Dragon fruit, a saviour for Kachchh farmers

Kachchh is the second largest district of India and covers 25 per cent of the area of Gujarat. It falls under semi-arid zone and is known for its extreme climatic conditions with the temperatures touching 50 degrees Celsius in summer and 3 degrees or less in winter. The water resources are limited to 3 per cent of the State’s total resources. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood and animal husbandry is also an equally important occupation.

None of the Kachchh rivers are perennial. The monsoon is very erratic and the rainfall averages 300-350 mm a year. Hence frequent occurrence of drought or scarcity conditions is a common feature in Kachchh. Due to the proximity of the Arabian Sea and the very less rainwater replenishing the groundwater, salinity ingress is rapid in this district.

According to the Central Ground Water Board, Kachchh is one of the districts with issues like salinity, fluoride, chloride, iron and nitrate which influence the cropping pattern and agriculture production.

In the post-earthquake times, there has been a lot of changes happening to revive the regional economy of Kachchh. One is the emerging interest in the horticulture sector by the local farmers and others who had earlier migrated to Maharashtra and abroad, now wanting to return to their homeland. The latter category is investing in large tracts of land to engage in horticultural.

These new entrants bring in technological knowhow with the purpose of maximising production with minimal resources. One major advantage for farmers in Kachchh is the relatively less incidence of pests and diseases due to the extreme climate. Talukas like Anjar, Abdasa, Nakhatrana, Bhuj and Mandvi have better aquifers and cultivate a variety of horticultural crops that range from mango, sapota, citrus fruits, date palm, banana, kamalam (dragon) fruit, guava, pomegranate, papaya and custard apple.

Of these, dragon fruit (christened kamalam by the Gujarat government in January 2021 because of the bright pink colour and conical appearance) has its origin in Central and South America and has spread to Asian countries.

In India, kamalam fruit cultivation is now gaining momentum including in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. The fruit is fleshy with tiny black seeds. While the fleshly part is consumed, the skin is discarded. According to the wholesale fruit traders in Ahmedabad, the red flesh variety is preferred in the export and domestic markets as it contains lycopene, which is believed to be an immunity enhancer and lowers the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Introduced in 2014, kamalam is a relatively new entrant to Kachchh, but is rapidly catching the attention of the farmers because the plant can survive the punishing summer. Kamalam plantation requires moisture and hence regulated watering by micro irrigation system serves the plantation well.

The kamalam plant grows nearly five to six feet in height during which time it requires support. In the early days, Kachchh farmers used a five-foot pole and ring made of concrete to support the plant.

Reducing costs

The initial cost is ₹600 per pole, which includes the cost of the pole, ring, four plants and labour. Approximately, an acre of land would have 550 poles. The plants are secured to the pole with a wire and when they start drooping the concrete ring mounted on the top of the pole provides support which is necessary when the plant is bearing fruit — the weight of each fruit ranges from 150 to 300 grams.

However, now farmers have come out with innovative ways of reducing this initial cost by installing iron poles and wires like in grape orchards, and discarded scooter tyres replace the concrete rings. These modifications have resulted in halving the costs.

The plant starts yielding from the first year onwards and the yield increases every year and reaches an average of 20-25 kg per plant by the fourth year. The season starts in late June and continues till November. While the wholesale price ranges between ₹100 and ₹150 per kg, in the retail market, the price is ₹250-300 per kg.

The kamalam plant’s lifespan is 25-30 years. Farmers propagate from the mature plants. The naturally organic kamalam is considered more as a health fruit because it is rich in Vitamin C and is believed to be helpful in improving the platelet count during infectious diseases.

Kamalam plantation is now picking up in other regions of the country also and as the supply increases the price would reduce and be affordable to the common man. Recently, a horticulturalist in Kachchh experimented the use of discarded skin of the fruit in toiletries and beauty care products. If this experiment is successful, the scope for setting up units to further process the fruit would emerge. With its cost effectiveness and sturdy nature, kamalam cultivation is an opportunity for farmers elsewhere with less fertile soil to augment their income.

Lalitha is with Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, and Soumya is with the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad

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