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Makhana Cultivation Woes Hit Farmers in Bihar

In a region renowned for its Makhana (Fox Nuts) production, the agricultural landscape is facing challenges as farmers grapple with mounting debts. Makhana, hailed as a superfood due to its rich nutrient content, has found its stronghold in India, with Bihar being the epicenter of its cultivation.

tanzil asif Reported By Tanzil Asif |
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In a region renowned for its Makhana (Fox Nuts) production, the agricultural landscape is facing challenges as farmers grapple with mounting debts. Makhana, hailed as a superfood due to its rich nutrient content, has found its stronghold in India, with Bihar being the epicenter of its cultivation.

Nutritional Praise for Makhana

Dr. Vidyanath Jha, a former professor at CM Science College, Darbhanga, praised the nutritional profile of Makhana, stating, “It contains minimal fat, boasts high-quality protein, and achieves an impressive Essential Amino Acid Index (EAA index) of approximately 90. Comparable to fish and meat in terms of nutritional value, it also provides top-notch starch and has established its efficacy in supporting anti-diabetic properties.”

India dominates the global Makhana production, contributing over 80% of the total output, with Bihar accounting for more than 80% of that. Specifically, Makhana cultivation in Bihar is concentrated in four districts of Seemanchal: Purnia, Katihar, Kishanganj, and Araria.

Recognizing the significance of Makhana, the Government of India granted a Geographical Indication (GI) tag to ‘Mithila Makhana’ in August 2020, signifying its unique regional identity.

Makhana Farming Challenges in Bihar

Despite the promise of Makhana farming, some farmers are facing financial hardship. Deep Narayan Yadav, a resident of Bishanpur Bahadur within the Pipra Panchayat of Banmankhi block in Purnia district, invested three years into Makhana cultivation but now finds himself burdened by crippling debts. To mitigate his losses, he has opted to scale down his Makhana cultivation this season, reducing his land usage from 10 bighas to just three bighas.

Yadav expressed his struggles, saying, “Three years ago, when I started cultivating fox nuts, I invested 2-3 lakh rupees, all of which I had borrowed. Regrettably, I am still burdened by these debts. I could earn back only 1.5 lakh rupees in that. Last year, I undertook cultivation on 10 bighas of land and invested a substantial 7-8 lakh rupees. Unfortunately, all the crops perished.”

Rikabganj, a farming community known for its agricultural pursuits, is grappling with the challenges of Makhana (Fox Nuts) cultivation. Uttam Lal Das, a farmer who had invested significantly in Makhana farming last year, has since abandoned the endeavor due to substantial losses. He opted to return to cultivating paddy crops.

Das explained, “I cultivated fox nuts last year, but I have since discontinued that endeavor. I am cultivating rice and various other crops. When fox nuts receive an ample supply of water, their grain size tends to increase. Conversely, if the same crop receives less water but more sunlight, the grain size may diminish. Larger grains fetch a better price and contribute to increased overall weight, but the yield rarely exceeds 2-3 quintals per bigha. The initial investment is around 20,000-30,000 rupees, and an additional 20,000 rupees go to the landowners. Laborers charge 50 rupees per kilogram for their services. The total cost amounts to approximately 50,000-60,000 rupees. What price do you sell it for? If the market conditions are favorable, the selling price can reach Rs. 18,000-19,000. However, at times, it may drop to as low as Rs. 4,000-5,000.”

Baleshwar Mandal, one of the most experienced Makhana farmers in the Banmankhi area, has been cultivating Makhana for approximately 23 years. However, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the Makhana farming industry, stating, “This year’s yield is better than last year, yet it is not able to recover the cost amount. Presently, we obtain approximately 2-2.5 quintals of produce per bigha, but the expenses add up to 60,000 rupees. Unfortunately, the government seems to be inactive in addressing this issue. We expanded our cultivation last year to cover 30-40 bighas. The investment was substantial due to the need for three to four rounds of weeding, ploughing, and fertilizers. The current pricing isn’t very favorable, although even the existing rates are somewhat acceptable.”

Raj Kumar Mandal, the son of Baleshwar, revealed that their family is burdened by a debt of Rs 20-25 lakh. This financial strain has forced them to reduce their Makhana cultivation, and regrettably, the crop yield in their fields has fallen short of expectations. Raj Kumar mentioned that last year, the price of Makhana plummeted from Rs 14,000-15,000 per quintal to a mere Rs 2,000-2,500 per quintal.

“Last year, anyone engaged in fox nut cultivation experienced a substantial setback, setting them back financially by five years. The losses incurred were significant, with the market rate plummeting to Rs. 2,000-2,500 per quintal. However, the required investment remained consistently high, around Rs. 50,000-60,000 per bigha. It got sold at Rs. 2000 per quintal. Even with an estimated yield of 4 quintals per bigha, the earnings amounted to only Rs. 10,000 per bigha. If you were to consult any fox nut farmer, you would be hard-pressed to find one who is not burdened by a debt ranging from 5 to 10 lakh rupees.”

‘Sabour Makhana-1’ and Government Initiatives

In response to the enduring challenges faced by farmers in the Makhana (Fox Nuts) industry, the Bhola Paswan Shastri Agricultural College, nestled in Kasba within Purnia district, initiated groundbreaking research. The fruits of their labor culminated in the development of an enhanced Makhana variety, known as ‘Sabour Makhana-1,’ in 2015.

Dr. Paras Nath, the Principal of the college, lauded the potential of ‘Sabour Makhana-1,’ suggesting that it has the capability to double crop yields. He elaborated, “During our extensive evaluation of various germ plasms, we identified one particular germ plasm that exhibited remarkably high production capacity. This exceptional germ plasm, now officially named ‘Sabour Makhana-1,’ not only displayed an impressive yield capacity of 32 to 35 quintals per hectare but also boasted a significantly higher pop recovery rate. In contrast, the average production in our region using local seed varieties hovers around 20 to 21 quintals per hectare. Furthermore, local seed varieties typically yield approximately 35 to 40 kg of pop per quintal, equating to a pop recovery rate of 35 to 40%. However, ‘Sabour Makhana-1’ stands out with its remarkable pop recovery rate of 55 to 60%, doubling the profitability. To encourage Makhana cultivation, the Bihar government has introduced the Makhana Development Scheme.”

This initiative offers substantial subsidies, amounting to as much as 75 percent, to farmers willing to embrace ‘Sabour Makhana-1’ as a game-changing solution. Within the framework of the Makhana Development Scheme, farmers have the opportunity to acquire ‘Sabour Makhana-1′ seeds directly from Bhola Paswan Shastri Agricultural College.

Dr. Paras Nath explained the subsidy process, stating, “We provide a generous 75% subsidy per hectare, significantly reducing the overall cost. For a single hectare, the approximate cost amounts to Rs 97,000. Out of this amount, the government extends a subsidy of Rs 72,000, which is transferred directly into the farmers’ bank accounts. The selection process for participating farmers is conducted online by the Assistant Director of Research in each district. Once the list of eligible farmers is compiled, the seeds are distributed from Bhola Paswan Shastri Agricultural College. Farmers cultivate accordingly, and after due verification, the grant amount is disbursed directly into their accounts.”

Presently, this scheme is accessible to farmers in ten districts of Bihar, including Katihar, Purnia, Madhubani, Kishanganj, Supaul, Araria, Madhepura, Saharsa, Darbhanga, and Khagaria. Farmers, like Chinmayanand Singh from Srinagar, Purnia, are reaping the rewards of adopting ‘Sabour Makhana-1.’

Chinmayanand Singh shared his experience, saying, “I cultivate ‘Sabour Makhana-1’ on approximately 8 acres of land. This high-performance variety has been developed by Bhola Paswan Shastri Agricultural College. I am the sole farmer in this region who utilizes this seed, and I am extremely satisfied with the results. I’ve observed other farmers using the wild variety in this area, but I haven’t experimented with it personally. There is a minor variance in yield between ‘Sabour Makhana-1’ and the wild variety, although it’s not substantial. However, the grains of ‘Sabour Makhana-1’ are slightly larger. Local residents, those who have adopted the seeds from me, and my own observations suggest that the seeds are somewhat larger, but it’s uncertain whether this translates into larger pop during processing. But its grains are larger, it might also result in an overall increase in weight. Under optimal conditions on a one-hectare plot, you can anticipate a yield of approximately 25 to 27 quintals, which is consistent with my experience with ‘Sabour Makhana-1.’ Although scientists suggest that even higher yields can be attained.”

Market Manipulation

Nonetheless, a pertinent question arises: what events unfolded last year, leading Makhana farmers to accumulate debts amounting to lakhs? Some farmers attribute the dire situation to insufficient rainfall, which caused their fields to wither, ultimately diminishing the quality of Makhana. On the other hand, some point to the sudden surge in Makhana production last year as the primary cause of plummeting prices. However, experts argue that specific traders deliberately manipulated the Makhana market.

“In the past year, there was a noticeable spike in Makhana cultivation. Initially, only 100 farmers were engaged in this practice, but an additional 500 joined in. Despite the increased production, a viable market was absent, and buyers were scarce. Consequently, Makhana had to be sold at a rate of Rs. 2000-2500 per quintal,” explained Raj Kumar Mandal.

“A significant number of Makhana farms experienced drought conditions, resulting in a decline in the quality of the yield. Consequently, potential buyers were reluctant to make purchases at higher prices, fearing subpar quality and the absence of compensation in case of quality issues,” claimed farmer Chinmayanand Singh.

“Last year, a group of individuals attempted to create a deceptive appearance of surplus Makhana production, disrupting the acquisition of the final product. The forward linkage, involving influential figures and significant players, intentionally delayed the procurement of Makhana. Their motive was to artificially depress the prices, knowing that farmers could not store the seeds in the fields, and the entities responsible for processing the final product lacked the necessary storage capacity. This concerted effort led to the deliberate reduction of prices,” stated Dr. Paras Nath.

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Call for a Makhana Growers Association

Dr. Paras Nath advocates for the establishment of a ‘Makhana Growers Association’ to shield farmers from price fluctuations. He believes that this collaborative effort would empower farmers to collectively set Makhana prices, reducing their vulnerability to market fluctuations.

“Farmers in every district must come together and establish a Farmer Producer Organization dedicated to Makhana. Similarly, they should collaborate to create processing units. Moreover, by uniting and forming a Makhana Growers Association, they can autonomously determine the price of their produce. They can collectively decide not to sell below a fair price. If farmers endorse and adhere to these principles, it is indeed possible to protect themselves from the artificial factors that drive prices down,” emphasized Dr. Paras Nath.

GI Tag Recognition

On August 14, 2020, ‘Mithila Makhana’ received a prestigious Geographical Indication (GI) tag. The GI tag signifies that this specific variety of Makhana is exclusively cultivated in a designated geographical area.

The primary purpose of the GI tag is to safeguard the distinct identity, cultural heritage, and reputation of products originating from a specific region, preventing counterfeiting and unauthorized use.

Dr. Vidyanath Jha, a former professor at CM Science College in Darbhanga, highlighted the significance of the GI tag, saying, “The GI tag represents a significant development, as it has effectively addressed the absence of records regarding foreign exports. With the introduction of an export code following the GI tag implementation, a comprehensive record now exists, tracking the quantity of Makhana exports and their destinations.

The GI tag plays a vital role in safeguarding intellectual property rights for products originating from specific geographical locations. For instance, when it comes to the local fishermen or cooperative farming systems in the area, the GI tag ensures that the local community reaps the benefits.

Every product will be officially recognized as Mithila Makhana. In the past, people used to source Makhana from this region but export it through intermediaries in places like Indore or Haryana, often leaving local farmers with limited benefits. Now, accountability is significantly enhanced.”
Challenges in ‘Lava’ Production

However, the Makhana story extends beyond the farmers as members of the Mallah community from Darbhanga and Madhubani are actively involved in the transformation of Makhana into a valuable product known as “lava.” This intricate process results in a marketable commodity, and those who specialize in lava production are referred to as “Phodi.” Thousands of Phodis, along with their families, from Darbhanga and Madhubani are engaged in these activities in the Purnia and Katihar regions.

Dr. Vidyanath Jha explained, “The Mallah (fishermen) community, hailing from Darbhanga and Madhubani, has a longstanding tradition of expertise in lava production. Their traditional practices involve integrated aquaculture of fox nuts and fishing. Even in Purnia and Katihar, fishermen from Darbhanga-Madhubani are handling this. This proficiency extends to regions beyond Bihar, such as West Bengal’s Malda. However, Katihar serves as a central hub where seeds are sourced from the northeastern part of the state. In essence, the fishermen community from Darbhanga and Madhubani are renowned experts in this field.”

Vijay Sahni, a resident of Darbhanga, plays a crucial role in mobilizing approximately 150 laborers to Purnia for this work. Mantosh Sahni and Bhola Sahni, also from Darbhanga, are engaged in farming alongside their families in the Harda region of Purnia district.

Vijay Sahni elaborated, “My role entails recruiting laborers from Darbhanga for employment in Purnia. We don’t remunerate them on a daily basis; their earnings are directly tied to the amount of lava they produce. Profit or loss is not a factor in determining their pay. We exclusively select individuals with expertise in the field, particularly members of the Sahni community known for their proficiency in this line of work.”

Mantosh Sahni added, “Here, the fox nut is exposed to the sun and then roasted in sand. After this, it is left to rest for two days. It will be ready the day after tomorrow (after the initial process). We decide whether to sell it to businessmen based on the prevailing market rate. If the rate is favorable, we proceed with the sale; otherwise, we hold off. If the rate rises, we sell. If it is very low, we don’t sell it. Despite the presence of Makhana mills, achieving success remains elusive. No matter how much effort and financial investment they pour into it, success remains elusive. We possess unique knowledge of how much sunlight it requires and, equally important, how much it doesn’t need.”

Call for Minimum Support Price (MSP)

Even individuals involved in this production process express dissatisfaction with the current rates. Vishwanath Sahni, for instance, believes that his hard work does not yield adequate returns at the prevailing rates. Dr. Paras Nath mentions that the Bihar government has initiated efforts in this direction as well.

Vishwanath Sahni shared, “The current market rate for fox nut lava is not favorable, making it challenging to generate a profit. It stands at Rs. 420. We would need it to reach Rs. 500 for profitability.”

Dr. Paras Nath stated, “At times, the lava produced has to be sold at reduced rates due to the absence of storage facilities. However, there is now a government scheme in place, facilitating the establishment of storage facilities with government-provided subsidies. This can be accomplished through the respective district’s Department of Horticulture. Farmers have the option to submit their applications there and establish storage facilities. This will enable them to store their lava for extended periods and subsequently sell it at more favorable rates. Conversely, farmers are persistently advocating for the implementation of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for Makhana.”

Farmer Baleshwar Mandal suggests that the MSP should ideally range between Rs. 18,000 to Rs. 20,000. Dr. Vidyanath Jha and Dr. Paras Nath also support this call for establishing an MSP.

Baleshwar Mandal emphasized, “It is essential to establish a fixed rate to enable farmers to build some savings. Taking into account the expenses involved, it is recommended that the rate be set at Rs. 18,000 to Rs. 20,000 per quintal for the raw product, which would prove to be profitable for farmers.”

Dr. Vidyanath Jha said, “Numerous crops benefit from the Minimum Support Price (MSP). Given the determined efforts of both the Bihar government and the Indian government in its promotion, it is crucial that a Minimum Support Price be established for Makhana as well. This step is of utmost significance; otherwise, it might lead to widespread disappointment.”

Dr. Paras Nath concluded, “Once considered an orphan crop, Makhana has now seen the development of various techniques and has been incorporated into government schemes. Training programs have been initiated, and it has even become a part of the B.Sc curriculum. Gradually, it is anticipated that the government will ultimately include Makhana in the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system, safeguarding farmers from artificially induced shortages.”

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Tanzil Asif is a multimedia journalist-cum-entrepreneur. He is the founder and the CEO of Main Media. He occasionally writes stories from Seemanchal for other publications as well. Hence, he has bylines in The Wire, The Quint, Outlook Magazine, Two Circles, the Milli Gazette etc. Tanzil is one of six Indian journalists selected by YouTube in 2021 for its Creator Program for Independent Journalists. He is also a Josh Talks speaker, an Engineer and a part-time poet.

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