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Chhattisgarh's Kanker district, which has been infamous for Naxal violence, is turning out to be a custard apple production hub thereby transforming lives of villagers, particularly tribals, of the region.
Located in northern part of Bastar division, Kanker, around 150 kms away from here, has recorded a huge production of roughly 6,000 tonnes of custard apple (popularly known in Hindi as 'sitaphal') this year, as per local officials.
"Although, thousands of farmers in the district have been traditionally involved in the collection and sale of Sitafal, but it was in an unorganised manner and therefore they failed to reap profit from the fruit," Kanker Collector Shammi Abidi told PTI.
In a unique initiative by the district administration that could well serve as a model for villages across the country, the village womenfolk, traditionally involved in collection and selling of Sitaphal fruit, were brought together in an organised manner and trained in efficient collection and effective marketing so that they could get the best possible returns on the produce without being exploited at the hands of middlemen.
More than 900 members of FPC (forest protection committees) and SHGs (self-help groups) are intensely involved in the project and about 4,000 farmers are directly benefited through this initiative.
As on October 30 this year, 20,278 boxes (each containing 1.5 kg) of custard apple were sold at the average selling rate of Rs 60 per box, earning a profit of Rs 30 per box, the collector said.
Besides, pulp extraction and its preservation through anti-browning technology is also being done by setting up 10 pulping centres in the district.
So far, 3,165 kgs of pulp has been extracted by producer groups which is priced at Rs 200 per kg, leading to a profit of Rs 140 per kg, she said.
At least 155 farmers are involved in direct marketing of fruits in Raipur and Durg/Bhilai, she pointed out.
Giving details on how the project was conceived, Abidi said earlier, the tribals who collect custard apples - a highly perishable fruit with low shelf life - sold it at a throwaway price of Rs 4 per kg to the 'kochias' (middle men) or at the local markets.
Subsequently, the district administration took up the project last year on experimental basis to mobilise the farmers and assist them in scientific upkeep of trees bearing this fruit and better marketing.
They were made aware of different avenues of the fruit marketing and, over and above, establishing a brand in the name of 'Kanker Valley Fresh' custard apple, she said.
The survey and mapping of fruit trees were conducted by Agriculture, Horticulture and Revenue Departments.
"The survey helped in identifying 16,000 farmers who were involved in collection and sale of the fruits through more than 3.17 lakh Sitaphal trees. The trees in the age category of 4-12 years were also located as these usually bear fruits which have more commercial value," the collector said.
Moreover, officers and farmers were also sent on an exposure tour to Maharashtra and Rajasthan to study the prospects of production and marketing of custard apple and its processed products, she said.
The women farmers were then organised into two broad categories - one as production, collection, grading and packaging groups while another as pulp producer groups.
"This project has helped in uplifting the lives of marginalised farmers living in the area and has been a different experience altogether. They are learning tricks in this business and may not be as professional as others, but this exercise has at least given them confidence that they can compete in the market," the collector pointed out.
A germplasm bank of the fruit is also being developed in Kanker to encourage its commercial cultivation in the district and other parts of the state.
Jeewan Lal Nag, Assistant Professor at College of Agriculture at Kanker, said, "The germplasm of Sitaphal has been collected to conserve its varieties found in different parts of the district - Kanker, Bhanupratppur, Antagarh, Charama, Durgkondal development blocks."
Of these, 5-6 rich germplasm of custard apple, having traits like more pulp, less seeds, thin outer layer and heavy in weight, have been identified and selected for commercial cultivation, he said.
It has been decided to plant saplings of the selected high variety germplasm next year in other districts, mainly in Raipur, Mahasamund, Raigarh and Bilaspur to assess its performance so that the variety of custard apple found in Kanker could be propagated to other places and its commercial production undertaken in a scientific way, Nag said.
Though custard apple is also being produced in other districts, Kanker has recorded its highest production.
The custard apple found in Bastar region, including Bijapur, Dantewada and Kondagaon districts other than Kanker, is rich in taste and pulp content, said Nag, who is engaged in a specialised research on the fruit, said.