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Known worldwide for its Darjeeling tea, West Bengal is now making its first foray into coffee cultivation, courtesy a joint initiative by the state government and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT-KGP).
The brainchild of the West Bengal Comprehensive Area Development Corporation (WBCADC), with the IIT's Science and Technology Entrepreneurs Park (STEP) providing the technical knowhow, the pilot project envisages tea and coffee cultivation on the picturesque Ayodhya Hills in Purulia district.
Known for its diversified flora and fauna, Ayodhya Hills, which stretches up to 610 metres, is an extension of the Dalma Hills of Jharkhand and is about 260 km from Kolkata.
With the broad objective of turning the area into a tourism hub on the lines of Darjeeling, 11 acres of land in Kumari Kanan is being readied for cultivating tea and coffee.
"The plan is to turn Ayodhya Hills into a tourism hub on the lines of Darjeeling where tourism and the tea industry go hand in hand. Besides augmenting tourism, the aim is to create an alternate livelihood for the people. Once the project is successful, we will substantially enhance the cultivation area," WBCADC (Purulia-Bankura) chairman Subhashis Batabyal told IANS.
The services of the STEP-affiliated Eco Yes Technologies, which specialises in cultivation of tea and coffee in non-traditional areas, are being roped in for the project.
"At the IIT, we have been working on mastering the art of growing tea and coffee in non-traditional areas and we are using the same technology here. While the emphasis is more on growing tea, this is the first time coffee is being commercially cultivated in Bengal," project head Soumen Palit told IANS.
Incidentally, the WBCADC, jointly with the West Bengal Tea Development Corporation, had initiated a tea cultivation project in the area in 1997 but it failed to take off for want of technological expertise.
"The pilot project had started off well but then it faded away due to unavailability of suitable technology. But now we have all the know-how and we are confident of realising the objective of turning it into a tea and coffee hub," said Palit, who has years of research on agricultural biotechnology, tea science and sustainable farming.
With investment of an estimated Rs. 2-3 lakh ($3,350-5,000) per acre, Palit said tea and coffee plants were chosen for cultivation because of their continuous yield.
"A tea plant is evergreen while a coffee plant grows for 50-70 years; so the investment is only in the initial stage. Once the area of cultivation is expanded, there are also plans to set up processing and packaging units," added Palit.
Ayodhya Hills, home to several scenic spots like the Gorshabru as also the Purulia Pump Storage Project - a hydel plant - and several waterfalls, had lost some of its sheen among tourists due to Maoist violence over the years.
Having established peace in the area, the government is now hoping to piggyback the project to turn it into a tourism hub.
"The place is a big hit among mountaineers and explorers as well as tourists. Besides, there is a rich cultural heritage, and we have plans to introduce tea tourism and festivals much like in Darjeeling," added Batabyal.
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at email@example.com)