COVID-19: Bitter lockdown for Chittoor’s mango growers

Fewer fruits, sparse workforce, funds crunch and contamination fears can spoil this year’s trade

By G Ram Mohan
Last Updated: Monday 11 May 2020
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The nationwide lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has proved to be costly for mango farmers of Andhra Pradesh’s perennially drought-hit Rayalaseema region.

Horticulture is an important occupation in Rayalaseema, that is made up of the districts of Anantapur, Kurnool, Chittoor and Kadapa. It comprises 14 per cent and 20 per cent of the total area under cultivation in Chittoor and Kadapa.

Farmers grow banana, sweet lime, water melon, musk melon and mango, which is an important horticulture crop. It comprises 48 per cent and 27 per cent of Chittoor and Anantapur’s total area under horticulture cultivation.

About 80 per cent of the fruit, especially the totapuri variety, goes into making pulp. 

However, the lockdown has added to the woes of mango farmers in the area. For instance, in Chittoor district, farmers have been suffering for the past two years with a glut in mangoes and the consequent fall in rates in 2018 and a drastic fall in crop in 2019.

Chittoor farmers’ woes

The first of many problems being faced by farmers is that there will be less fruit this year. Officials expect 3.5-4 lakh metric tonnes of mango crop in Chittoor district this year.

“The fruit did not have favourable climatic conditions so the flowering was not good,” B Srinivasulu, deputy director, horticulture, Chittoor district, said.

“The northeast monsoon delayed it. The tree flowers more when there is a shortage of rain to keep its species alive. In case of excess rain, the tree gets into vegetative growth,” he noted.

Mango needs a variance in day and night temperatures. “But it was cold in the night this year. So, we had less flowering and consequently fewer fruits this year,” Srinivasulu said.

The local pulp industry in Chittoor is also facing a problem of labour shortage. “We are facing a labour problem. Experienced workers come from North India every year and other districts and work in three shifts. The local labour component is just 20 per cent,” K Govardhan Bobby, joint secretary, Chittoor District Fruit Processors Federation, said.

With Chittoor currently declared as a red zone, procuring sufficient fruit within the vicinity of the pulp units is impossible.

Inter-district movement of labour and mangoes and also within the district is critical for the units to function. The industry is hopeful inter-district movement of labour will be allowed from green zone to green zone.

There are 45 units in the district. Eight or nine of them are closed. Most of the rest will run to their minimum capacity at least. In the absence of labour from outside, they say the plants cannot run to their capacity.

“Even if the labour is allowed from outside, we don’t know if they are asymptomatic and carriers of coronavirus,” V Pradeep Kumar of Sri Varsha Foods India Ltd, said.

“The government should design some health insurance scheme for them. We are ready to pay the premium for it. Our biggest fear is of being asked to shut down in case anyone is found COVID-19 positive,” he said.

There are other problems.

“Packing material should come from China and Italy. The material that has arrived in Chennai, is lying in port and getting it out is taking time due to the lockdown,” Bobby said.

Contamination fears stalk the industry.

“Recently, some pharma packages from China were suspected to be behind some coronavirus cases in Mysore. We will not take any packing material from China now,” A Veerendra, general manager, Srini Food Park, said.  

Shortage of working capital 

The industry has to bank on being able to sell the pulp once the lockdowns across the world are lifted and a semblance of normalcy returns. The pulp remains edible and can be preserved for 18-24 months.

The domestic sales of the pulp are maximum in the months of March, April and May. This is last year’s stock. The stocks are picked up by the likes of Parle Products, PepsiCo and Coca Cola.

The units are not sure about bagging fresh orders as their orders from the previous year are pending.

This has led to shortage of working capital.

“Exports stopped in January. Our markets in the US and Europe are closed. Banks have become very stringent. Rules have changed for both the personal or commercial account of a company. It’s a collateral against an asset or a loan against the export we take up,” Sameer Sharma, factory in-charge of Jain Foods in the district, said.

The state government has given the SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) Rs 200 crore to help the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). Only industries with capital cost of less than Rs 10 crore fall into the MSME category.

Currently, the pulp units have been included under the agriculture ministry and not under other industries. All the new pulp units were established with a capital cost of more than Rs 15 crore, taking them out of the norms for MSMEs.

Sources in the industry say they have petitioned the state government in this regard.

Retail distribution curbs

Despite the relaxations given to the agricultural sector, reports of harassment of farmers are quite common.

The relaxations allowed right now have not been conveyed to the lower rung staff. Even district-level officers who are on valid duty complain of being harassed.

The message that agricultural commodities are allowed to be moved has not gone down to the lower level.

Flagging the other problems faced by the industry, G Ajay Kumar, horticulture officer, AP Food Processing Society said, “The industry is facing problem of spare parts also. They need to be replaced and the lockdown was imposed just before they were to get them.”

P Bhaskar Rao, president, AP Food Processing Industries Federation, summed it up.

“Lack of labour stalks the aqua, fruit pulp and other industries. Transport and marketing are the other problems. The drivers are afraid they could be stuck at the state borders or could be thrown into quarantine centres,” he said.

Apart from shortage of working capital, the state had not released incentives worth Rs 120 crore to industries. “We are not using power as many of the units are shut but we have to pay demand charges for electricity connections. For every 1,000 Kilovolt for a month, the industry has to pay Rs 4 lakh demand charges. We have sought postponement of water bills, property tax and other statutory payments for four to five months,” he added.

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