Be it the moringa leaf or lemongrass, cultivation of native crops with high commercial demand is helping India’s farming sector become self-reliant. We delve into a few power-crops to understand their health benefits and financial viability
India is blessed with the heritage of varied agro-climatic conditions, which offer enormous varieties of agricultural and horticultural products. As the agrarian economy of the country evolved, India has seen transformation from being a food deficit country to a food exporting nation. In the current scenario of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the importance of being self-sufficient in food production has increased manifold and so has the demand for nutritional crops. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a new vision of making India aatmanirbhar or self-reliant and self-sustainable in agriculture. While there are several measures being taken to achieve this goal, one of the most important is the promotion of local farm products with a wider platform and market facilitation. The smaller farmers involved in the cultivation of local cash crops require to be supported and trained in quality and marketing. Recognising the need of the hour, the government is making the branding and marketing of India’s local farm products more aggressive and is also offering farmers support in this direction. The following are a few examples of such popular local cash-crops or super-crops.
Kewda (kewra) flower
One of the first in the super-crop list is the fragrant kewda flower from Odisha’s Ganjam district. Locally known as Kia flower, the kewda plant is a shrub that grows wildly in coastal areas and is also cultivated by small sections of farmers in the region. Its extracts – the kewda oil and the kewda hydrosol or Kewda water (steam distilled from the fragrant flowers) have several health benefits. Kewda oil is used as an Ayurvedic medicine, while the hydrosol is used to add flavour to food and also as a base for perfumes. It is registered under the Geographical Indication Act by the Government of India. Currently, around 200 villages are linked with this industry through 140 traditional distillation units and generate an annual turnover of USD 10 million. Kewda ruh (perfume) and its products are in huge demand in Middle Eastern countries. However, frequent natural calamities like cyclones that hit this region have been affecting the livelihood of kewda farmers and the state and the Central governments have been providing financial aid to the growers to help them tide over these challenges. Local NGOs are also being encouraged to upgrade the technologies being used by the distillation units.
Due to the current pandemic, the market potential for medicinal plants has been continuously increasing. The lemongrass oil, distilled from leaves and flowering tops of the plant, has a high percentage of citral, which has germicidal, medicinal and flavouring properties. Of all the medicinal plants cultivated in India, lemongrass is one of the most popular ones and the country is the largest producer of lemongrass. About 80 per cent of the produce is being exported to western Europe, USA and Japan. Lemongrass was introduced in India about a century ago and is today commercially cultivated in several states, including those along the Western Ghats like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; Bihar, and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Within the country, the crop is grown in around 3,000 ha of area, and the annual production ranges between 300 to 350 t per annum. As the income generation from the production of lemongrass is comparatively high, and the cultivation is easy, the government is trying to rope in more farmers to cultivate it commercially. For example, in Bihar, district administrations are aggressively encouraging farmers to grow lemongrass on cultivable land. Some district administrations are linking farmers to firms that aid the latter financially to grow the crop, and then buy back the product directly from the field, freeing the farmers from the worry of selling their produce.
Other than economic support, indigenous crops are often a source of nutrition for farmers and their families. An apt example is the traditional moringa or drumstick tree (saijan in Hindi), which is native to India and well known for its nutritional properties, wide adaptability and ease of cultivation. In a recent speech on making the country’s farming sector self-sufficient, PM Modi stressed on the health benefits of this tree. Each part of the moringa tree is useful, and considered a healing herb in Ayurvedic medicine. The oil and the powdered leaf are major moringa products India exports to countries like USA and Japan, and to western Europe. The global demand for moringa is about USD 5.5 billion and it is estimated to grow to about USD 10 billion by 2025, and India is a market leader, meeting more than 80 per cent of the plant’s demand worldwide. As demand for moringa grows across the country and world, more farmers are cultivating it. In Maharashtra’s Sangli, Solapur, Nashik, Pune, and Yavatmal, farmers hail this cash-crop that has helped them enhance their livelihoods by catering to growing urban demands.
The way forward
Local cash crops can mitigate the uncertainties of the agriculture sector as most of them grow in areas where staples like rice and wheat can’t be cultivated. These local plants are well-suited to adverse climate changes. They are drought tolerant and, therefore, can be grown in arid and semi-arid tracts under low rainfall conditions. However, the small farmers need institutional support to market their products. In such scenarios, schemes floated by the Central and state governments prove very effective. Programmes like One District One Product being promoted in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Geographical Indications (GI) certificate have helped small and marginal farmers. PM Modi’s clarion call of ‘Vocal for Local’ is also encouraging farmers and consumers alike to shift to local crops, which is an immensely effective step towards making India’s farming sector aatmanirbhar!