How deforestation and bad policies ruined orange cultivation in Tripura

If you feel nostalgic about the orange orchards at Jampui Hills welcoming the tourists, then it is time to forget about it. Orange orchards, which once covered 4000 hectares, no longer adorn Jampui Hills. The region, between Tripura and Mizoram, is situated under the Kanchanpur Sub Division of Tripura and was once regarded as the pride of Tripura. Over a long period of time, the oranges of Jampui Hills dominated the national and international markets with their flavour and juicy quality. Jampui Hills as an orange heaven occupied a position on the map of orange-producing regions. 

In November and December, domestic as well as inland tourists would visit the place to view the scenic beauty of Jampui Hills with a hidden desire to taste the orange juices. In those times, the orange growers would receive guests by offering oranges. It was offering tea to guests. For decades, offering oranges to guests was treated as a cultural tradition among the Mizos living in Jampui Hill. But, ironically, at present due to the drastic decline of production, as well as the death of orange orchards, the inhabitants of Jampui Hills can hardly manage to obtain oranges to satisfy their thirst for the fruit to which they were once accustomed. 

Why orange production is declining

Pests have played a devastating role in destabilising the economy as well as the scenic beauty of the area. Out of an area covering 4000 hectares, more than 3500 hectares were badly affected by pests. It is so disheartening to see that the once-profitable plants, which were considered the ‘Kamdhenu’ of Jampui Hill have now been transformed into bushy jungles in some parts, while most disease–stricken plants are now being used as firewood in the kitchen room.

The plants were badly affected by fungal diseases: Root Rot, Black Bite and Powdery Milk Dew. The disease first appeared in 1960 in the northern part of Jampui Hill mainly at Vaisam, Hmawngchuan and Tluksih. It slowly stretched out its fatal hand towards other parts of Jampui Hill, namely Vanghmun, Behliangchhip, Tlangsang and Sabual. As a result, the growers started replanting in 1960. The years between 1960 and 1980 are said to be the golden era for gardeners. Between 1980 and 1990, the disease struck throughout the hill destroying the main economic source. 

The onslaught of pests was triggered due to merciless deforestation which created an adverse climate for oranges. Earlier, the plant would act as a guard for the fruit-bearing plants from direct sunlight and cyclone but due to heavy deforestation, the orange orchards were exposed to the dreaded citrus pests and diseases such as Die Back and Powdery Milk Dew. 

Within a two-year period, the attacked plants lost their economic value and transformed into wood. One of the diseases affecting the plants is called Die Back, which has been particularly devastating for citrus plants. It turns the leaves yellow and gradually smaller and thicker and within three years, the plant becomes vulnerable to disease-causing pests. Another disease, Powder Milk Dew, transforms leaves into powder and within two years the plant dies. Generally, the changing weather used to bring this disease in April and May. But due to the cutting of century-old trees, which would have acted as guards for the fruit-bearing plants from direct sunlight and cyclones, the unripe oranges surrendered to the whims of Nor’wester in November, just one month before they were due to be plucked.

Measures taken to rejuvenate the orchards

Observing the gravity of the pest epidemic, a team of NRCC( National Research Centre for Citrus) scientists visited the citrus plantation in Jampui Hill and suggested remedies based on spot observation. NRCC scientists observed that the soil and nutrition management and plant protection aspects were found to be the key issues to be attended to in order to rejuvenate the citrus plantation. The team observed that diseases like trunk borer, citrus leaf miners and red ants, termites, and lemon butterflies were also responsible for the epidemic. The team noted that negligence of orchard management over the growth of lichen and mosses on the tree trunk suppressed bud sprouts and further emergence of new flush. The foliage on citrus plants was comparatively very less and branches were giving a necked look. Most of the plants were having dead twigs which were not pruned for years. The team suggested that the twigs of the plants should be pruned from the green portion of that twig with a sharp cutter and should be burnt outside the orchards along with a remedial process with a prescription to combat the citrus disease.

Conflicts between orange growers and the Horticulture department

The North East Council sanctioned a huge amount for the revitalization of orange orchards. State Horticulture Departments, too, jumped into the field and tried their level best to bring back the lost glory of Jampui Hills with the schemes, Rejuvenation and Development of oranges. But, all these did not yield any fruitful results due to conflicts between the experts and orange growers. The orange growers could not follow the technical instructions prescribed by the experts of NRCC due to the acute water crisis in the region and financial constraints. Under the rejuvenation scheme, orange growers were provided with financial assistance of Rs 5000 to implement the NRCC guidelines. However, the growers were dissatisfied with the amount as they needed to purchase machines such as pruning machines, spray machines and other appliances. Additionally, an acute water crisis hindered the implementation of the NRCC guidelines. The growers raised questions about the sincerity of the authorities in the state Horticulture department. Ultimately, most of the orange growers distanced themselves from the experts and authorities of the implementing agencies over the dispute. Furthermore, both parties had different opinions and policies, and the gap gradually widened and created a chasm between the orange planters and the authorities of the department. Besides, over the technical instructions of NRCC, the growers were divided into two groups. 

The pro-department group said that the instructions were good enough to revitalise the morbid orange plantations, whereas the other section simply condemned the guidelines as futile. Many orange growers, with no other suitable option, have switched to cultivating Areca Nut as an alternative to orange just to maintain their livelihood. The land that was previously occupied by the most economically precious orange plants is now dotted with Betel Nut plants.

The ground reality is that even the pro-department section and a few orange growers who are still trying to rejuvenate the orange plantation in some parts of Jampui Hill namely Sabual and Phuldungsai are yet to get the desired results. The new plants are also falling prey to pests, making their efforts fruitless. They too are changing their mindset in favour of betel nuts (Areca catechu) instead of orange plantations. 

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Meanwhile, due to the perceived apathetic attitude of the growers and their growing interest in cultivating betel nuts, as well as continued pest attacks on new plantations, it seems that the department too has lost its enthusiasm and is considering leaving the orange plantation as a thing of the past. 

The heavenly scenic beauty of yellow, juicy oranges looming over the trees that mesmerised the tourists during the winter season will haunt both domestic and inland tourists forever. Rest in Peace Jampui Oranges.

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