Consider these facts. In terms of size, India's citrus industry ranks fourth in the world. But its output is less than one-tenth of global production. Citrus acreage has expanded at a robust 9.3 per cent a year in the past three and half decades. But production has grown at a relatively lower rate of 7.8 per cent. Worse still, India's share in the international citrus trade is insignificant. Only some small consignments of kinnows produced in the non-traditional citrus belt of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are exported to the neighbouring countries.
Clearly, there is something seriously wrong with the country's citrus industry. Meagre exports are attributed partly to large domestic demand - which is understandable - but largely to substandard quality of the produce - which is worrisome. While the demand abroad is for seedless fruit, most of India's citrus products have copious seeds, whether they are oranges (mandarins), sweet oranges (Musambi) or acid lime (Niboo). The fruit colour, too, is an issue in the global bazaar.
Going by experts of the Nagpur-based National Research Centre for Citrus (NRCC), situated in the heart of the country's key citrus bowl of Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the causes for low productivity are many and vary from region to region. The ones that are common to most areas include steady decline of citrus plantations due to neglect and plant diseases; poor soil quality owing to salinity or presence of sub-surface impervious layer; indifferent water and plant nutrient management; poor plant protection cover; and paucity of good planting material.
The Nagpur citrus belt, famed for its tasty oranges with loose, easy-to-peal skin, is also not free of general neglect of the orchards. Besides, water scarcity and high clay content of the soils are proving a major bane of citrus farming. Additionally, pests such as citrus blackfly (Kolshi), citrus-psylla and mites, and several viral diseases constitute the other formidable scourges plaguing this sector here.
Incredibly, the once famous Coorg mandarin of Karnataka is now heading for extinction. Apart from diseases, notably the "greening disease", competition from other relatively more lucrative plantation crops such as coffee and small cardamom is also pushing orange cultivation to the margins in this area.
Likewise, the entire Khasi mandarin belt in the north-east, once well-known for the unique quality of its citrus produce, is now facing rapid degradation of its plantations. Water management is a major problem in citrus orchards, especially those planted on steep slopes. The existence of thick forests around these plantations, moreover, impedes their proper care and management.
The citrus industry in the agriculturally progressive northwestern zone is of recent origin and is dominated by kinnow farming. However, the growers find it hard to cope with the huge demand of water and plant nutrients by the innately heavy fruit-bearing kinnow trees. Besides, the steadily worsening deficiency of soil micronutrients, such as sodium, calcium, iron, manganese, copper and zinc, is posing additional problems for the orchard owners.
These are the issues that need to be addressed through technology development and other strategies, feels NRCC director M S Ladaniya. However, the availability of healthy and superior quality seeding material is the fundamental and most critical prerequisite for putting the citrus industry on a sound footing, he maintains. "Mother plants infected with viral diseases are the main carriers of diseases even in those orchards which are raised through grafting", he emphasises.
The NRCC runs one of the best managed nurseries. It deploys the most advanced and globally acclaimed techniques to churn out seeding material of good quality and pedigreed citrus trees for supplying to public and private nurseries for further multiplication. It is also training the state horticulture department officials and citrus growers in good agronomic practices for nursery and orchard management. Besides, it holds demonstrations on the farmers' fields to show techniques to not only stem ongoing degeneration of citrus gardens but, more so, to rejuvenate them.
However, these efforts will pay off only if the state horticulture departments and other agencies vigorously promote the technologies and orchard management practices being evolved by the researchers. The private citrus industry, including the private nurseries, too, can contribute to this effort.