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Heatwave: Mango crops devastated by severe weather

India is striving to increase productivity, while facing stiff competition from Brazil, Peru, Israel and Pakistan
The Konkan region’s Alphonso mangoes for sale at a roadside stall in Karad on May 13.
The Konkan region’s Alphonso mangoes for sale at a roadside stall in Karad on May 13.

Suhasini Raj   |   Malihabad (Uttar Pradesh)   |   Published 26.05.22, 03:46 AM

No fruit in India is as universally loved and as eagerly anticipated as the mango, which, for one brief window each year, cools and sweetens the long days of summer.

Connoisseurs argue fervently about which of India’s dozens of varieties — each with a distinct flavour, colour and texture — are best, and disagree politely about the correct way to eat the fruit: by cutting it into slices, or by sucking the juice straight from the top. Mangoes are also added to kebabs, used to sour dishes and puréed with mint to make refreshing drinks.

But this year, this centuries-old ritual is imperilled. As blistering heat has struck northern India weeks earlier than usual, mango crops have been devastated, threatening a way of life for the thousands of small farmers who grow the fruit and the millions more who consume it.

The heat wave is a vivid example of the challenge India faces in ensuring its food security as the effects of climate change worsen, compounding its difficulties in raising agricultural productivity to international standards to feed a growing population of nearly 1.4 billion.

The dangers of a hotter future are achingly visible on a small farm in Malihabad, a prime northern mango-growing district, where Mohammed Aslam tends about 500 trees.

A few months ago, his mango trees were the picture of health, their deep green leaves glistening above the well-hydrated soil and their branches bearing perfect clusters of white flowers. Then India experienced its hottest March in 122 years of record-keeping, with temperatures averaging nearly 33 degrees Celsius and soaring as high as 40. The mango flowers withered and died before bearing fruit.

Virtually none of Aslam’s trees, spread over four acres, produced mangoes. In a normal year, they would have yielded more than 11,300kg of fruit.

“I have never witnessed this phenomenon before in my lifetime,” he said as he looked over his farm in Uttar Pradesh one recent afternoon, lamenting the lakhs of rupees he stood to lose on the failed harvest.

Aslam is one of hundreds of farmers who have watched helplessly as the intense heat of March continued into the hottest April in 50 years and then carried on into May.

Climate scientists, in a report issued on Monday, said the chances of such a heat wave in India had increased by at least 30 times since the 19th century.

The heat has far exceeded the optimal temperature for the fertilisation of mango trees, which is around 25 degrees Celsius, said Dheeraj Kumar Tiwari, a scientist at an agricultural university in Uttar Pradesh.

India is the world’s largest mango producer, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the global crop. Much of it is consumed domestically, but the country exports tens of millions of rupees’ worth of mangoes each year to the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Germany and the US. Over the past decade, India has been trying to penetrate markets in other European Union countries as well.

In the past, export growth has been limited by the higher costs of Indian mangoes compared with those from countries like Brazil, Peru, Israel and Pakistan. India has been striving to increase productivity, which would lower costs.

Even before the extreme heat, India’s mango exports had been badly damaged by the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic, with shipments abroad shrinking by almost 50 per cent last year. India’s top export organisation had hoped for a big turnaround this year as the Indian and US governments eased trade rules.

Instead, severe weather has hurt yields not just in northern India, but also in the south, which has been hit by heavy, untimely rain.

In Uttar Pradesh, the northern mango-growing powerhouse, a government agriculture official estimated that mango production in the state would fall by close to 20 per cent this year. The Mango Growers Association said the yield in the northern mango-growing belt would fall by closer to 70 per cent.

In Andhra Pradesh, the heavy rain delayed the mango plants’ flowering by a month. By the time the fruits emerged, it was too hot, and many dropped from the branches prematurely.

B. Sreenivasulu, deputy director in the horticulture department of Chittoor, said that during the heavy rainfall that lashed the area in November and December, when flowering occurs, farms were inundated and many riverside trees were uprooted.

Cultivation of mangoes in the district, the most productive in the state, has been reduced by at least 30 per cent this season. “This time, the climate change effect was so visible,” Sreenivasulu said. “Like never before.”

The harsher conditions threaten mango-growing cultures with roots stretching back hundreds of years.

Malihabad is known for delectable varieties like the Dasheri, which is named after a village in the area. The district is home to numerous families who have been growing the fruit for at least three generations. Most farmers in Malihabad own small plots of land and depend solely on mangoes for their livelihood.

Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah, who runs a farmers’ market, started a mango festival in 2013 in Malihabad to revive the tradition of eating mangoes straight from the orchard so that consumers could be directly in touch with the farmers.

“Food is intrinsically linked to a people’s culture, and mangoes play a major role in not just the food of the region but art and textiles, in the form of motifs and poetry, too,” Habibullah said. “The emotional and psychological connection of mangoes is not just with its taste but its linkage to the culture of the place and a legacy we cannot let die.”

One recent afternoon, against the backdrop of the serene beauty of the mango orchards lining both sides of a smooth highway in Malihabad, farmers who had gathered at a roadside stand expressed anxiety about the future. They discussed diversifying into other fruits and vegetables, or selling off their lands.

Nadeem Ahmad, a third-generation mango farmer, took a long breath as he walked onto his small farm next to the highway. He pointed toward trees that would normally be laden with fruit this time of year.

“With a heavy heart, I will have to start chopping these trees down if this pattern continues,” he said. “The soul of a farmer shudders at seeing these fruitless trees.”

Across from Ahmad’s farm, Aslam said he was living in “acute tension” over a mango crop yield that was merely 5 per cent of previous years’. His 14-year-old son said he did not want to carry on the family business when he grew up.

“There will not be enough fruit even for my children,” Aslam said, his square forehead creasing under the strong afternoon sun. He noted that the hardships had forced him to postpone his daughter’s wedding.

“No mango, no life,” he added, his words tapering off in a small voice.

New York Times News Service

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