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Fruit bowl squashed by neglect

In the UK, litchees sold for the pound equivalent of Rs 400-500/kg. In Mumbai, each of the luscious, juicy fruits with the tiniest of seeds ...

Written by RAMANINDER K. BHATIA | Pathankot |
July 16, 2004

In the UK, litchees sold for the pound equivalent of Rs 400-500/kg. In Mumbai, each of the luscious, juicy fruits with the tiniest of seeds went for between Rs 3 and Rs 5. And along NH1, between Pathankot and Jammu, farmers sold them for whatever they got: as low as Rs 10/kg, or as high as Rs 20/kg.

For first-hand evidence that horticulture continues to be nobody’s baby in the world of Indian agriculture, come to the Kandi belt. Watered by the Beas and the Ravi, the fertile soil here once bore thousands of orchards of mangoes, oranges, maltas, guava, peaches, grapes, pears and lemons, besides acres under tomatoes, peas, potatoes and okra.

‘‘Then CM of United Punjab Pratap Singh Kairon, a keen horticulturist himself, even wanted to develop this place as the fruit bowl of Punjab,’’ says R K Mahajan, one of the leading fruit farmers of the area, and owner of jam-squash company Glaciers.

But the dream died with the man, and local orchard-owners and small farmers, who knew no other way of life, were left holding the fruit basket. According to the Pathankot Fruit and Vegetable Producers’ Co-op Society, which Mahajan heads, 1,600 acres of land here produce a staggering 72,000 quintals of litchees every summer. Other fruits and vegetables together account for more than 2,500 acres of land.

However, every summer, say local farmers, 60 per cent of their produce goes waste. Much of the rest only travels upto Delhi, while the remainder is disposed of in distress sales by the roadside.

‘‘There’s tremendous scope for exports here,’’ Col (retd) K L Bindra, who has been growing fruits in Pathankot for a decade ago, states the obvious. But typically, the area has none of the infrastructure — waxing plants, cold storages, sprinkler systems or even nurseries for fruit trees — essential for the ambition.

 
MORE THAN A MOUTHFUL
   

Also sorely missed is a food processing plant, which could absorb much of the produce that does not sell.

The co-op society has been trying to persuade the government to declare Pathankot a litchee export zone, which would ensure uninterrupted power supply and borewell connections. ‘‘Over the past two years, Punjab Agro took the initiative to export 20 tonnes of litchees to the UK and the UAE. But this year there was no such effort from the government,’’ adds Mahajan.

Rather, according to market sources, some independent exporters came down from Delhi this year, bought fruits straight from the growers and shipped them to off-shore destinations, earning handsome foreign exchange in return!

‘‘The Rajasansi airport at Amritsar can be of help to potential exporters, but we would still need freeze vans to transport the fruit and maybe even a cold storage at the Amritsar airport,’’ adds Mahajan.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, incidentally, has promised several times to visit Pathankot and outlying areas after fruit-growers apprised him of their problems. But the visits are yet to materialise. A few months ago, Punjab Governor Justice O P Verma came here and promised to push the formation of the agri-export zone. No progress has been made on that front either.

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