Punjab: Litchi growers reel under losses despite ICAR denying link to AES

Anju Agnihotri Chaba
Gurvinder Singh at his orchard in Pathankot. Express

It is litchi-picking season and the orchards in Punjab are full of ripe fruit. But with the circulation of a recent video on social media claiming a link between Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) — which has claimed the lives of over 130 children in Bihar — and litchi, growers are reeling under huge losses and rotting produce due to lack of buyers.

This is happening despite a clarification issued by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – National Research Centre on Litchi (NRCL) Mushahari, Muzaffarpur (Bihar), on June 25.

The ICAR (NRCL) clarification, signed by its director Vishal Nath (a copy of which is with The Indian Express), says, "This is to inform the farmers, traders and entrepreneurs of Punjab, Himachal and J&K that there is no connection of litchi with occurrence of AES being propagated wrongly on the social media and newspapers…litchi of these states is safe and does not contain the harmful substance. The research centre has proved that the litchi is healthy and full nutrients. In no way is it causing any health issue to consumers. Therefore, it is suggested to rather request consumers that they not be affected by any mispropaganda."

In Punjab, litchi is mainly grown — by nearly 800 farmers — in Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Mukerian region of Hoshiarpur and in some parts of Ropar across around 1,600 hectares (around 4,000 acres), including 1,200 hectares in Pathankot. The state produces around 20,000 to 25,000 tonnes of the fruit.

"I stopped picking the fruit in the last couple of days as there were no buyers in the market. The plucked fruits have already rotted due to the fake video doing the rounds," said Gurvinder Singh, a farmer from Kila Jalmapur village who has been growing litchi across eight acres. "We have been rearing our plants like a child for 10-15 years. Now, when it has started producing its full yield and there are no buyers, why is the government talking so loudly about persification?" he asked.

"Ninety per cent of our village land is under litchi and now it is the government’s responsibility to clear this misconception and pay us the compensation for the huge losses we have already faced," said Gurvinder, adding that if the government does not intervene soon, Pathankot’s litchi growers will be left with no option but to commit suicide. He also stressed on the need to punish people making fake videos.
Like him farmers Jasbir Singh, Jagir Singh and Roop Singh are also facing huge losses.

Irfan, a contractor of litchi orchards, said that he had taken five orchards on contract including three at Pathankot and two in Gurdaspur district worth Rs 50 lakh. "I have faced a loss of Rs 35 lakh till date as there are no takers. I am paying the labourers after taking money from a commission agent," he said.

"We have been doing this for 15 years and have never faced such a situation," he said, asking why no illness has been reported from other states after eating litchi. "There may be some local problem in Bihar and for that farmers of the rest of India should not pay the price."

In Punjab, three varieties of litchi are grown — Dehradun, Kalkata and seedless. Around 150 plants are grown in one hectare and the plant is ready for commercial purposes after 10 years, while fruiting starts in the fourth year of the sowing. A 10-year-old plants yields approximately give 50 kg of litchi fruit.

Litchi expert and horticulture department officer Dr Prithpal Singh Bath of Gurdaspur said that 350 hectares is under litchi orchards in Gurdaspur but due to the viral video, sale of the fruit has almost stopped. He further said that the first week of picking was good and farmers were getting Rs 70 per kg, but the rates then came down to half.

"In Punjab, the litchi yield is one of the highest. Eight to fifteen tonnes of the fruits are harvested from one hectare depending upon the age of the plant. Old plants yield double the fruit," he added.

"Also most of our litchi goes to Delhi, from where it goes to other states. No mishap was reported from anywhere," said Pathankot Agriculture Development Officer Dr Amrik Singh, adding that farmers are facing huge losses despite their efforts to educate the public.