With October, the air is turning a crisp cool all over India's north east. Soon, the markets across the region will be flooded with winter vegetables and fruits including oranges. However, this winter will be far less juicier than the earlier ones,at least in Manipur state. Reason? Orange trees are dying here, en masse.
Tamenglong district of Manipur has been a significant producer of mandarin oranges for several years. In the year 2008-09 alone, Tamenglong district produced 17,311 metric tons of oranges.
But this season, the production is going to be far less, thanks to a mysterious disease that’s left hundreds of orange trees dead. “The decline in the production actually started in 2000”, says Achungmei Kamei, a local. “The orange harvest takes place annually in December and January. During these two months, we make our entire annual income. But now, dead trees have resulted in an incredibly precarious situation for us, affecting our livelihoods,” Kamei adds.
There are about 1000 households like Kamei’s, which are involved in farming oranges here, making about Rs. 60,000 minimum every season and a maximum of Rs. 1.5 lakhs. Today all of them are facing an uncertain future.
Mr Katadim, another orange farmer, highlights this reality, ‘farmers like me are in shock and are helpless, because for us these oranges are our only source of income to sustain our families.’
Desperate to counter the situation, orange farmers have started to grow banana plants. Whilst this may go some way to compensate the farmers’ financial loss, it continues to puzzle agricultural experts and civilians on why the orange trees are dying in the first place.
Though there hasn't been an official declaration in this respect, locals believe that its the changing climate that has been killing the orange trees. The government bodies, namely the India Foundation of Agriculture Research (IFAR) has suggested various interventions such as the use of sprinklers and fertilizers, but nothing has come out of it.
The juicy oranges have been a big attraction for hundreds of people who visit the Tamenglong Orange Festival – an annual event, held in December. But this year, the festival venue has been shifted to state capital, adding to the woes of the local farmers.