In the early 1990s, floriculture was recognised as a sunrise industry and was accorded 100 per cent export-oriented status. This enabled new floriculture units that were producing exclusively for exports to get several fiscal benefits, including income tax holiday and exemption from certain import duties. Yet, only a fraction of the total floriculture area of around 2.5 lakh hectares is under high-tech flower production in the protected environment of green houses. Much of the floriculture activity remains confined to growing fresh flowers in open fields for the domestic and export markets. Several formidable constraints prevent flower growers from realising adequate returns - high post-harvest losses, poor down-the-line infrastructure and inefficient marketing are some of the significant factors.
"Post-harvest management is the weakest link in commercial flower cultivation," maintains T Janakiram, head of the floriculture division of the New Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Nearly 25 per cent of the output is lost owing to poor handling. Facilities for grading, preliminary treatment to extend shelf life, and appropriate packaging are lacking. Simple tasks, such as the removal of excess foliage from flower stems and hydration of flowers after harvesting to prevent moisture loss and quality deterioration, are often overlooked. Besides, all kinds of odd modes of transport, including bus-tops and uncovered three- or four-wheelers, are used to carry flowers to the market. Export-oriented units usually have to make their own arrangements for grading, pre-cooling, cold stores and reefer vans for safe post-harvest upkeep and transportation of flowers.
More than 200 farms came up in the 1990s in response to government sops. Many of these farms were in the joint sector and received technical and marketing support from floriculture companies in the Netherlands and Israel. But several of them had to drop out owing to poor returns. The reasons included small farm sizes (the average was only four hectares); high capital costs; poor access to cheaper institutional finance; high marketing expenses (normally 30 per cent of the realisation); and tariff and non-tariff barriers, such as import duties, imposed by some European countries. The availability of new exotic varieties, which are given preference in the international market, too, is limited, since India is not a signatory to the UPOV convention on plant variety protection. Instead, the country has opted for its own law - the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001. However, avenues to boost profitability are not wholly lacking. "Innovation holds the key to create business opportunities," says Janakiram. Value addition is a notable one among them. Production of dry flowers, extraction of oils, manufacture of flower-based pharmaceutical and nutraceutical compounds, preparation of natural dyes, and crafting specialty products are some of the ways to produce value-added products to ensure higher prices and enhanced income from floriculture. The global demand for these products is rising at a robust annual rate of seven to 10 per cent. The floriculture wings of several institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and state agricultural universities are churning out better technologies for making these products.
Dry flowers, which are produced by dehydrating fresh flowers, account for nearly 60 per cent of floriculture exports. The share of other value-added items is rather meagre. The need, therefore, is to diversify into other high-value products to capture larger global market share and enhance profits. Oils extracted from flowers (rose and jasmine), for instance, fetch around Rs 1 lakh a kilogramme in the external market. The demand for these oils, too, is swelling fast, thanks to the growing popularity of aromatherapy to treat ailments. So is the demand for pharmaceuticals, such as catharanthin (derived from flowers of Catharanthus roseus), which is used to provide relief to cancer patients, and vitamin C isolated from rose fruit to cure scurvy.
Even potpourri (a mixture of dried, pleasant-scented flowers, leaves, seeds, stems and roots of flowering plants), which is a relatively simple value-boosted product used as a room freshener, is in great demand in the domestic and export markets. It is also gaining popularity as a gift item. Rose and marigold petals and lotus pods are predominant among the fragrant flowers that are used to prepare potpourries.
Exploiting such options can certainly improve profitability and speed up the sector's growth.