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Rain, pests drain mangoes of colour, flavour in north India

It’s peak mango season in north India, but varieties of the fruit arriving in the market lack taste, odour and colour.

Untimely rains, hailstorms and attacks by semi-looper caterpillars are being cited as reasons for the dip in quality in both home-grown varieties such as Alphonso, Kesar, Dasheri, Chausa, Langda and Lucknowi, and hybrid ones like Amrapali and Mallika.

Jitendra Kumar ‘Pinnu’ Yadav, a farmer and trader in Uttar Pradesh, who grows mangoes on 25 bighas, says he suffered a 40% dip in production this year. “We used to get a profit of at least ₹10,000 from mango trees on one bigha. This time, we didn’t get even half of it,” he says.

Waris Rao, a mango farmer and former MLA from Shamli, says though the harvest was average last year, the produce had fetched good prices. “This year, production is low and prices are average. We got around ₹35-₹40 a kg last time. This year, it has dipped to ₹25-₹30,” he says, adding that he is pinning hopes on the Chausa variety, which will be harvested this month.

Mr. Rao says the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority should support farmers by giving them export licences. “Our country produces mangoes of the best quality and they are always in demand.”

‘Exports hit too’

Insram Ali, president of the All India Mango Growers Association, says exports have been hit too. “Our assessment is that export figures have come down by half this year,” he says.

In 2019-20, 49,658 metric tonnes of fresh mangoes worth more than ₹4,000 crore were exported. In 2020-21, the figure dipped to 21,033 metric tonnes owing to lockdown restrictions. Last year’s figures are not available.

Mr. Ali says farmers should be allowed to cut old trees and plant new ones. “We need government protection for this.”

Scientists step in

Scientists have taken note of the poor yield and advised farmers to adopt the ‘bagging’ method of placing bags over the produce to protect it from pests and the elements.

The farming of mangoes takes place through three seasons and it is “highly vulnerable” to changes in weather, says T. Damodaran, director of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research’s Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture at Rehmankhera, Uttar Pradesh. The institute is located near Malihabad, which is famous for Dasheri mangoes and the fruit is grown on 30,000 hectares, spanning two districts of the State.

Dr. Damodaran attributes complaints about the poor quality of mangoes in the market to “perception”. “Farmers who follow our advisories systematically, including bagging, have produced beautiful, tasty mangoes,” he says.

Maneesh Mishra, principal scientist at the institute, also backs bagging as a “one-stop solution to these problems”.

Dr. Damodaran says the institute formed 12 groups of scientists following reports of low yield and they travelled to almost all mango-growing areas across the country. Mangoes are cultivated on 23.25 lakh hectares and 2.08 crore tonnes of the fruit were produced in 2020-21.

The groups specifically focused on all districts in Uttar Pradesh, the largest producer of mangoes. “We submitted a report to the government, which showed production was hit by 15-20% compared to last year. In areas affected by hailstorms, the damage was 30-40%,” he says.

The scientists also found that attacks by semi-looper caterpillars played a major role in the reduced yield. The change in weather was causing a rise in pest attacks, says Dr. Mishra, while Dr. Damodaran points out that the pests were “eating the fruit from the surface”, highlighting the need to adopt bagging at an early stage.

Dr. Damodaran says farmers were hopeful of a good harvest with the flowering of mango trees in February. However, pollination did not take place as expected as the population of secondary pollinators such as flies dwindled owing to “man-made” reasons like excessive use of pesticides. “We suggested the use of organic manure, biopesticides and fungicides,” he says.

In the first week of March, unseasonal rains and hailstorms led to black spots appearing on the skin of mangoes and the produce decreasing in size. Just a week before the harvest in June, strong cyclonic winds and pre-monsoon rains damaged the crop again.

Unhappy buyers

The blighted harvest has also disappointed mango connoisseurs. “Dasheris are just not the same this year. It is priced at ₹120 a kg in the retail market, but the quality is poor. Langdas are bad too. We are waiting for the Chausa now,” says Neeraj Agarwal, a resident of Delhi, who buys about five kg of mangoes every week during the peak season for his four-member household.

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