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Litchi Heats Up Election Season In Muzaffarpur

By Harsh Kumar
May 19, 2024 10:45 IST
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'The local support from our MP is nil. He never comes to see our farms.'

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit A Shah during an election meeting in Muzaffarpur, May 5, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

This is that time of the year when hundreds of orchards dotting north Bihar are laden with litchis. And with the rising mercury, this fruit has begun changing their hues, from rich green they are now turning pink, and red.

Bihar, which produces almost half of the country's litchi, is also in the thick of elections. But for litchi growers, summer matters more than the election season.

And this time, the summer has been particularly harsh. It is expected to cut the production of litchi by about 50-60 per cent.

Bindersar Persad Shah, 70, has been growing Shahi Litchi for over five decades on more than 30 acres of land in Muzaffarpur -- a district which produces the maximum litchi. But little has improved when it comes to the storage and transportation as his fresh crop struggles to reach markets.

"The shelf life of litchi is very short, hence we need more cargo and parcel vans in trains," Shah said.

Shahi Litchi was given the GI tag in 2018. It is known for its distinct aroma and taste. The other variety grown in Bihar is China Litchi, whose size is a tad bigger.

But the shelf life of litchi is just two days and most growers rue lack of proper transport facility which could take their produce out of state, and give them good returns.

"There is a huge demand for litchi in southern India. But due to the lack of transportation, we fail to fulfil the demand," said B P Singh, president, Litchi Growers Association of India.

Another litchi farmer M D Nurva said, "Due to the lack of cooling facilities and transportation, we need to sell our litchi within a few days. As litchi has a short shelf life, traders and major processors play a significant role. We have to sell our crops to them at lower prices, leading to losses in our value."

Data shared by the Bihar government showed that the state produced 309,000 tonnes of litchi in the financial year 2022-2023. Out of this, Muzaffarpur alone contributed around 100,000 tonnes.

India is the second-largest producer of litchi, after China.

"The local support from our MP is nil. He never comes to see our farms. However, after several requests made by us to the Centre, a parcel van was added to the Pawan Express, which helps us to transport litchi to Mumbai," said Krishna Singh, a 34-year-old farmer.

Ajay Nishad has won the Muzaffarpur seat twice on BJP ticket. However, this time, he has switched sides and is contesting on a Congress ticket. Nishad's father Jai Narain Prasad Nishad had also represented the same constituency.

Business Standard tried to reach out to local MP Ajay Nishad but he didn't respond. A member of his staff said he was "extremely busy", suggesting the tight election schedule.

Meanwhile, Bikash Das, director of ICAR-NRC on Litchi, Muzaffarpur, said, "We need to increase the area of litchi production. Currently, we are unable to meet the total global demand for litchis. The global litchi market is worth over $6 billion. We are continuously working with other state governments."

Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Samastipur, Champaran, Begusarai districts, and adjoining areas of Bihar have a favourable climate for this variety. But Das too acknowledged the roadblocks.

"After plucking fresh litchi, its shelf life is only two days. That is a real challenge, hence quick transportation is needed, in which we are lacking. Due to which the export of fresh litchi is very low," Das said.

In terms of value, total exports were Rs 2.57 crore (Rs 25.7 million). We are only able to export to West Asian countries. Cool chain-based technology has been somewhat helpful, but we lack adequate infrastructure,' Das added.

"In Delhi, we are able to transport via truck. But to Mumbai, we can only send litchis by train, as it takes 10 hours less than a truck. We have requested the railway ministry to add a parcel van specifically for litchi during the season, with a capacity of 24 tonnes," Singh, the president of the All India Litchi Growers Association, said.

Beaten to a pulp

The litchi pulp market has grown in the last few years.

Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) data showed that the export of litchi from India increased from 193.86 MT in financial year 2021-2022 to 567.08 MT in FY22-2023.

Alok Kedia, one of the largest exporters of litchi pulp, told Business Standard, "We tried to enter the global market for export in the 1990s. In 1998, we exported six containers of fresh litchis, but they were stuck in Codex Alimentarius (food code)."

There is not much impact on the pulp market or value-added products market, Kedia added.

"In financial year 2023-2024, we exported over 350 tonnes of litchi pulp to the US, the UK, and Canada markets. For FY25, we are targeting to reach 500 tonnes. All the data we see on APEDA pertains to litchi pulp. Its fresh export market is very low," said Kedia.

Exports from India in FY23 were highest to Nepal, followed by Bhutan, the UK, the UAE, etc.

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Harsh Kumar in Muzaffarpur
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