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Bangladesh gets juicier share

An orange vendor at Dhubri market in lower Assam. Telegraph picture

Dhubri, April 15: Largescale export of Bhutan oranges, known for its sweet taste, to Bangladesh over the past few years has left a sour taste among traders in Assam and neighbouring Bengal, with only inferior variety left in their kitty.

The Himalayan kingdom produces an average 100,000 tonnes of oranges annually, and currently exporting almost half of it to Bangladesh. India (Bengal and Assam) gets a share of 40,000 tonnes while the remaining 10,000 tonnes are for its domestic market.

Bhutan, however, has worked out its economics right with a new export route through the Dawki land customs station in Meghalaya following an agreement with Delhi made a couple of years back.

The new route through India's northeastern region, according to sources, has significantly reduced distance, travel time of the perishable commodity and transportation cost.

“Earlier, the trucks had to travel around 430km from eastern Bhutan via Bengal to reach Bangladesh. The new route has brought down the distance to just 280km. The transportation cost had come down accordingly, a source said.

Bhutanese exporters had prior to the pact been using the much longer route from Gelephu market in Bhutan through Siliguri in north Bengal for transporting items to Bangladesh.

In the absence of the Bhutan variety in the markets across the two states (Assam and Bengal) which primarily share its international boundary with Bhutan, oranges from Garo Hills in Meghalaya, Punjab and Nagpur are flooding the market in Assam. Loose jacketed oranges such as “Nagpur Santra”, “Coorg” orange, “Kamala” of Manipur, Khasi orange of Assam, Sikkim orange of Darjeeling and Kinnow of Punjab belong to the category of Mandarins.

Bhutan has been producing a variety of quality oranges since the British era. The variety has a sweet taste that is unparalleled and different from any other type produced in the northeastern states.

Moinul Haque Khan, a wholesale fruit trader of Dhubri said: “A good quantity of oranges produced in Bhutan are now being exported to Bangladesh and traders of Dhubri only get a share of mere 40 to 45 mini trucks of oranges from Gelephu market of Bhutan, that too of inferior and small variety.”

Sijab Mallah, another fruit seller from Lakhipur of Goalpara district said Meghalaya oranges have a good demand in Assam. “But the Kinnow variety from Punjab is flooding the market in the lower Assam district. After a few weeks, Nagpur Santra will hit the market given that there is little of the Bhutan variety in the kitty”, Mallah said.

Sources in the trading community, however, said almost all the north-eastern states grow oranges with distinctive characteristics. There is now a decent market of oranges of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Sikkim in their respective states. “But compared to the Bhutan orange, they are inferior in taste. Being of export quality, there is a huge demand for Bhutan oranges in Bangladesh,” a source said.

Assam produces nearly 5,000 tonnes oranges annually, thanks to a favourable climate for orange cultivation. As a matter of fact, oranges are grown in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Chirang and Baksa districts but that is not enough to capture the market. “Unless the horticulture departments of the northeastern states, particularly Assam, pay attention and find out ways to make oranges commercially viable by sustaining large-scale production in the long run, varieties from Punjab and Nagpur will continue to hog a big market chunk,” a source said.

The rest of the Northeast region produces nearly 40,000 tonnes most of which are consumed in the domestic markets of the seven states.

Sources in the state agriculture department said under the technology mission orange growers are being encouraged to produce quality oranges but till date, it hasnot been fruitful.