India has consistently exported more than 90% of her produce to Bangladesh, while Nepal imports around 3 %; remaining is despatched to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Singapore with occasional, negligible supplies to Russia, the U.K., and Spain. From 2012-13 onwards the exports are on the decline. In 2012-13, the exports were 33628.13 MT, which came down to 28236.55 MT in 2013-14 and to 17231.45 MT in 2014-15, almost halving in these three years.
Like all fresh produce supply chains, orange supply chain faces numerous risks; the most important risk is at the base of the chain, during farming in the orchard. With buddings planted in half-meter square pits at a gap of around 5 to 6 metres, an orchard of one hectare can easily contain on average 450 trees, growing to a height of 10 metres. Being a citrus fruit, the orange crop is water intensive than other non-citrus types: daily, a young orange tree, one to four-years old, may need 5 to 15 litres of water; a middle tree, five to eight years-old, may require anything between 35 to 100 litres and a mature tree can guzzle between 60 and 100 litres.
In Vidharbha, a region suffering from water shortage, orange orchards cover roughly around 1.36 lakh hectares, involving 70,000 farmers. Growing oranges in water-starved region has been similar to growing rice in Punjab with all its detrimental effects on water table. Since the mad rush for orange cultivation in 1970s, the water table in the area has dipped steadily as orchard owners dug borewells. Drip irrigation seems the nostrum at the moment, but not all farmers have the capital and knowhow to adapt to it.
After planting an orange orchard, a farmer is subject to the vicissitudes of weather, government policies and market, all forces beyond his control.
Every few years or so, newer form of pests have attacked the orange trees; many growers and agricultural scientists link it to excessive use of chemicals, water logging and monoculture in the orchards. To add to the woes, the weather gods also do not appear propitiated. If, this year, untimely rains all over India wreaked havoc on crops—orange orchards were no exception—then five years ago, relentless heat took a heavy toll. In the summer of 2010, millions of trees died, when the temperatures remained above 46 degrees for a month, wiping out a quarter of the crop.
Last year, as a safeguard, the state government started a Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme (WBCIS), mandatory for all who had taken loans but the duration was too short and scope of weather related risks too narrow. The farmers considered the premium too high for a scheme that did not include two major concerns, hail-storm and epidemics, in the risk.
From fourth year onwards after planting, an orange tree starts bearing fruit though the yield is not substantial at the time and it is only until the tenth year that the yield is fullest, lasting another 10 to 15 years. And much can go wrong in a decade. Having a bad experience, some have shifted to other cash crops.
Multiple channels exist in the marketing of oranges: the exporters contact the farmers through their representatives; for domestic supply, the orchard owners sell it to the retailers; or the fruit reaches the consumers via the traditional channel comprising wholesalers, commission agents, and retailers. Many owners also auction the farms to pre-harvest contractors.
This time the orange harvest is plentiful by a quirk of nature: moderate summers and sporadic bursts of rains this year led to early flowering of the mrig crop, which comes late in February, in the present ambia season that started in November.
For now, there seem to be not many takers for oranges, foreign or domestic. A major importer, Bangladesh doubled the customs duty from Rs. 20 a kilogram, a year ago; Nepal reels under a logistics blockade; Southern India is ravaged by floods. Inadequate transport and storage facilities for a perishable product only add to the woes. Orange growers associations have been clamouring for a floor price by fixing an MSP, but that is most unlikely, least because of variation in quality.
Collaboration among various partners in supply chain—a cliché— is conspicuous by its absence in case of oranges. Power asymmetry in this chain is extreme, much like any other food supply chain. The traders and the middlemen make disproportionate gains to the value added by them. Local newspapers report that the fruit which farmers sell at five rupees a kilogram, consumers purchase at ten times the price.
Nagpurians often complain that they hardly get to see the export quality in the local market, though this is true for all fruit that is exported, say, alphonso mangoes. By the measure of value in the overall basket of exports or domestic trade, oranges do not amount to much, though they have great potential. The number of people, however, earning a livelihood in the supply chain are too significant to be reduced to a statistic.
And the orange colour has to do as much with man as with nature. Applying a chemical, ethrel, by mixing small portions with water, barely a week before the harvest, removes the greenish hue and imparts an orange colour to the fruit. Strengthening the orange supply chain, however, would demand even more effort from man than nature.
Prashant K Singh is a logistics and supply chain management professional with the Indian Air Force. The views are personal.
He tweets as @ZenPK