The Bengal government has identified three plots for an ambitious project to grow apples in Murshidabad district’s Sagardighi. And one of the places from where it wants to make a start happens to be Bahalnagar, the village that the five Bengal migrant labourers — who worked in Jammu and Kashmir’s apple orchards before being gunned down by terrorists last week — called home.
Hundreds of villages in north and central Bengal now contribute thousands of labourers who work in J&K’s apple orchards. Many of these migrant workers have ret-urned after the killings — the Bengal government itself has organised the homecoming of more than 130 — but many of the returnees have said they fear lack of suitable employment at home. The government’s apple-growing project, say officials, is aim-ed at helping these people.
The experiment will begin on three plots covering two acres (about the size of one-and-a-half football fie-lds) in Bahalnagar and Belkhoria villages by this month-end. The plan is to start small, identify the problems and then bring around 87 acres under cultivation over the next three years, say officials. Sagardighi block assistant programme officer Puspendu Mukherjee has made a modest beginning, convincing three farmers to convert their paddy fields into apple orchards.
The Murshidabad district administration initially plans to to send five locals, who have worked in J&K’s apple orchards, to the Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research in Meerut for “proper training”. Mukherjee is also engaging with migrants, who have just returned from J&K, on farming techniques that can be implemented locally. “Locals, who have returned after working in J&K apple orchards, feel apple can be grown here if rainwater can be drained out quickly,” Bokhara-I gram panchayat member Mustafizur Rehman said.
That assumption may not be so outlandish, say scientists. Professor Dilip Kumar Swain of IIT-Kharagpur’s Agriculture and Food Engineering Department, who has worked in Murshidabad on a slew of agriculture technology projects, feels growing apples here is possible. “There are certain varieties of apples that can be grown in tropical climate, despite the high temperatures, provided other conditions are right. It is difficult but not impossible. We have, for example, successfully created conditions to grow tea in the plains,” he added.
Senior agricultural scientist and North Bengal Agricultural University dean Tapan Hath said there would be two main challenges. “Apples grow best at places that are between 5,000 and 5,800 feet (roughly between 1,500 and 1,750 metres) above sea level. They need 1,000-1,500 hours of chilling temperature (5-7 degrees Celsius) and, ideally, frost for the buds to open. These can be tough to replicate in a tropical environment but there are certain varieties (of apples) that can be attempted (to be grown). The department of science and technology has recently published a paper on apples that can be grown in the plains,” he added.
Sushanta Kumar Chattopadhyay, former sericulture and zoology department head in Berhampore’s KN College, drew a parallel between a variety of silk indigenous to the hilly areas of Cooch Behar but now being produced in Murshidabad.
Murshidabad additional district magistrate (zilla parishad) Sudipta Porel said he was “positive”. “We are sending five persons to Meerut’s IIFSR for training and will use their expertise. We have successfully grown oranges in Bankura,” he said. “This project, if successful, will also give locals an alternative income source. The 100-day work scheme allows people to earn around 19,000 a year but, in J&K, labourers can earn Rs 14,000-16,000 a month (though that work is seasonal). So this can augment their income,” Porel added.
Sahadat Hossain, a graduate who has appeared for the schoolteachers’ recruitment test, says he has convinced his family to consider alternative farming and start an apple orchard on the family’s 1.5-bigha plot. “It is better to try and fail than not try at all,” he says, echoing many others who have just returned from J&K.
Source: Times of India