Fallen oranges

Gangtok: Sikkim is world-renowned for its organic farming and produce. From fruits to vegetables, the Himalayan kingdom has it all covered. But this year, the state’s orange farmers are in distress.

Orange cultivation in Sikkim is spread across places like Dzongu in the north, Bhir Kuna in Khamdong and Pendam region in the east, Saddam in south and several belts in west Sikkim. But steadily, the mandarin variant of the fruit has been losing ground. Oranges in Sikkim are under attack by a variant of fruit fly, locally known as ‘kanchi keera‘.

December marks the harvest season for oranges and sets a natural warm hue to the bone-chilling winters in the state. But Bhir Kuna at Beng from Khamdong in East Sikkim suffered massive losses this season, largely due to premature falling of oranges.

Fruit fly infested oranges

Farmers have incurred losses to the tune of lakhs, as orchards with a potential to grow 70,000-90,000 oranges have seen abysmally low produce this season, close to about a few hundred.

Janga Bahadur Rai, farmer at Beng Khamdong said, “There are a lot of problems that have come our way because of the oranges. There is an insect that is more like a butterfly, it is called fruit fly. It has been troubling us for years, but this year it caused more trouble. All the fruit in the orange plant has fallen now. One plant was enough to generate 5,000-6,000 oranges earlier. But this year, we haven’t seen more than 100-200 oranges on a plant. It is a big problem for us because of the fruit fly.”

Traditionally, farmers used to plough, add manure and also grow vegetables on the same field. But now, the government has instructed not to plough inside the canopy, as that could tear the roots and kill the plant. “But we have observed the life of an orange plant gets shortened that way,” added Rai.

The problem doesn’t lie only in Janga Bahadur Rai’s orchard. It has spread across to other orchards in Bhir Kuna region, once famous for its oranges.

73-year-old Kathurey Rai, famous as Aku Dewa in the region, claims to be an orange cultivator for generations. He said, “We have also grown chillies here. But the problem is the same in other places as well, where there is no mix cultivation. The oranges have fallen everywhere. There is no point in blaming the chillies, it is something we have to grow and consume.”

Farmers claim that lack of understanding of the fruit fly menace in the absence adequate research has crippled other orange growing areas of the state as well. They also claim that the horticulture department officials merely visit the roadside and do not venture into the fields.

A farmer requesting anonymity said, “The people from the department come only till the roadside. They are the ones who should carry out the survey. But instead, they call us to meet. People from the department (shakes head) have actually not been seen since. They may be afraid that farmers will scold them, so they don’t come.”

West Pendam, previously known as an orange growing area, has also lost its ground to meagre orchards. Some in the area used to sell oranges worth Rs 2.40 lakh in a single season, making the fruit an important economic source.

Ganga Ram Khanal, Field Assistant (Horticulture), West Pendam, said: “Now how do the oranges fall so much? As per the knowledge of our department officials, the flowering season of April-May and ensuing buds of oranges got infested by what is locally known as Kanchi Keera (fruit fly). That fly lays egg upon the orange. When the orange is ripe and ready for harvest, that is when they fall.

He said the department has tried to share the information about the crippling disease with the farmers earlier as well.

“Some took up our techniques of farming and some didn’t. All the fallen oranges must be picked up and buried in a pit. That pit must be burned every day. That way, the insects die in the pit itself. If we leave the fallen oranges in the field, that insect will continue to stay and spread in the field. When we plant maize in April-May and when we plough the fields, the insects grow and start infesting the oranges by laying eggs. Then around October-November, all the oranges fall once again,” Khanal said.

The official added that the department puts up traps that have a smell to attract the male or female flies. “They die in the trap, but the cake inside must be changed every three months. The same must also be buried after use. Eventually, in about 8-10 years, the population of these flies will decline. On the field, all the oranges seen, are a loss to the farmer.”

Sikkim’s Agriculture Minister LN Sharma said officials from the Horticulture Department visited the farms in November after complaints of falling oranges came through.

He said, “It is a natural phenomenon and there is no point in blaming anyone, it is not necessary. The government is researching on the same, and in the coming days we will ensure some good steps are taken so that our farmers don’t bear the loss but instead earn profits. We will ensure that they are self-sufficient. It is our thought, but the responsibility belongs to all of us. We must all work together to save the oranges. If we are not successful still, we might need to opt for a newer approach.”

The minister said he has directed the horticulture department to work hard on the issue. The Krishi Vigyan Kendra has been told to carry out the research. We will give all the help we can to try and save the orange plantations.”

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