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Kerala's 'Tirur Paan' is back in Pakistan

Last updated on: January 29, 2004 18:33 IST

Farmers who grow betel leaves in the remote villages of Muslim-dominated Malappuram district in Kerala are celebrating these days.

Three weeks after India and Pakistan resumed the air and train links, the century-old trade in betel leaves (paan) between Malappuram and Pakistan has started booming again.

The betel trade between villages like Tirur in Malappuram and the cities of Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan had come to a grinding halt when India and Pakistan snapped all transportation links after Islamic militants attacked the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001.

Tirur is home to some 2,000 farming families who depend on betel-leaf cultivation for a livelihood. The village used to export the largest quantity of betel leaves from India to Pakistan.

But most farmers landed in penury and the business of many traders collapsed when India cut the rail and air routes to Pakistan two years ago.

Farmers and traders are now heaving a sigh of relief. "We have restarted our business now. It is a great feeling to export the betel leaves to Pakistan because Karachi and Lahore are the biggest export markets for the Indian betel leaves," E Haji, a betel leaf exporter at Tirur told

Haji, one of Tirur's 45 betel leaves exporters, has already sent three consignments of betel leaves to Karachi. Traders like Haji estimate that before India and Pakistan snapped the transportation links, they used to export betel leaves worth nearly Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) every year.

According to Haji, Pakistan has been India's traditional betel-leaf market because the people there simply love the paan cultivated in Tirur.

"The best quality of betel leaf in India is produced at Tirur. Therefore, it has been a symbol of friendship and bond between Indians and Pakistanis," Haji, who has been doing betel business with Pakistanis for two decades, said.

For many Muslims settled across Tirur and other adjoining villages, betel trade was also a business with an emotional tinge as, through it, they sustained their relationship with their relatives in Pakistan.

Thus, not only have the Muslim farmers been grappling with the burden of poverty brought about by the collapse of betel trade, but the loss of contact with their near and dear ones too has been very painful.

Betel farmer Mohammad Koya's two brothers have settled in Karachi. "Betel-leaf farming has been a tradition for me because it also means cultivating my family relationships in Pakistan," Koya said.

Koya, who owns a three-acre betel plantation, sells most of his daily produce to the wholesale agents in Tirur. But Koya used to export a small portion of betel leaves himself, whenever his relatives come visiting him every year.

"I used to pack the best quality betel leaves in bags and give them to my brothers for sale in Pakistan. They sold the leaves in Karachi," says Koya.

"For the past two years I could not travel to Pakistan. I am now getting ready to travel to Pakistan," says Koya.

The betel leaves from Tirur is known as 'Tirur Paan' in Pakistan.

"The betel leaves from Tirur are considered the best in the world, and so we have had a booming market in Pakistan all these years," wholesale businessman Ebrahim Hassan, who is now getting ready to export betel leaves to Karachi, said.

Hassan's daily contingent of prime quality betel leaves will now leave from Tirur by train every day to Mumbai and Delhi. From there, the consignments will be booked onto the Indian Airlines flights to Karachi.

When his betel export business went bust, E Prasad, who owns Appayi & Sons Betel Trading Company, tried exporting the leaves through Dubai. "But it did not work," Prasad said.

He said a single kilogram of betel leaves costs only Rs 16 if it is flown to Karachi directly from Mumbai.

"But it costs Rs 100 per kilo when we try to send the betel leaves via Dubai," Prasad said.

Businessmen like Prasad fear that resuming trading with Pakistani merchants is not going to be easy.

"We are told that already betel traders from Sri Lanka and Thailand have entered the Pakistan market because of the lack of supplies from Tirur. We have to fight to get back our market share in Pakistan," Prasad added.

George Iype in Tirur