With entire metropolises being shut down in the midst of the COVID crisis, farming is being championed as an unlikely saviour in these uncertain times. In such a landscape, when alternative solutions are being sought to boost the economy, the Darrangiri market in Assam's Goalpara is being eyed for its incredible scope for entrepreneurship and enterprise.
However, this iconic market of bananas has also been hit hard by the lockdown. Bananas, for a long time, could not be sold outside Goalpara, and prices nosedived in the wake of the snapping of the supply chain. [Reports state that bananas are now being sold at Rs 10 less per bunch, a significant margin for the merchants]
However, despite the impediments, the banana-driven economy of tiny Darrangiri in Assam continues to chug on and after the lockdown relaxation came into effect on April 20, trucks from Darrangiri ferrying bananas are once again plying along the highway.
Even as the pandemic continues its deadly march across the world, this market in Assam's Goalpara stands as a beacon of hope for farming entrepreneurs, for it abounds in success stories. Not many people know this, but the Darrangiri is known as a banana farmers' paradise for the astoundingly rich fields that teem with bananas that are being sold all across the country and beyond.
Located near NH-37 in Goalpara district of Assam, the Darrangiri market in considered the biggest market for bananas in South Asia. Employing thousands of people, the market sends bananas to faraway places such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Truckfuls of bananas, we were informed, are also being sent to distant areas like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh during the Chhat Puja.
In Darrangiri, 3,700 hectares of land are by being cultivated by almost 800 farmers. Each year, these farmers are producing 40,000 metric tonnes of bananas, an astounding figure. According to Assam Agriculture Minister Atul Bora, the Government is trying to "help" the banana cultivators by exporting their bananas to other states as well as countries. In a recent interview, he also attested that the Government is trying to open the borders so that the produce can be sent to other states amid the lockdown.
Debabrata Rabha, a banana-grower who has come to the limelight for running a bustling enterprise in Madang that yields roughly Rs 2 crore annually. Inside Northeast yesterday caught up with the banana entrepreneur while he was in Guwahati to sell surplus stock in the midst of the lockdown.
Rabha informed us that his beginnings were humble. "Starting off ten years ago with a crop of 1,000 bunches in 2010 on 4 bighas of land, we have increased our productivity ever since".
In 2017, Rabha said that he employed 33 people to plant 96,000 banana plants on around 400 bighas of land, and the turnover was roughly Rs 2 crore. From 2016-17, Rabha said, they started eyeing an annual turnover of over Rs 1 crore.
This season, however, Rabha complains, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic that has sent the prices of the commodity plummeting. "The banana farming has been badly hampered by the coronavirus", he lamented.
Rabha further explained that there are 3 varieties of bananas which are being sold which are grown at his farm -- types A, B, and C. "The 'C' variety bananas are yet to be sold, which could cost us Rs 30-35 lakh", Rabha said, adding that that since the Darrangiri market has been closed down, he is unable to sell the "C" quality bananas.
The bustling market has been closed down for 28 days, and this, Rabha says, could result in losses accruing to roughing Rs 10 crore.
Another problem, he says, is that the banana planters have to deliver the bananas to the sellers due to restrictions on inter-state travel. "Previously, the sellers themselves used to come to our farms, but now, we have to ferry the load ourselves and distribute them among the potential buyers."
Upon being asked about the plight of his peers who are running similar businesses, he said that although they had initially broken down, the re-opening of the trade route could potentially be a boon for them. "In my village, 95 youths run similar farms, and after the lockdown was called, they had broken down emotionally. But after the Government lifted some of the restrictions, their bananas have received another lease of us."
Rabha, the young farming entrepreneur added that the losses could now be minimal. "Now, the farmers will not lose significantly, and maybe some of them will perhaps earn some profits", he said, brightening up.
Meanwhile, Rabha believes that the activity of banana farming could inject the ailing economy with a new lease of life. Exhorting Assamese youths to take active participation in the banana farming that has, for him, yielded satisfying returns, Rabha also lamented that the banana business in his region is being mostly run by non-Assamese people. "They (Assamese) people should look at this (banana farming) as a viable option", he advised.
Farming Economy's Recovery from the Pandemic:
Although banana farming could well be the way forward for the youths of Assam to take the economy ahead in the coming months, the challenges that the farming community faces remain multi-faceted.
Assam's Agriculture Minister Atul Bora attributes some of the loss on "fake news" reports of the media. "There were reports in the media that a certain section of the people wish to transmit the coronavirus through fruits and vegetable. When these reports started swirling on social media, people became wary. What resulted from this was complete chaos. Produce from one place could not be sold in another place", Bora told us.
Meanwhile, despite numerous schemes by the Government, many of the horticulturists in the state are yet to receive aid amid the pandemic. Although some of the banana farmers' have found a way to offset the damage due to the lockdown, growers of other perishable crops (tomatoes, strawberries, chillies, capsicums, etc) still continue to feel the burn from the lockdown. Many of these farmers, unaware of the Government schemes, watch on helplessly as their farm produce continues to rot.
At a time when scores of farmers have been dealt severe blows by the lockdown that has snapped the supply chain across the state and crippled the economy, banana farming exemplified by Rabha and his ilk could perhaps be seen as an activity that could help restart the Assam economy after the paralysis of the lockdown.
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