Bastar’s experiment with papaya bears fruit

In Tirathgarh village of southern Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, 43 members of a women’s self-help group are making profit from horticulture. The papaya initiative had started after the intervention of the Bastar district administration which was keen to offer new livelihood opportunities to the rural poor. A report by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

On the verandah of a whitewashed two-room structure littered with paper, four to five men are engaged in packing freshly plucked papaya fruits on a humid afternoon interrupted by light rainfall from time to time.
The men talk and laugh among themselves to break the monotony of weighing, grading and sorting the fruits, before wrapping them in spotless white sheets, ready to be despatched to nearby urban markets for consumption. They have much work to finish before the evening sets in as several yellow plastic crates loaded with papaya fruits have to be cleared off within a short time.

In Bastar district’s Tirathgarh village nearby the famous waterfall of the same name frequented by countless tourists, papaya plantation has given a new lease of life to rural women who had no idea of horticulture before this. They relied on paddy cultivation during the monsoon season.

A few metres away from where the men are sitting, women can be seen bringing crates full of sweet ripe papaya fruits, trudging along a gravelly road.
One of the women, Lachhandi Nag, gave a wide smile on being approached. She was taking a break with two others after a hard day’s work. Pointing out the neat rows of papaya plants growing nearby, she informed that there are 5,500 ones in the area covering 10 acres.

A total of 43 women are involved in this initiative through a self-help group known as the Maa Danteshwari Papita Utpadak Samiti. “The fruits are mostly sent to state capital Raipur or district headquarters of Bastar, Jagdalpur, where there is high demand,” she said.

A novel initiative

Tirathgarh comes under Darbha block of Bastar and the exact name of the locality is Kotwarpara where the papaya initiative started a year back, said Kamli Nag busy looking for ripe fruits. Women also come from two other areas, Parmapara and Karkakpara to work in the orchard.
“It was a barren land covered with infertile soil. Before starting the plantation drive, the women of our group had a lot of cleaning up to do. Ploughing yielded a lot of heavy rocks which were removed with the help of tractors brought from outside,” she added.

Every afternoon fresh fruits are packed and loaded in trucks for sale in urban areas. “This is proving to be a good source of income for rural women like us,” Kamli Nag added, choosing not to pluck an unripe fruit while talking.

“Before launching this venture, women of our self-help group were taken on an inspection visit to other farms for learning in September last year. Small plants brought from outside were given to us for plantation and all of us carried out the work together starting November 2020. Till now, there has been an earning worth Rs 13 lakh on the part of Maa Danteshwari group,” Hema Kashyap, who is the secretary, said.

The profit comes to the group account. Later, individual payments would be made through cheques. Prices of papaya depend on sizes: the small ones cost Rs 20, medium-sized fruits are worth Rs 30-35 and the big ones cost Rs 50.

Kashyap added that the 10-acre land has been extended to the group for a decade but the women would request for an extension in the land area once the tenure is over. “All of us are keen on it and do not want to leave this venture,” she said. Talking about the packaging, she informed that the fruits are wrapped in white paper ordered from Raipur to preserve the shine and freshness as newspapers leave black marks on the fruit skin.

A new horizon
The papaya initiative started after the intervention of the Bastar district administration which was keen to offer new livelihood opportunities to the rural poor.
Papaya does not require much water and drip irrigation is sufficient for it. However, mulching is needed to control the growth of weeds. The rows of raised beds on which the plants have been grown are covered with white plastic sheets as part of the mulching process. This ensures soil moisture retention and improved fertility.

General Manager Sudiip Agarawaal of VNR Seeds Pvt Ltd, a company based in Raipur, said farmers from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are on an exposure visit to Bastar to learn about the successful papaya farming in the district.

“This is the first time papaya is being cultivated on a large-scale in Bastar though in the past a few farmers had experimented with it. The government is leading an initiative on 30 acres and some progressive farmers are doing it on 120 acres in Bastar,” Agarawaal said. As the women could not have afforded it on their own, the government supported them at Tirathgarh, he added.

Besides papaya, many fruits are being grown in Jagdalpur like guava and custard apple. To make the papaya initiative successful, soil was brought from outside to support cultivation. The Bastar Kisan Kalyan Sangh was roped in for training the women farmers.

India is the largest producer of papaya having more than 38 percent share in the world production. Though the Red Lady variety from Taiwan is generally preferred, in Tirathgarh the fruits belong to VNR Ameena variety suitable for Indian conditions. The fruits are elongated and sweet in taste with more pulp.