Litchi is one of those fruits that don't get as much attention as they should. It has substantial export potential, much of which remains untapped. Its domestic marketing, too, is riddled with formidable problems - primarily because of its transient shelf life - which are detrimental to both the producers and consumers.
India enjoys some inherent advantages over other major litchi exporting countries in terms of geographic location and the timing of the fruit availability. Besides, the country also grows some good quality litchis with distinct flavour and high pulp-to-stone ratio, which are preferred in foreign markets. Indian litchis are harvested between mid-April and June-end when good quality stuff is not available from any other litchi exporting country, barring Thailand. It doesn't, therefore, have to compete with countries such as Madagascar, South Africa and Australia, where the litchi crop is marketed between November and February. Nor does it need to vie with Israel, where litchi is harvested from July to October. This leaves the vast litchi markets in the Gulf and Europe for India to exploit, especially during the summer.
However, a lot of constraints need to be overcome to enhance India's share in the global litchi market as also to improve its domestic trade. Thanks to its highly perishable nature, litchi needs specialised handling and transportation to ensure its prompt marketing and consumption. The paucity of infrastructure of roads, cold stores, reefer vans and other components of the cold chain management is one of the biggest hurdles in the smooth internal and external trade of litchi. Experts from the Muzaffarpur (Bihar)-based National Research Centre on Litchi (NRCL) feel that these problems need immediate attention. There is also a need for pack-houses at or near airports for the proper pre-shipment treatment of export consignments. The other limiting factors include poor pre- and post-harvest fruit handling at the field level and the unavailability of reliable market intelligence to the producers.
Commercial production of litchi has traditionally been confined to areas such as Bihar, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Jharkhand. Bihar alone, in fact, accounts for nearly half of the country's total litchi output. In recent years, litchi cultivation has begun to spread to non-traditional litchi growing areas such as Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura and Odisha. Moreover, some of these states have recorded higher crop productivity than that in the conventional litchi belt. The average per hectare output of litchi in Punjab in 2012-13, for instance, was estimated at over 15 tonnes, which was almost double of the output in Bihar. Besides, litchi grown in the Gurdaspur and Hoshiarpur areas of Punjab can be exported from the international airport in Amritsar.
It is possible to extend litchi farming to more areas, as also to stretch the duration of its market availability, by promoting its cultivation in the south. Extensive surveys and studies carried out by the litchi research workers have revealed that its commercial production is feasible in the relatively higher altitude regions (over 900 metres above sea level) in states such as Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Significantly, the output from these regions will hit the markets in the months of December and January when this fruit is not available from the north. Areas such as Medkari in Karnataka, Wayanad and Idukki in Kerala and Araku in Andhra Pradesh have been found suitable for growing off-season (winter) litchis. Promotion of better agronomic techniques can help these areas produce litchis of quality comparable to - and, in some cases, even better than - that of the north. This will augment the availability of litchi for exports and domestic sales in the off-season.
All this is, however, subject to the removal of crippling handicaps in the trade and external shipment of litchis. The need is to cut down the time lag between the picking of the fruits from the fields and their landing at the consumers' dining tables - be it India or abroad. This will also help reduce the post-harvest losses, which are currently as high as 20 to 25 per cent.