Palghar (Maharashtra), Jan 30 (IANS): It is 5.30 am. Subhash Bhatte is already in his garden plucking the golden-coloured sonchafa flowers (Magnolia Champaca), a routine that he has been following for years together. By the time the sun settles over the coconut trees, he ends up with a vast heap. But not anymore, as the harvest has dipped to just a handful since September last.
Like Bhatte, 500-odd floriculturist families in 25 villages of Vasai-Virar municipality in Palghar district are battling the effects of climate change, which locals address as hawaman baddal. Unseasonal showers, sudden cloudy days accompanied by thunderstorms and fewer light hours are all part of it, adversely affecting the flower yield.
While farmers growing cereal, grains and pulses are compensated under crop insurance schemes for climate exigencies and blighted harvests, flower growers have no such cover. Additionally, they are denied bank loans under the Kisan Credit Card Scheme as floriculture is not applicable.
Affordable and rapid transportation, along with easy market accessibility, had helped Vasai-Virar sub-regions (VVR) flower growers earn good returns. The sea-facing villages were earlier known for mogra (Jasminum sambac), which then attracted premium rates in Mumbai's Dadar flower market. However, in the last two decades, sonchafa became the growers' favourite as it brought comparably better returns.
A medium climbing shrub, the five-petalled sonchafa produces greenish flowers that fade to yellow as they mature. The highly fragrant flower needs minimal irrigation. When young, it grows like a regular shrub, but starts to vine around six ft. It is grown in farm plots varying between four gunthas (4,000 sq ft) and three acres in the 18 km radius from the coast of Arnala in Virar to Vasai. The place is home to lakes, ponds and bawkhals (traditional water ponds).
Describing the local ecology, Marcus Dabre, a veteran trade unionist, environmentalist and editor of the weekly Vasai Times, tells 101Reporters that despite its closeness to the Arabian Sea, bawkhals in the area hold rainwater. Their subterranean linkages nourish each other and provide water to irrigate the fields.
Gone are the vast stretches of fields where kharif paddy flourished. These farmlands with their edges ringed with coconut or palmyra palms have given way to high-rise apartments, gated residences, office complexes, shopping malls, cinema multiplexes and eateries.
In 2009, Vasai town was joined administratively with neighbouring Virar (north) and a dozen other surrounding communities to form VVR, which soon became one of the most populous urban areas in the State. The marshy lands that held the water during high tide and the wetlands that welcomed migratory birds have all vanished, swallowed by the emerging city linked to the metropolitan Mumbai by local trains (40 km) and road (64 km).
Though VVR receives approximately 1,586 mm (62.4 inches) of annual rainfall, waterlogging has become a regular feature as open fields that once absorbed rainwater are no longer present. This, in turn, inundates the flower gardens.
Three-and-a-half decades ago, the farmers here specialised in growing betel leaves and velchi (a variety of miniature-sized bananas). Much before that sugarcane was grown in plenty. While betel leaf, which was exported to Pakistan, witnessed a slow death as the country's relationship with its neighbour deteriorated, velchi was initially affected by banana blight and subsequently lost out to the Grand Nene, a tissue culture variety.
Sometimes in the early 70s, farmers in large numbers shifted to floriculture by growing mogra. According to Kiran Patil of Arnala village, his grandfather Moreshwar Bhoir was the first to introduce sonchafa in his garden in the late 80s.
"It was just one among the many flowering plants. He did not realise that one day sonchafa would become our source of livelihood and prosperity," says Patil, the chairman of the 1,100-member-strong Arnala Farmers' Cooperative Society. "This Ganesh Chaturthi, we barely got any yield, which triggered flower shortage and price rise. The situation continues the same even in December."
Sonchafa shrub blooms throughout the year with each shrub offering 150 to 200 flowers a day. However, in winter, flowering witnesses a slight drop. Incidentally, the drop has been drastic this year, giving only half the yield of earlier times.
A plastic box of 100 flowers normally fetches Rs 150 in the Dadar flower market. During the 11-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival, the price goes up to a whopping Rs 700. The same happens during the wedding season and Navratri festival. "Both Ganpati festival and wedding season are the best time to get premium rates," confirms veteran sonchafa grower Robert D'Britto (66).
Either D'Britto or Bhatte, both recipients of the prestigious Vasantrao Naik Shetimitra Award for farmers, have mentored most of the floriculturists in the area. Incidentally, sonchafa shrubs flourishing in VVR originated in a Kudal-based nursery owned by Uday Gopinath Velankar and is known throughout the State as Velankar chafa.
Sexagenarian Bhatte tends to the 400-odd plants standing on his one-acre plot at Satpale village along with his wife Sheela and half a dozen labourers. Once picked and packed in polybags or plastic boxes, the flowers are ready for the one-and-a-half-hour journey to Dadar market. On average, about 11,000 flowers used to leave his garden each day for the market, but it has come down to a few thousand now.
He made close to Rs 75,000 a month from one acre and nearly Rs 9 lakh a year, post the expenses. However, adverse climatic conditions have affected his income immensely. So much so that he is considering axing the sonchafa shrubs and planting off-season jackfruit or turf grass.
"Whatever we grow, we are unlikely to get as many returns as sonchafa offered. A couple of gunthas devoted to the flower could give us more than what the sugarcane growers of Solapur or the vineyard owners of Nashik made."
Dwelling on the characteristics of sonchafa, horticulturist Lahanu K Gabhale of Agricultural Research Station, Palghar, says the shrub needs a minimum of 10 light hours, but regular bouts of cloudy days are affecting this.
"In September, sonchafa goes into a state of dormancy only to return to normal around January, resulting in low yields. However, it is a fact that high humidity is causing fungal attacks, leading to fewer blooms," says Gabhale, who visited the flower-growing villages of Vasai-Virar in early September.
He adds that farmers need to adopt climate mitigation measures like pruning the new branches regularly to maintain internodal distance, splitting the fertilizer dose into four rather than two annually and taking preventive steps in case of weather advisories.
Vagaries of weather
In early September, Palghar experienced 50 mm of rainfall on a single day. Though October is considered 'clear' in meteorological speak, Palghar had more dhakal (cloudy days) to be followed by showers. Similarly, in November, the area witnessed seven days of occasional showers. In mid-December, more dhakal marked the adverse effect of Cyclone Mandous over the Arabian Sea. Farmers believe it spiked humidity levels and caused fungal growth, which hampered bud formation.
Weather expert and formerly of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, Uday Deolankar provides the appropriate perspective on the climate change crisis. "Unprecedented urbanisation and accompanying industrialisation in the VVR have affected the air quality index. Climatic aberrations like unseasonal showers and cloudy days add to this," says the adviser of the Department of Agriculture, who also cultivates ginger on his farm at Aurangabad.
"These patches of green in a predominantly urban zone will soon become unproductive," he adds prophetically.
Interestingly, there have been reports of Chrysanthemum growers in West Bengal and dragon fruit farmers in Telangana using LED lamps in their fields to increase light hours. "We too can attempt, but it needs a lot of investment. Plus there are the recurring costs of power consumption," informs Bhatte.
"If the government can provide subsidies for drip irrigation and farm ponds, why not for installation of LED lamps," he asks.