High input cost and erratic weather take toll
Betel leaves were once dubbed green gold. But farmers do not find betel farming lucrative anymore. Besides low demand, it is the rising input cost, primarily for irrigation, that is discouraging betel farmers.
Since it is a tropical plant, growing betel in the subtropic climate of India requires extra care and attention. So farmers grow it in a greenhouse where they can maintain humidity of 40-80 per cent, and temperature between 15oC and 40oC. The greenhouse, which looks like a rectangular hut, is typically made up of bamboo and cane or covered from all sides by mats of dried coconut leaves. The roofing is of hay, dried grass and coconut leaves. Inside the enclosure, rows of thin bamboo or jute sticks are placed, usually a foot apart, each offering support to a single vine. As it grows, it is entwined on the stick. To keep the sand moist and maintain the inside temperature and humidity, farmers need to sprinkle water regularly, at least four times a day in the summer and twice a week in winters.
Farmers say the cost involved in watering has become a major hurdle in betel farming lately. “Earlier, water was not a cost to bother as it was available year round,” said Lalta Prasad Chaurasia of Mahoba. His son spends Rs 30,000 a year to water an acre (0.4 ha) of farm.
With rainfall becoming increasingly erratic, ponds do not hold sufficient water all year round, said Balai Mohanty, a betel farmer from Bhograi. In summer he depends on borewells, as deep as 12 metres, to water his two farms of 12 decimals each. This pushes up the diesel cost. Betel farmers in Jaleshwar estimate watering accounts for 20-30 per cent of the total cost (see tables).
Betel is vulnerable to even the slightest weather change. “Paan cannot be harvested if temperature goes beyond 40oC,” said Santanu Patra, owner of Subarnarekha, an agri-marketing company in Balasore, adding, “15 years ago the maximum temperature in Odisha would be 35oC. But last year it touched 42oC. Betel leaves turned yellow and dropped prematurely.” Rainfall is no longer uniformly distributed. Patra said in five days Balasore receives rains that should have been spread over two months. “The resultant water-logging can perish the garden in four-five days.”
Recent increase in the cost of labour and farm inputs has added to betel farmers’ woes. For instance, to put up a betel greenhouse, a farmer needs stacks of bamboo sticks. Earlier, state governments used to provide bamboo at subsidised rates. But the practice has stopped in most states. Farmers say buying bamboo from the market costs them three-four times the subsidised price. Besides, they are not always available in the market. Other raw materials like cane and jute sticks have also become scarce and hence expensive. Betel farmers of Jaleshwar estimate the cost of constructing a betel garden has increased by more than three times in the past decade—from Rs 5,500 to Rs 17,500.
Add the increased cost of labour to this. Betel cultivation is labour-intensive. A betel leaf garden requires frequent watering, plucking of leaves, applying fertilisers and pesticides and maintenance of the enclosure.
From organic to chemical
Low demand and high-input costs are already driving betel farmers to switch from organic manure to chemical fertilisers and growth hormones.
Farmers from Khejuri block of East Midnapore say using organic manure, usually a concoction of cow dung, vermin compost and oil cakes of mustard, groundnut and neem seeds, costs them Rs 36,000 per acre (0.4ha). Chemical fertilisers bring down the cost by less than half. It also helps them harvest the first batch of leaves within a month of setting up the garden instead of two-three months. Weekly plucking goes up from twice to three times. Most betel farmers in West Bengal shifted from organic to chemical fertilisers after cyclone Aila ravaged betel producing districts of East Midnapore and 24 Parganas in 2009.
Heavy downpour and gusty winds brought by Aila destroyed most betel gardens. A basket of 20,000 leaves, which would have otherwise sold at Rs 8,000- Rs 12,000, sold for Rs 40,000 once trading resumed, recalled Nadu Gopal Das, a betel farmer from Khejuri. Farmers, who were rebuilding gardens, started using chemical fertilisers profusely to forge a profit from the high price.
But parting with organic method has proved to be a loss-making path. Traders at Mechheda auction hub complain the quality and longevity of the pungent Bangla patta has reduced lately. According to trade association member Chandi Charan Samanta, “With organic cultivation betel leaves stay fresh for almost 15 days. But with more use of chemicals they are turning yellow in just seven days. This is the reason a basket of 20,000 organic leaves can command a whopping Rs 51,000 compared to the chemical variety that hardly fetches Rs 19,000.” Still most farmers are opting for cheap chemical farming because it helps them quickly recover the high initial investment and minimise the loss in case of a slump in the market.
Support for ‘family bank’
Farmers say the government needs to recognise betel leaves as an important trading commodity and offer them support. “It is true we do not pay taxes like the tobacco industry producing gutkha, said Veer Kumar Chaurasiya of Lucknow. “But if we are given a little support in terms of insurance or infrastructure betel leaf trade will flourish and we will be willing to pay taxes as required.”
D V Amla, deputy director of the National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) in Lucknow, said in 1981 the institute worked with Mahoba farmers on a government-sponsored project to improve betel leaf cultivation. They had offered suggestions like using plastic sheets instead of thatched roofs. But the government scrapped the project due to shortage of funds in 2000.
In February this year, the state horticulture department submitted a proposal to improve betel cultivation. It has sought Rs 15 crore as financial assistance to betel farmers in Uttar Pradesh. Till date, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar are the only states offering financial assistance to betel farmers. Madhya Pradesh offers Rs 30,000 or half of the cost of setting up a farm to each betel farmer and is sponsoring a betel vine project. The impact is evident. Area under betel has gone up from 694 ha to 766 ha in five years. In Bihar’s Navada district, the horticulture department has been disbursing Rs 15,000 per half-a-decimal farm since 2008-09. Area under cultivation has since increased by 40 ha (see map).
P Guha, professor of agriculture and food engineering at IIT Kharagpur, West Bengal, considers betel a suitable cash crop for small farmers, despite high input needs. One can set up a betel garden on a three decimal area. A farm of 10-15 decimals can provide considerable net profit for a family of five, that too for 10 to 30 years, as per Guha, one of the few researchers in India who have studied the crop and its productivity. He calls betel farms household banks.
Although betel cultivation began in India 1,500 years ago, the country has not improved the cultivation technique since, nor identified its industrial uses, said Nikhil Kumar, retired scientist with NBRI. According to Kumar, the decreasing popularity of betel is the direct result of looking at the commodity based on its misuses and not its uses. “The first image that comes to our mind when we think of betel is the red spit and stains. But there is more to it. It has been scientifically proven that chewing of betel leaf releases adrenalin thus making the mind instantaneously alert,” said Kumar.
|Note: All calculations done according to farmers in Jaleswar, Balasore district, Odisha|