They had pioneered pineapple cultivation in Tripura. In their traditional lore too, they have carefully preserved a belief. That pineapple would never betray them. That, any crop may fail in an unfavourable circumstance, but pineapple is just a viable crop of survival, providing substantial income year after year. This popular belief of the Darlongs, a sub tribe of Mizos, residing in Nalkata area of Kumarghat Block of North Tripura district, 140 km off Agartala, the capital city of Tripura is still instrumental in ensuring bumper pineapple crops in their hamlet.

In fact, all other tribes and communities in the state had derived the rich tradition and improvised method of pineapple cultivation from Darlongs, as claimed by officials of the of the Department of Horticulture. Now, each year Tripura produces a bumper pineapple crop. In 2007-08 it produced 1,15,829 metric tonnes of pineapple. No wonder, the Darlongs had also pioneered in improvised pineapple cultivation by introducing it in high hilly slopes of Tripura.

Heaps of pineapples speak volumes about the bumper crop. Pic : Author.

The centuries-old belief of Darlongs to rest their faith on pineapple cultivation is, perhaps because of its sustainability. Following each harvesting season, one has to just clean the cultivation patches and can expect a healthy fruit-crop for the next year. Growers can also simultaneously go for multi-cropping of horticultural products including jackfruit and other firewood trees in the cropped area. Other factors like suitable soil and agro-climatic condition and lesser effort have made communities like Darlongs opt for pineapples as the most favorite alternative crop-cultivation to Jhum, their traditional slash-and-burn cultivation, to suit an easy-go tribal life!

Productivity of pineapple per hectare in Tripura is 18.73 tonnes, which is higher than the national average of 15.80 tonnes. The Dhalai district, another buffer zone of pineapple cultivation records the highest yield per hectare production in the state with 21.88 tonnes, according to Sibnarayan Sen, Director of the state government’s Department of Horticulture.

Darlongs can still espouse their belief, for there is a fruit juice concentration plant that was set up by the North Eastern Regional Agriculture Marketing Corporation (NERAMC) in their locality of Nalkata where they sell their produce. Besides, their produces also have a market in Silchar in neighbouring Assam.

Enter troubled times, and rubber

Far away from this buffer pineapple pocket of the Darlong’s, Dayalpada Jamatia, a 65 year old pineapple grower belonging to Jamatia tribe of Jumer Dhepa village in Nalchar area of Melaghar Block in West Tripura district, 50 km off the capital city Agartala, however, cannot dream high over his crop. This is because of an oversupply of pineapples in the local market that has an adverse impact on price per pineapple. These traditional pineapple growers earlier had a conventional pineapple market in bordering Bangladesh.

Tripura shares a border of 856 km with Bangladesh and there used to be a cross-border conventional pineapple trade in these areas. However, this market has become extinct following erection of barbed wire fencing along the international border. Tripura, is a completely landlocked state and 80 per cent of the border with Bangladesh being already fenced. While the conventional market has virtually stopped, no formal trade tie-up with Bangladesh has come up till now. Another market with neighbouring Assam has also been affected due to insurgency situation, says Jamatia, who talked to India Together on May 20.

“At times truckloads of pineapple used to be transported to Assam from our locality. But due to insurgency situation, it has been stopped,” he says. While these two conventional markets have declined there is no processing industry in the area to regularly consume the marketable surplus pineapple.

Jamatia has 25 kanis (about 6.5 kani constitutes one hectare) of tilla land (high lands) where he introduced “queen” -- a very special variety of pineapple which is rich in aromatic quality and taste but less juicy and relatively small in size – peculiar to the soil condition of West Tripura and North Tripura district, some 30 years back, as an alternative living to traditional Jhum.

Barely 6000 metric tones of more than one lakh metric tonnes of pineapples estimated to be produced this year is going to be procured for processing and subsequent supply to the domestic and international markets.

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While the 'queen' variety is unique to the soil condition these two districts, in two other districts mainly “kew” variety is cultivated, which is best suitable for processed foods with a relatively bigger size that varies between 1.5 to 2.8 kilogram, juicy substances and less fiber—thus highly suitable for canning.

This year too, Jamatia has cultivated the fruit-crop in the entire land, but with one difference. Simultaneously he has also planted some rubber trees in half of his cultivable land. Jamatia plans to completely remove pineapple when the gestation period of rubber cultivation is over and tapping would start.

Like Jamatia, there were several other cultivators in the area, whom I met, who have decided to shift gradually from pineapple to rubber plantation. Would the decision of gradual shift from pineapple to rubber prove wiser?

Growers in the locality said that as far as profitability in the future is concerned, rubber is the best option. With his 25 kanis of cultivable land, Jamatia is likely to earn Rs.50000-Rs.60000 this year, much lower than his expectation level. Pineapple is a single-crop cultivation and these people who adopted the crop as alternative livelihood for traditional jhum cultivation, do not have land for any other crop like rice, which makes the family to buy everything from the market for household consumption.

In such a situation, the one-time earned money is too little for the family to survive for the whole year. This often made Jamatia to work as daily wage labourer till some years ago till one of his sons became a school-teacher, that has given the family immense support, he adds.

Heaps of pineapples, falling prices

Even small heaps of pineapples piled up in Jamatia’s courtyard, and also deposited in the local market of nearby Mohanbhog area of Sonapura sub-division, 20 km away from Nalchar, also had tales to tell. Small heaps – meant a relatively a higher price in the market that is Rs.5 per piece. The pick season of pineapple is likely to start in another week’s time and the entire Mohanbhog pineapple market will be covered with big heaps of pineapples. As the heaps would grow bigger in sizes the procurement prices will go down drastically from Rs.5 to Rs.2 and finally to 50 paise per pineapple, says Priyalal Sharma, a local pineapple grower, who has also started rubber plantation in some portion of his land.

Dayalpada Jamatia in his pineapple cultivation where he also planted some rubber trees. Pic : Author.

News of Tripura's pineapples finding its way to export markets in countries like Italy has hardly provided any satisfaction to growers like Jamatia, on the ground that these companies give growers only a nominal price per pineapple, that normally do not cover the cost of production. In April this year, 65 metric tones of pineapple in the form of canned product slices were exported to Italy by Piyush Agro Food Tech.

Sharma, who is also a member of All India Kishan Sabha, says that as an alternative livelihood, one can expect economic prosperity in rubber far better than pineapple. First, once tapping is started, rubber provides an income almost all throughout the year and it lasts for over 30 years. With a gradual increase in price of rubber in the market which is Rs.120 per kilogram now, farmers in Tripura have become more ambitious for rubber plantation, as it has already been proved as the most effective scheme in terms of providing a sustainable alternative livelihood to rural and more particularly to tribal people.

The Rubber Board, which has its regional office in Agartala, too, has been providing financial assistance to farmers during the gestation period up to Rs.50,000 per hectare. The Tripura model of providing tribal people successful alternative livelihood through rubber plantation has received widespread admiration throughout the country.

Sharma, however, said that for poor cultivators, shifting from pineapple to rubber is not possible, because of the higher cost of production per hectare at initial stage, which is about Rs.45,000. The small land holdings of farmers also come in the way of shifting to rubber, he adds. The Mohanbhog Gram Sabha has 400 families of and all of them cultivate pineapple.

Government and private procurement: not matching massive harvests

To provide growers more market linkage, the North Eastern Regional Agriculture Marketing Corporation (NERAMC) had set up a fruit juice concentration plant, way back in 1988, in Nalkata with an initial capital investment of 3.60 Crore. The aim was to purchase surplus marketable pineapple and other fruits. The plant has an installed capacity of 48 metric tonnes per day. In 2007-08 NERAMC procured 750 metric tonnes of pineapple from the growers, much below than the average production of the state.

The officials of the department of horticulture revealed that in 2008-09, NERAMC is likely to enhance its procurement to 1500 metric tonnes. Meanwhile, the state government has already initiated a plan for reconstructing and modernisation of the plant in Nalkata, which is under consideration for the approval of Ministry of Development of North East Region (DONOR).

Dabur Food Pvt. Ltd. of West Bengal has procured 1000 metric tones of pineapples from identified blocks of Agri-Export Zone in 2007-08. Their procurement is likely to be increased in 2008-09 by 4000 metric tonnes.

Taking all these projected procurement figures into account, barely 6000 metric tones of more than one lakh metric tonnes of pineapples estimated to be produced this year is going to be procured for processing and subsequent supply to the domestic and international markets.

Other efforts to help growers

The Department of Horticulture has recently adopted the strategy of applying staggering method to prolong the cultivation period to at least 8 months of the year, by ensuring that crop would be harvested as and when required. In this method a chemical is applied, which, Pulak Choudhury, an official of the Department, says, has no adverse impact on the quality of the produce. The growers can expect getting fruit within 5 months of applying the chemical.

“The staggering method has been tested and proven in the Horticulture Research Complex in Nagricherra area. Then, it was first introduced if 25 hectares of farmers land in 2005. By 2007-08 altogether 200 hectares of pineapple was brought under staggered cultivation for getting raw pineapples in 8-10 months per year,” says Director Sibnarayan Sen. In 2008-09 the department has targeted to bring 300 hectares of pineapple under staggered cultivation, says Sen.

Sen says that pineapple is a highly perishable food-crop and even in the cold-storage it lasts only for 28 days. The ripening period of pineapple too is very short. In such a situation, staggering method is likely to ensure to a viable market support for at least 8 months a year simultaneously increasing grower’s income almost round the year. When there would be no oversupply due top adoption of staggering method the price would remain steady for longer period.

The horticulture department had also come up with an ambitious and comprehensive export oriented pineapple cultivation plan with Agricultural and Process Food Products Development Authority (APEDA) to facilitate export market of the fruit focusing on access to international market of pineapple product in the year 2003-04. As part of the project, 5 Agri-Export Zones in the state were selected in Melagarh, Kakrabon, Matabari, Manu and Kumarghat area in 2006-07. Altogether 2,157 growers covering an area of 935 hectare were identified. The horticulture department has also been trying to get organic certification for these identified growers with the assistance of APEDA.

Another ambitious “Pineapple Powder Project”, that was proposed to be established with the initiative of Technology Development Board of the central government in 2002, the first of its kind in India, is yet to come up. “Even though the state government provided the necessary land for setting up of the proposed industry, no promoter has so far come forward to invest. But the state government is very keen to initiate the project even now,” says Pabitra Kar, Chairman, Tripura Industrial Development Corporation.