised their own tricks. When the mangoes are being packed, the small ones or the ones with an odd streak of black or a few freckles go to the bottom of the peti, the big and smooth mangoes are placed on top.

By evening, the packed petis are inked with Sufiji’s brand “Pakeezah” and readied to be loaded on to a tractor. It will take the mangoes to a truck on the main road, from where they head to the transport depot in Hasanpur, 2 km away.

It’s early evening at Rahat Khan’s transport company on the main Hasanpur road. As the tractors and pick-up vans line up outside the grungy shed, Khan sits hunched on a plastic chair, sipping tea. He is foul-tempered and snappy. “We charge Rs 7-8 to load a peti on to a truck, but we are not the registered transporters you think we are,” he says to keep out prying questions. Having worked his way up from being a porter who loaded mangoes on to trucks, he now owns a couple of trucks and runs “the biggest” transport company in Hasanpur. The tehsil has 400-odd villages of which about 200 have mango orchards. Trucks and tractors laden with fruit from the orchards and nearby areas come to Khan and a few other transporters down the road, from where workers load them on to bigger trucks that take them to markets in Delhi, Mumbai and other places. He barks orders and swears indiscriminately but makes sure the mangoes are loaded and ready for the long haul. The trucks to Delhi set off at night, around 9 pm, while those to more distant markets set off earlier.

The mango has left the orchards, but no one’s biting into it yet. The fruit, still smooth, firm and green, is harvested before it ripens so that it can survive the long journey to faraway markets.

While the city sleeps, the trucks line up outside the gates of the Choudhary Hira Singh Wholesale Vegetable Market in Azadpur, north Delhi. They trundle through lanes padded with rotting vegetables and fruits, stopping at designated sheds where the boxes, crates and petis are unloaded. By 6 am, boxes of each grower have been stacked up separately at different sheds. Manoj Kochchar starts his day early. He is the commission agent who has funded Sufiji and other mango growers: “I loan them 30 per cent of the price of the orchard,” he says. The farmers he has loaned money to are now obliged to sell their mangoes here, at Shed No 7, pillars 32 and 33. This is his court. He sits on a high wooden box and the mango farmers, most of them from Hasanpur, sit around him on plastic chairs. Each of the farmers has a sample box open for display. Prospective buyers — mostly loaders, masha khors and small-time mango traders — walk in and out of Kochchar’s shop floor.

aam issues The mangoes reach the Azadpur mandi in Delhi aam issues The mangoes reach the Azadpur mandi in Delhi

They subject the mangoes to intense scrutiny, a little toss and a few squeezes to check for firmness, all the while goaded along by Kochchar’s “le lo, badhiya hain”. For every deal that gets sealed, he gets a commission of 6 per cent that’s been fixed by the market, but there’s more at stake. Every buyer quotes a price for a box of mangoes, but before that, Kochchar’s tauliya (towel) comes into play. As they haggle, Kochchar extends his hand, throws in the towel and reaches a tacit underhand deal. The farmer watches on and is quoted a price for his peti. He has the choice of either going along with the quoted price or watching the buyer walk away. “We all know what happens under the tauliya. For instance, they tell us the buyer is willing to pay Rs 200, but under the tauliya, they settle for a much higher rate. The agent gets a bigger cut over and above his commission,” says a farmer in another shed in the market. While he gets Rs 12 for every kilo he sells, they fetch between Rs 45-Rs 60 in the market.

Draupadi, 51, sells mangoes inside the mandi. She has just bought 40 boxes for Rs 5,050 and gets them loaded onto a handcart. But she is not happy with what she has got. “They keep the good mangoes on top and look at what they have here,” she says, pulling out a mango with a deep, black scar. “Why would anyone buy this?” What now? “These mangoes, the good ones and the bad ones, will all be ripened with masala.”

Since mangoes are plucked and sold before they ripen on the tree, they need to make up for lost time and ripen quick — and yellow. That’s where “masala” or calcium carbide steps in. The grayish-white chemical is used for welding but is now the most preferred ripening agent. It is banned under the Food Safety and Standards Regulations, 2011, but most people in the mandi give easy directions to where it can be sourced. The chemical, when it reacts with water, releases acetylene, a gas that mimics the properties of ethylene (a gas that fruits naturally produce while ripening) and carries contaminants such as arsenic. Contractors, transporters, mandi, and finally, a dash of carbide — before it reaches your plate.

“Almost all the mangoes you eat are ripened this way: 99.99 per cent,” says Naresh Kohli of Harshna Cold Storage on the GT Karnal Road. He is one of the biggest suppliers of mangoes to the organised retail sector: Reliance, Big Bazaar, among others. He says his mangoes take a different route. “Only we and Mother Dairy have scientific ripening chambers,” he claims. Kohli says he sources mangoes directly from farmers and sends them to the six ripening chambers at his 2-acre facility where they are subjected to ethylene and controlled temperatures.

The journey ends, the rough ride all but forgotten. Back in Hasanpur, Sufiji is already planning for his next harvest. “In another two months, we’ll have to do another round of spraying…” By now, the packers have left and the orchard is eerily silent. “This is how it is these days. When we were young, there were parrots and other birds to chase away. We don’t have to do that any more.”

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