Summer has set in over the long rows of yellow-brown tobacco stalks in fields on both sides of the Borsad-Tarapur highway that leads to Dharmaj, a small town in Petlad taluka of Anand district. The town’s spotless roads are deserted on the scorching Tuesday morning, except for a few provision stores and a dairy that continue catering to people.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s health was one of the top discussions in town last week, when Anand district had also reported its first COVID 19 case. About 1,600 families from Dharmaj live in the United Kingdom.
Subsequently, an idea of disallowing outsiders into the town gained prominence, but with a bank having pensioners as account holders from adjoining villages, the town is unable to take drastic decisions.
Dharmaj residents have followed a self-imposed lockdown since the Janta Curfew was announced, but the majority of farmers who make up the population of the affluent NRI town are a tad worried about their tobacco harvest — said to be valued at Rs 8 crore this year — should the lockdown be extended. Dharmaj is part of the wealthy and fertile tobacco belt that used to be known as the Virginia of Gujarat
Rajesh Patel, secretary of the state executive of BJP, says, “We are writing to the Chief Minister to allow us to harvest the crops after April 14. If it is ripe yellow and made to stand for longer in the fields during summer, it will fail and the entire crop will be a loss. Tobacco farming has been our lifeline. We have 1 lakh mann (20 lakh kilos) of the crop standing in our fields of about 2,500 bighas (one bigha is approximately 24,000 square feet).” Each mann is currently valued at Rs 800, a significant drop from about Rs 1,300-1,400 that it could fetch in the pre-GST (Goods and Services Tax) times.
Much of this tobacco is meant for exporting to a German pharma company that uses nicotine for medicinal uses. “A family from our town has been in the business of supplying nicotine for medicinal use for the last three decades. They now need more supply and almost the entire crop of the town could be put to use. It makes us feel good that our produce is going to be used for something essential rather than as the vice that tobacco is viewed to be,” says Patel.
Some farmers in the town, who had already harvested their crops, continue to make bundles of the leaves while observing social distancing. The town panchayat has been ensuring that people do not crowd in places. Banks in the town have also prepared a list of dates, as per the last two digits of their customers’ account numbers, for people to alternately visit the outlets.
Sarpanch Tushar Patel says, “We have a population of about 10,420 people, most of them are senior citizens with families abroad. We decided to implement a strict social distancing norm…allowed vegetable markets to open on alternate days …We ensure that no unknown person comes to sell vegetables. If anyone suspicious is found, they are reported.”
The town is also hosting about ten NRI families currently ‘stranded’ in Dharmaj as their flights were cancelled due to the lockdown. Bhupendra Patel (80), ex-president of the Dharmaj society of London, is eager to return to his home in Essex. He says, “My wife, sister-in-law and I were to return to the UK on March 20 and the flights were restricted just the day before. Our neighbours told us that they would take care of us…Such is the atmosphere here that it doesn’t seem like we are stranded.”
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