Pomegranate Cultivation : India’s Competitive Advantage Lost & Why ?


A couple of months ago, I was in the Solapur district (Maharashtra-India) on a research assignment related to microfinance. The bus route to the  villages that we had identified for research work, passed through the ‘pomegranate hub’ of Maharashtra. But here was the surprise- there were hardly any pomegranate trees in sight. On inquiring I learnt that a lot of the farmers had cut down the trees due to the strike of the BBD (Bacterial Blight Diesease-or BBD as its commonly known). They had switched in most cases to the more reliable grape cultivation.. I passed by the National Research Centre on Pomegranate in the Mohol block of the Solapur , which ironically has not been able to find any solution to the problem as yet and seems to stand as a silent spectator overseeing the unforunate events.

Given below are some details on the subject. While pomegranates are not as hot and happening compared to some of the bigger issues grabbing headlines , they represent much of whats happening in at the rural level in India. Rapid urbanization, deteriorating soil quality,vanishing farmlands- being erased slowly but surely from the rural landscape. Food security in the long run does not seem to be on anyone’s mind.While the farmer in most cases is struggling to survive ( in case of small and marginal land holdings), the progeny is more interested in getting a college education and selling off the farmland at a lucrative price. Farmers are infusing the soil with chemicals to ensure that the ‘hybrids’ are able to give them the best value for the input cost. What they don’t seem to worry about is the fact that these ‘hybrids’ need more water and balanced nutrients which need to be replenished at regular intervals in order to prevent degradation of the soil quality -but the future clearly does not seem to be on very many people’s mind be it the government, farmers or even consumers ( who don’t really care for a missing fruit / crop from the market shelves as long as its not a staple)

Why Pomegranates are Important in the Indian Context?

India is among the largest producer of pomegranates in the world[1]. About 60-70 per cent of the country’s pomegranate exports are sourced from Maharashtra (Solapur District). The total area under pomegranate is approximately 1, 20,000 hectare, out of which 90,000 hectares is in Maharashtra. India contributes around 70 per cent to the world pomegranate market. In 2007-08, 35,000 metric tonnes of the fruit was exported from the country, while the figure went down to 34,800 metric tonnes in 2008-2009, and further dropped to 33,400 metric tonnes in 2009-2010.[2]The main cause attributed to the declining production has been the Bacterial Blight Disease (BBD) also referred to as the ‘oily spot disease’[3]. In last four years many farmers have uprooted pomegranate trees due to the continuous loss and shifted to other options like grape cultivation. The competitive advantage enjoyed by India has helped transform the lives of farmers and helped them earn millions. For e.g.: Twenty years ago, people in Atpadi taluka in Maharashtra’s drought-prone Sangli district, could earn their livelihoods only by migrating to cities since the arid/dry soil and poor rainfall conditions did not sustain many other crops but pomegranate cultivation changed everything. Another beneficiary of the pomegranate boom was the Aran village in Solapur district which has approximately around 1000 acres under pomegranate cultivation.

The establishment of the National Research Centre on Pomegranate in the Mohol block of the Solapur district in September 2005 is a good indicator of the degree of importance associated with the fruit and the geographical area. However that notwithstanding the problems of the farmers continued and a relief package (Rs 1000 Crore) for the affected farmers was announced in May 2008[4]. A relief package was also announced by the State in 2006-2007.

The villain of the otherwise perfect story – the bacterial Blight Disease (BD) was first reported in India in the New Delhi area (Hingorani and Mehta 1952)[5]. Ramesh et al., (1991) reported 60-80 % yield loss due to blight in Karnataka. Ravi kumar et al., (2006) revealed 20-90% disease severity in Bijapur and Bagalkot districts. Similarly 71.14 %   severity was reported in Bellary district (Yenjerappa et al., 2004). The survey of 82 pomegranate orchards in Maharashtra revealed that bacterial blight was observed up to 100% severity in some orchards (Anonymous, 2007). The airborne nature of the bacteria makes it very difficult to control its spread and reach. Various techniques such as controlled spraying ,scientific growing techniques (such as timely pruning) and a reasonable time of 3-4 years after planting, pruning are some of the recommendations given in virtually all published literature on the subject.

The website of the National Research Centre on Pomegranate offers limited insights on the subject. There are no publications available[6] on the website[7] and the ‘Vision 2025’ document draws a blank.

A field visit to the area and interaction with the farmers and some of the local bank officials in the Mohol area (Bank of India- is the lead bank in the Solapur district) helped throw some interesting insights on the subject. According to some of the local farmers, the need too earn quick returns was the main cause of the BD onset and thereafter its airborne nature just aggravated the spread and its impact. While published literature on the subject recommend a 3-4 year ’gestation’ period before harvesting the fruit, in most cases the practice was to harvest in about two years  Farmers made the soil work more by planting and infusing the soil with fertilization in order to benefit from the excellent prices available in pomegranate cultivation. Secondly ‘alternating’ which involves growing a different crop instead of repeating the same one was not done, again because of the   need to cash in on the pomegranate boom. The farmers did not anticipate the magnitude of the impact nor its long pervading tenure. There was hope that some ‘quick fix’ would be found through the R&D route since the National Research Centre on Pomegranate was in the vicinity of the prime c area itself and more so since so much was rode on the well being of the crop. Thirdly the farmers always felt that the trouble would not strike in their own backyard[8]. The precedence of a relief package acted as a safety net in case things took a turn for the worse. The shortage created due to the BD malaise also meant a windfall for some who escaped the onslaught. Nearly 60-70% of the pomegranate farmers lost their crop, but for those who did not get affected, this situation set their cash registers ringing[9].Prices shot up from `35-`40 per kg ex-farm for the ‘local consumption’ variety. For the export quality produce, the price was as high as ` 100 per kg. The mark-ups associated with transportation etc to the northern parts of the country further added to the cost. This created an arbitrage opportunity for the farmers who were lucky enough to escape the BD disease. The situation in nearby Karnataka was also grave. The fruit comes to Pune (nearest hub) and across the country in consignments from other districts like Sangli, Nasik and Solapur. The unseasonal rain fall pattern, prevailing over the past few years has also contributed to the problem. Such is the intensity of the BD, that it can impact an entire farm overnight. Pomegranate is typically available throughout the year. It grows in drought prone areas of Sangli, Nasik, Baramati and Solapur within the Maharashtra state. So far no solution has been found to take care of this problem leaving the farmers with no choice except exercising a ‘pomegranate plantation holiday’ to allow the soil to regain some of its potency and to prevent further damage and spread of the disease. So why is the tale of the pomegranate important in this context? Because it illustrates a problem that is affecting the dynamics of the big picture at a national level,-that of poor soil conditions, disappearing farmlands, and a strong ‘pull effect’ created by the service driven boom the effect of which has been acerbated by the ‘short term –quick gain’ attitude on the part of the farmers and the lack of any active, meaningful policies and interventions on the part of the policy makers. The band-aid measures like relief packages (as seen in the pomegranate case) have been more focused in getting rid of the immediate symptom rather than in getting to the root of the problem. Our ‘capital’ account balance (viz agricultural land) is fast depleting and being shifted to the revenue bucket. But the loss has many dimensions: once fertile land is lost to concrete and mortar, it’s lost forever. Then there is also the dissonance that occurs at the individual household that looses the fixed fertile asset and sometimes a way of life-that which is not captured in terms of data since a mass transfer of land generally does not take place.  In the pomegranate segment, the irony is that despite enjoying a competitive advantage in terms of the soil and climatic conditions, and an apparent R&D commitment in terms of the National Pomegranate Research Centre, this unique premier position advantage has been impacted due to reasons discussed above.

[1] Source: Report of the Working Group on Horticulture ,Plantation Crops and Organic Farming for the XI Five Year Plan (2007-2012) http://www.scribd.com/doc/50265581/3/STATUS-OF-FRUIT-CROPS

[2] Source: National Research Centre on Pomegranate website (http://www.nrcpomegranate.org)

[3] Bacterial blight of pomegranate caused by Xanthomonas axonopodis pv. punicae. has become an increasingly serious threat for pomegranate growers of the states Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka State of the Indian Subcontinent. The disease was most severe in Maharashtra Karnataka and recorded in a range of 60 to 90 percent incidence. The increase in day temperature (38.6°C) and afternoon relative humidity of 30.4% along with cloudy weather and intermittent rainfall favoured the disease initiation and further spread of the disease. The continuous growing of pomegranate over three seasons has lead to increased susceptibility of the crop in this part of the geographical area. The bacterium was first noticed in select farms in Bellary district in the 1980s; it started spreading rapidly in the early 2000s and took epidemic
proportions in the last couple of years. It has caused severe damage and destroyed 90 percent of the cultivated area in the districts of Bagalkot, Belgaum, Bellary, Bijapur, Chitradurga, Gulbarga, Koppal, Raichur, and Tumkur in Karnataka and the Solapur district in Maharashtra.
The bacteria primarily spreads through infested planting material and secondly through cutting implements and wind to other farms. It has also started affecting other crops like lemon in some areas. It affects all plant parts, but the main damage is observed on fruits, which develop black spots and usually split resulting in enormous yield losses.

[4] Source: Economic Times May 28 2008 .Article titled ‘Maha pomegranate growers get Rs 900-crore package’

[5] Source: Cited literature on ‘Agropedia’. http://agropedia.iitk.ac.in/?q=content/pomegranate-bacterial-blight

[6]  Source: National Research Centre on Pomegranate website. Tab ‘Publications’ http://www.nrcpomegranate.org/publications.htm

[7] Source: National Research Centre on Pomegranate website. Tab ‘Vision 2025’http://www.nrcpomegranate.org/vision.htm.

[8] Telephonic conversation with Shri Prabhakar Chandane, President of the All India Pomegranate Growers’ Association (Akhil Maharashtra Dalimb Utpadak Sanshodhan Sangh).

[9]  Source : Indian Express November 19 2007 article titled ‘Prices Up-Pomegranate buyers in a spot’http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/Prices-up-pomegranate-buyers-in-a-spot/240643/

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3 Responses to Pomegranate Cultivation : India’s Competitive Advantage Lost & Why ?

  1. Dr. Jyotsana Sharma says:

    bacterial Blight management schedules have been demonstrated in blight affected orchards with upto 60% BD control in first year and 85% in second year along with av. yields of about 8t/ha in first and >10t/ha in second year. People following proper management aregetting results. Those following agri. dealers, unscientific reasoning of big farmers are getting affected.

    • Potential agriculturist says:

      Is your data applicable to a big set of farms or is it something you have seen for a farm or two in your case? Based on your statement, is it fair to assume that yields of 8-10 tons per hectare can be achieved EVEN if bacterial blight disease strikes? Appreciate if you could comment with your credentials.

      • rajiajwani says:

        The article is based upon primary data collected through personal visit to Solapur district and discussions with farmers,bankers, village heads etc and thereabouts plus secondary data. Its appears to be more than just a sporadic episode affecting only a farm or two.Infact the shift away to ‘safer options’ like other fruits/cash crops seems to be very apparent.Maybe you could visit the area yourself to get a clearer picture- infact the district is also houses the Pomegranate research Institute

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