The mystery of Muthalamada’s shrinking mangoes

Erratic weather, insects, and harsh pesticides have all led to crop failure over the past five years in the hilly area of Palakkad district. The Hindu meets the farmers to understand what is at stake and their expectations of the government

March 14, 2024 11:58 pm | Updated March 15, 2024 07:57 am IST

Workers leaning mango at a stockyard at Muthalamada in Kerala’s Palakkad district.

Workers leaning mango at a stockyard at Muthalamada in Kerala’s Palakkad district. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

“It is like our lives, deprived and desolate,” mumbles K. Ashiq, a mango farmer in his mid-20s at Muthalamada in Palakkad district, Kerala, as he runs his fingers through a bunch of fallen mango buds in his orchard. His voice carries the angst and despair of the 500-odd mango farmers of the area known as Kerala’s ‘mango city’, as they are staring at the biggest crop loss ever since they turned to mango cultivation nearly four decades ago.  

In this hilly, dry land bordering Tamil Nadu, Ashiq has taken 2,000 mango trees across 40 acres on lease for the past decade. Crop loss has become a regular feature since 2018 — the adverse impact of unpredictable weather changes. Last year, the showers Muthalamada got in November and December dashed the expectations of farmers, who own or lease anything between two and 500 acres of land. The loss is so heavy that the farmers say they will be happy to get 15% yield in the current season. 

The weather in Kerala has been erratic since the floods of 2018, which saw largescale devastation and deaths across the State. Rains became untimely and summers, hotter in the past six years. This time around, unseasonal rain in the flowering time of the fruit played spoilsport.  

More than two-thirds of the 40,000-tonne yearly produce of mangoes from Muthalamada that ripen by January and February, the earliest variety of the season, reach the wholesale markets of Delhi, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad, the largest mango markets in the country.  

In Muthalamada, where the hot weather is ideal for mango, with temperatures going up to 40°C when it is winter in most of north India, flowering begins in November and mangoes are exported well ahead of harvesting in the other regions in the country. “It is this early harvesting that makes Muthalamada mangoes much in demand in the North,” says J.M. Hafees, a mango exporter. 

Muthalamada and its neighbouring villages — Elavanchery, Kollangode, Perumatti, Pattancheri, Vadakarapathy, Eruthempathy, Kozhinjampara, and Nallepilli — are all in the rain shadow, and mango-producing. Ten wards of Muthalamada panchayat alone have more than 4,000 hectares of orchards, and 90% of them lie to the south of the Pollachi-Vadakkanchery road. This is about 80% more than the other mango-producing villages. 

Shrinking mangoes and businesses 

A. Shaik Musthafa, a farmer-cum-trader, who has been in the business for 14 years, says it is the worst-ever season. “We used to get up to 15 tonnes of mangoes from an acre. Now I am afraid I won’t get even 300 kg from an acre,” he says. Musthafa’s annual returns from the plantation used to be about ₹5 crore, but he looks at a ballpark figure of ₹1 crore this season. According to the Mango Farmers and Merchants Welfare Association, mangoes in Muthalamada meant business worth ₹5,000 crore annually. This year, the farmers feel collective business will only come to about ₹500 crore. 

Muthalamada produces a wide variety of mangoes such as Alphonso, Banganapalli, Sindhooram, Totapuri or Kilimooku or Kilichundan, Kalapadi, Mallika, Naduselai, Neelam, Rumani, Malgoa, and Gudadath. However, Alphonso continues to be the leader, bringing two to three times the price of other varieties. Banganapalli, Sindhooram and Totapuri are the key varieties covering two-thirds of the total crop.

However, over the years there has been a dip in the quality and size of the mangoes. If three or four Sindhooram mangoes made up a kilo earlier, it takes up to six mangoes now, says Ashiq. Sindhooram, a variety grown in south India that has a sweet-tangy taste, was not in demand earlier, but has seen an increase in uptake up north over the past six years, says Ashiq.  

Combatting insect attacks 

Besides variable weather, massive attacks by pests and insects have scythed the fortunes of Muthalamada. As the attacks increased, there has been a concurrent increase in the use of pesticides, sometimes harsher ones, often beyond the permitted limits, as some of the farmers admit. Trees are flowering unevenly, forcing them to apply the chemicals in parts. 

A view from a mango orchard at Muthalamada in  Kerala’s Palakkad district.

A view from a mango orchard at Muthalamada in Kerala’s Palakkad district. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

“We are turning to the chemicals knowing well that they are deadly. But we have little choice. Pesticides are a must for our survival,” Ashiq says.  

Farmer-activist V.P. Nijamudheen says the banned pesticides include the dreaded endosulfan, linked to birth abnormalities in the village population close to the cashew plantations in Kasaragod district. These pesticides are illegally produced and smuggled in unlabelled containers from other States and are sprayed in secret. The use of endosulfan was prevalent at Muthalamada until it was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011. Although Kerala had banned endosulfan in 2005, it was available in other States until the Supreme Court imposed a pan-India ban. Some veteran farmers say that there’s still no pesticide as effective as endosulfan.  

The farmers agree that pesticide companies have made handsome profits from Muthalamada. A pesticide dealer, on condition of anonymity, says that the number of chemicals he sells in Muthalamada has increased manifold over the past four to five years. 

Many have been luring farmers by offering attractive credits. Farmers turn to those companies as they find no help from the Agriculture department. “The department has failed the farmers. There hasn’t been any effective intervention from the department. Nothing will happen even if the Krishi Bhavans [agricultural offices] are shut down for a year. They have become irrelevant,” says V. Mohan Kumar, general secretary of the Mango Farmers and Merchants Welfare Association (MFMWA) at Muthalamada.

“We have been able to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But I fail to understand how we have not learnt to control some visible pests, including thrips. That’s the failure of our Agriculture department,” he says vehemently. 

But Deputy Director of Horticulture Nizam S.A. says the department has been doing its best to help the farmers. “Scientists have identified mainly two types of pests in Muthalamada — planthoppers and thrips. They have a found a solution to the issue, and trials are currently on in Muthalamada,” says Nizam. He says a project to help the farmers export their produce to foreign countries by doing away with middlemen is on the anvil. “It can fetch a minimum 30% extra income for the farmers.” 

Although scientists and researchers from Kerala Agricultural University, Mannuthy, conducted several studies, they have failed to win the confidence of farmers. The dozen-odd orchards chosen by the scientists for their study in Muthalamada about two years ago still sport their boards. 

“The farmers don’t trust anyone. That’s perhaps why only 15 of them turned up when the Agriculture department convened a seminar here the other day,” says Nijamudheen. He is peeved that the department has always ignored the farmers’ demands. “Mango is still not considered an agricultural crop, and the farmers get no subsidy or compensation for crop loss,” Nijamudheen says. 

The farmers’ demand to appoint a special officer for Muthalamada has fallen on deaf ears, and the government’s promises of setting up a mango hub at Muthalamada has not been fulfilled. “It is the change in weather pattern that has upset Muthalamada. We are helpless about the untimely rains. Erratic weather has upset the flowering of trees,” says Nizam.  

According to Berin Pathrose, entomologist from the College of Agriculture, Vellanikkara, who studied the thrips attack at Muthalamada a few years ago, a holistic approach is needed to address the crisis. “Excessive application of pesticides can kill the natural enemy population of pests. An integrated pest management approach is needed for Muthalamada,” he says. He attributes the abnormal flowering of mango trees in the past five years to an increase in the presence of thrips.  

Abraham Thomas, a scientist who studied the pest attacks of Muthalamada about 10 years ago, suggests that the farmers install pheromone pest traps. Although 10,000 such traps were arranged for distribution, the idea did not find traction and farmers continued to increasingly fall back on the assurances of pesticide manufacturers. “We still don’t know how thrips came here. We never had that menace until five years ago. We even suspect that it came through some chemical,” says Shaik Musthafa.  

The farmers agree that mindless application of plant growth enhancers such as cultar, too, has contributed to the crop fall. If applied excessively and carelessly, cultar can destroy mango trees. A plantation near Chulliyar Dam recently withered away due to careless hormonal application, says Nijamudheen. Some farmers who take the plantations on lease resort to cultar application secretly as plantation owners oppose it.

Muthalamada in limelight

Locals say that Muthalamada shot to fame as a mango country thanks to a fruit trader from Palakkad named Abdul Azeez. “We remember him whenever we talk of mangoes,” says Nijamudheen. Equipped with the knowledge he acquired from other States as a trader, Azeez bought a dozen-odd acres at Muthalamada and planted budded mango saplings in the eighties. In five years, he started getting a good yield. Although many others followed Azeez’s path, some failed. 

Some farmers have mortgaged their orchards to the traders who control the wholesale markets in north India. This is a trap some of them have walked into, says Nijamudheen. “Muthalamada is silent now, like a funeral home,” says Mohan Kumar. 

Every February and March, the 100-odd sheds in the Kamprath Challa area in Muthalamada would bustle with farmers, agents, and traders. When crates of mangoes would flow into the sheds from the orchards during the day, workers would be busy packing them at night. It would be a festive season for Muthalamada. But today, the mango sheds are almost deserted. And the farmers are despondent. 

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