Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sniffing success in Begusarai

Menthol mint, an aromatic commercial crop, has turned farmers’ fortunes in this small district of Bihar

It’s an aroma that’s fast spreading across the unlikely terrain of Begusarai in Bihar. Defying the farming of traditional crops in the rest of the state, farmers in Begusarai have taken to large-scale cultivation of menthol mint, an aromatic commercial crop and a source of menthol oil, which used in cosmetic and medicinal products. Little wonder then that the district is set to be known as the menthol capital of the state.

India is among the top producers of menthol in the world, with Barabanki district in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh leading the country in menthol farming. Given that till a couple of years ago Bihar was nowhere on India’s menthol map, Begusarai, which is adjacent to Barabanki, has achieved the feat despite several odds. Barabanki’s menthol cultivation is spread over 20,000 acres compared to only 8,000 acres in Begusarai.

“Hopefully, within a year, Begusarai will catch up with Barabanki,” says S.K. Gagroo, Deputy General Manager, State Bank of India, which is extending credit to farmers, has formed cooperatives and is even working to provide buyers.

Surendra Kesri of Bakhri explains why he has turned to menthol. The lawyer and teacher took to farming after he planted menthol in four acres of land three years ago. Profits made him increase the area to 14 acres, then 35 acres and now the farm spans 50 acres. “Next year, I plan to double it,” says Kesri, who also sold menthol seeds worth Rs 1.5 lakh last year.

Similarly, Krishnadev Rai, a professional land measurer, started with just five acres five years ago and is presently farming menthol in 40 acres. There are 200 farmers who have take to menthol in Bakhri sub-division alone.

This is no mean achievement given the odds. Bihar has neither a market nor a buyer for menthol oil. After extracting the oil in distillation plants set up by them, the farmers carry it 600 km away to Barabanki by booking the containers in trains from Barauni,and sell it for Rs 500-600 per litre. Barabanki houses an industry that makes menthol crystals and also has a mandi for the oil.

Bihar also lacks an institure to educate the farmers on the cultivation of aromatic plants. “I learnt about menthol farming in Barabanki and Lucknow. I went through books, talked to scientists before starting,” says Kesri.

It is the profit that is driving the farmers to convert. As per an estimate, farmers earn Rs 30,000-40,000 a year. The impact of commercial farming on the agrarian economy of the state is already visible in the region. Besides uplifting the economic status of farmers, it has affected the migration of labour in the region, decreasing by at least 20 cent.

“Menthol is a labour-intensive crop. Every day I need 20-25 labourers and during harvesting there are at least 100 of them,” says Kesri. The best part is that it is grown during the lean agricultural season that propels the flight of labour. “I have not gone to Assam in the past two years. Menthol farming helps me earn Rs 60-70 per day and there is no dearth of work,” says Ramayan Ram of Bakhri.

This agricultural revolution came to the government’s notice at a recent bankers’ meet, after which Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi urged the banks to extend more credit to farmers. “It’s a matter of pride that the farmers have achieved so much,” says Modi.

It’s something the farmers of Begusarai know already.

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