What's killing Dehradun's litchis

The lost litchis are much more than a man-made disaster

44-Ravinder-Ahluwalia Not so sweet: Ravinder Kumar, a litchi farmer, at his farm | Arvind Jain

We grasp at childhood memories. “There was such sweetness. You could go without sugar for the whole day. The litchis had such juicy pulp that one bite and there would be sticky streaks all over our mouths. Now there is just bitterness,” said Deepak Rawat, a 38-year-old taxi driver. We were talking about the litchis that Dehradun was so famous for, till around two decades ago. When the water sources dried, the canals were choked, the water table plunged and the city got blanketed by concrete, the litchis were lost. Well, almost. And so was that promise of a sweet summer.

The government is making sustained efforts to promote litchis. Among these are steps to grow it at a slightly higher altitude, where the pressure of population is not as crushing as in Dehradun.

Now we drive 20km out of the city, but those dense orchards, heavy with fruit, are nowhere to be seen. At wholesale markets, sellers say it is useless to look for the native rose-scented litchis. Instead, there is the Shahi litchi from Muzaffarpur (Bihar), the Kalcuttia (from Calcutta) and the later blooming seedless varieties (mostly from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh). But that heart shaped one―the fragrance of which was as enticing as its taste―is a rarity.

This much-loved fruit is not native to India. It travelled from China, through Myanmar, in the 17th or 18th century. It grows best in deep, well drained loamy soil that is rich in organic matter. It contains an abundance of vitamins B and C, proteins and calcium, among other essential nutrients.

As per data from the National Horticulture Board, Uttarakhand had 78,000 hectares under litchi production in 2001-02, second only to Bihar. Yet at 1.0 metric tonne per hectare, its productivity was the lowest among the nine major litchi producing states of the country. Note that 2001 was just a year after Uttarakhand was formed, and the concretisation of Dehradun had yet to kick in fully.

The lost litchis are not just a man-made disaster. As rainfall patterns become erratic, unseasonal downpours during the flowering season affect pollination. New diseases and pests are a growing threat. Intense heat ruins the tree during the early years of growth. The slow growth of storage, pre-cooling and transport facilities means the fruit, with just a two-month life cycle, needs to be sold in distress, thereby making it economically unviable.

Ravinder Kumar, 60, a third-generation farmer from the Badripur area of Dehradun, said, “Ever since I can remember, litchis grew in profusion but now it is less than half of what it was. The weather has ruined it all. This year, there were hot winds and early, heavy rains. Farmers have sold their lands or plotted them to build houses as the losses are mounting”.

Data from the district’s horticulture board supports this claim. Traditional areas of litchi cultivation are no longer on the list. Meenakshi Joshi, the chief horticulture officer of Dehradun, said the government was making sustained efforts to promote litchis. Among these are steps to grow it at a slightly higher altitude, where the pressure of population is not as crushing as in Dehradun. “There is a renewed emphasis to teach the importance of using micronutrients rather than the blatant spraying of chemical fertilisers. There is a definite uptick in the demand for litchi seeds,” said Joshi.

Between 2009-10 and 2020-21, there was an increase of 216.18 hectares in the area under litchi cultivation in Dehradun. The yield increased by 879 metric tonnes. But here is the catch. That figure only considers the increase from enhanced extension activities, not the loss caused by selling farmland for construction.

The government’s other notable initiative is the building of more than 17,000 polyhouses so that the fruit can be grown in controlled, optimal conditions. Farmers bear 30 per cent of the cost of these, while the government puts in the rest. There is, however, no transparency in the manner in which eligible farmers are chosen. Also, before the building of polyhouses, farmers are made to sign agreements, drafted in English, which set out technical specifications for these nurseries. That automatically puts cultivators, with little or no knowledge of the language, at a disadvantage.

Rajendra Kuksal, a senior consultant of horticulture and agriculture, who had served for 15 years in the government in different capacities, traces the loss of the litchis to factors beyond Uttarakhand. When the Green Revolution started in the 1960s, the emphasis was on foreign varieties of crops, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and the like. The naturally fertile soil of the state reacted to these intrusions by losing its prized properties. “Nature has a way of balancing elements in a healthy manner. But once man started to impose his will, it was all thrown off balance,” he said.

Kuksal, a native of Pithoragarh, remembers the clockwork-like precision with which the rains would come down during his childhood. A steady drizzle would ensure that the water seeped into the ground and that the water table was maintained. That is long gone.

Mothrowala, the Dehradun suburb where Kuksal lives, was once known for the city’s other famous product―the aromatic, long-grained Basmati rice. Its fragrance marked the presence of the fields of rice long before they came into view. With the coming of the Green Revolution and the planting of a variety of crops/seeds in neighbouring fields, there was contamination of the original Basmati seed. “It is almost impossible that the endogenous variety would have survived. As a rule, there should not be different varieties/crops for at least a kilometre for the seed to remain uncontaminated. What sells in the market is not the original Basmati of Dehradun,” he said.

But that is a story for another day.