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Strawberry farming: Crop projects come a cropper

The Punjab government's much ambitious plan to introduce strawberry and olive farming in order to diversify the farming culture seems to be dying even before they could properly take root.

Written by Jasneet Bindra | Chandigarh |
August 18, 2011 12:17:00 am

The Punjab government’s much ambitious plan to introduce strawberry and olive farming in order to diversify the farming culture seems to be dying even before they could properly take root. Reason: Poor planning,lack of research and funds,and absence of a proper checks on part of the government.

Information sought by The Indian Express under the RTI Act exposes government’s callous approach in handling various diversification projects. As per the information provided by the Council for Value-Added Horticulture in Punjab,the strawberry project was launched in October 2006,and was later handed over to it by the Punjab Agri Exports Corporation (Pagrexco). However,the project came a cropper.

While the Council said there was no specific allocation of funds for the project,Punjab Agro Industries Corporation (PAIC),the parent organisation of Pagrexco and the horticulture council,paid Rs 2.20 lakh to Mumbai-based Gemini Agro Pvt Ltd to import Camarosa and Ventana varieties of strawberry plants (over 4,00,000 in number) from the USA to be delivered to a farm in Ladhowal village in Ludhiana,which was selected for the project.

The authorities,however,could not provide copies of rules under which the plants were imported.

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They also could not give copies of the clearance certificate,pathology and quarantine reports.

The Council stated that the private company handled these matters. It added that “The then existing rules of import of the government of India were followed.”

Later,the Council also stated that when wrote to the Mumbai based firm seeking copies of the documents,it was told that the company had closed down last year. “We would like to inform you that the company closed down its operations in 2010 and majority of the employees have left… we are unable to trace all the documents,” the firm replied through a letter.

The company added that it had provided 4.5 lakh strawberry plants and 3,000 blueberry plants — bought from from Spain — to the council through its sister concern,Micro Plantae Limited.

However,the council admitted that no farmers were associated with the project,which was initially launched in 20 acres that was later reduced to 2 acres. At present,no area is under the crop.

While the project died a few years ago,the PAIC website,till a few days ago, flaunted plump strawberries at the Ladhowal farm.

As per the website,“The horticulture council has successfully experimented with high-value crops like strawberry. Runners were imported from Spain and propagated at our farms. The Council is now undertaking multiplication of runners which will be replanted in the next season…”

Strawberry project at Ladhowal also finds mention under the head ‘Work in the pipeline’ on the website.

CEO of the Council,SS Budhraj,said the project failed for want of funds,and added that there was no hope of revival. He said there was no infrastructure set up for the project. “There were no pre-cooling chambers at the site for the produce,which has a short shelf-life. Besides,as the variety grown here was of table variety it could not be sent for processing. The quantity too was not large enough to be exported.”

The AGM at the Council,Ashmeet Brar said blueberry project worked for three years before collapsing. “The food processing industry is non-existent in Punjab. Besides there are no market linkages,” he added.

Diversification: Whose baby is it anyway?

The original RTI request for information about strawberry and olive projects was filed in the office of PAIC in January this year. The corporation replied that the information sought was “nil for your record and reference”.

When a complaint was filed with the Punjab State Information Commission,the corporation refused to accept the projects as theirs. When showed printouts from their website and copies of news items in which it had flaunted the project,the respondent submitted that the work was in fact undertaken by Pagrexco. CIC RI Singh then said that the RTI application should have been transferred to Pagrexco.

The public information officer of Pagrexco,who came for the next hearing,agreed to give information about olive project,but added that they had handed over the strawberry plantations to the horticulture council so it was their responsibility to provide information. The CIC asked him to seek information from the Council and provide it. Meanwhile,PIO of the council was also summoned.

The representative of the Council stated that they did not have information as they had inherited strawberry plants from Pagrexco. However,after directions from the commission,the Council provided information,but added that some part of it was held by the company that imported the plants. The commission then asked the council to submit an affidavit to that effect.

Olive project: Launched,publicised,forgotten

While the strawberry project died sometime after inception,the olive cultivation project could never take off. As per information provided by the Pagrexco under the RTI Act,the project was conceived in 2008 and only groundwork was carried out. It admitted that corporation’s general manager Pardeep Kumar Sharma undertook a trip to Israel on government expense to study olive plantation. A government team also visited Rajasthan. No farmer was involved in the project,Pagrexco said.

Notably,a couple of years ago,PAIC had announced to grow olives on 400 acres,and had selected Israeli company Indolive,which had set up olive orchards in Rajasthan for the project. Incidentally,for this project too land was identified at Ladhowal.

However,now the authorities admitted that no variety was selected for the project,and Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) was asked to provide a feasibility report. Sources said PAU experts had warned the authorities about the non-feasibilty of the project before the launch,but it still went ahead.

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