Rain Tree

C360_2017-01-30-09-36-59-810As we drove towards Varkhara from Kannur to meet Lakshmiamma, the recipient of Padmashri for kalarippayattu, we halted for coffee and found ourselves standing beneath a massive canopy. As I brought my vision on the ground I saw the girth of the rain-tree. It could easily hide around 10 people. The tree stood alone, its siblings long butchered by

As I brought my vision down I saw the girth of the rain-tree. It could easily hide around 10 people. The tree stood alone, its siblings butchered by an axe long time back.  Those who appreciated its canopy had installed plaque in its honour mentioning that it was 300-year-old. Think, if its siblings had been around too.


Tree On Fire

IMG_20170122_215116Nature never disappoints. The Palash trees around my farm have bloomed again —the yellowish-orange flowers making passersby notice its presence. This year it has been earlier than usual. Is it due to climate change? Maybe, yes. Days are not as warm as they were in the past. Among the shades of brown and green, the palash trees give the impression that as if there is a fire on the horizon. But if the horizon is unhindered you feel as if the tree has been lit up with hundreds of lamps.

My article jumbo guava in villagesquare.in

Jumbo Fruit

A king-sized guava that keeps farmers smiling

The VNR-Bihi variety of guava, which often weighs more than half a kilo and has a long shelf life, is being adopted by farmers across the country in large numbers as it fetches handsome returns

A happy VNR-Bihi grower’s family in Pitkeshwar village in Pune district of Maharashtra. (Photo by VNR Nursery)

A happy VNR-Bihi grower’s family in Pitkeshwar village in Pune district of Maharashtra. (Photo by VNR Nursery)

“They sell like piping hot vada pavs despite being so expensive,” exclaims middle-aged fruit vendor Syed Karim, referring to the huge guavas sourced from an orchard in Raipur, Chhattisgarh that retail at Rs 150 a kg. Karim runs a roadside makeshift stall in the busy Kalbadevi Market in South Mumbai.

The VNR-Bihi guava is so big, ranging from 300gm to 850gm, that it is said that one fruit is enough for a family. What tips the balance in favor of this variety is its size, long shelf life, less number of seeds and its premium price. These are reasons enough for farmers to opt for it. One such is software engineer Neeraj Dhanda, who quit his job and now tends to the 1,900 guava trees growing on his 3-acre plot in Sangatpura village in Jind, Haryana. Another is plant pathologist Krishna Reddy raising 850 plants on his plot in Wanwara, 50 km from Bengaluru.

The examples can be multiplied many times including agriculturist Sanjay Nikam of Malegaon in Nashik, Maharashtra, growing 500 plants on his 2-acre plot, which fetches him around 17 tons, which he prefers to sell to a Surat-based trader rather than locally; former banker Veera Prasad who having taken voluntary retirement from NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) planted 2,000 saplings of VNR-Bihi in 2014 on his four and a half acre plot in Narsapur in Medak, Telangana; and 25-year-old Viswa K., who has been growing the fruit since 2014 on his family’s four-acre plot in Samatur, Coimbatore.

Chequered history

Having been brought to the shores of Goa in the early years of the 16th century, the Portuguese explorers called it pera. The locals called it peron (Konkani) and as the fruit travelled inland it gathered new names — peru (Marathi), pyara (Bangla) and amrood  (Hindi), as it was called in Persian. Mildly sweet and mellow in taste, the word guava is derived from the Arawak name for the fruit, guayaba. Rich in Vitamin C, the guava became a favorite among sailors, often victims of scurvy.

In the India of yore, a land known for its mangoes, the new fruit was often compared to the sunshine fruit and called saphari aam (journey mango). In the five centuries since its arrival, the guava has become naturalized and presently we have around 30 plus varieties grown in the country. Of these, the prima donnas are Lucknow 49 and Allahabad safeda — both large in size, roundish in shape, with a white pulp, very sweet and tasty.

The VNR-Bihi hanging low in an orchard in Narsapur village of Medak district in Telengana. (Photo by Veera Prasad)

Joining this babble of Psidium guajava variety in the last couple of years is the jumbo guava, called VNR-Bihi. So popular has it become that chances are that in a decade or so it’s very likely that VNR-Bihi might achieve the status of the Grand Naine in the case of bananas or the Taiwan 786 papaya, edging out others. The reasons are obvious. It’s relatively large, ranging from 350gm to an astounding 1250gm (similar to a papaya), has low sugar content than its elder cousins and sold for as much as Rs 150 a kg.

The man behind VNR-Bihi is Narayan Chawda, a farmer from Gomchi village in Raipur district of Chhattisgarh. Having come across a Thailand guava, Chawda was impressed by its shape, size, crispiness, taste, less number of seeds and long shelf life. Chawda, who has so far developed over numerous varieties of vegetable and fruit crops, initiated a breeding program for a guava that would suit India’s agro-climatic conditions and palate, way back in 1996.

Increasing popularity

In 2009, VNR-Bihi was planted on the 126 acre-farm of Pravin Chawda (no relation to Narayan Chawda). The world at large came to know of the jumbo guava when the Raipur-based VNR Nursery participated in the 2011 Kisan Exhibition held in Pune. Presently VNR-Bihi has 1.5 million plants in farmers’ field, spread across 4,500 acres in 20 states, grown in rain-fed conditions, harvested twice a year in the western parts of the country and thrice a year down south, except Kerala.

Commenting on the farmers’ fascination for the new variety of guava, Maharashtra-based consultant horticulturist Rajendra Deshmukh told VillageSquare.in, “They are very forward looking when it comes to adopting a particular fruit. They are not content selling their produce locally but think nationally because it assures them better returns. VNR-Bihi being very distinct and different due to its size and premium price has caught their fancy.”

According to the National Horticulture Board, the area under guava cultivation in India increased by 64% from 94,000 hectares in 1991-92 to 1,55,000 hectares in 2001-02. In 2001-02, India had a harvest of 1.7 million tons, majorly grown in States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The fruit is exported to the USA, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Kuwait, Jordan, etc.

Farmers growing VNR-Bihi have achieved fruits valued in the range of Rs 2 to 5 lakhs from 450 plants, spread on an acre. Prices have ranged from Rs 80 to Rs 150 a kilo.

Awesome quality

“We were awed by the fruit quality and adopted the planting of VNR-Bihi under the MNREGA scheme involving the adivasis of Mayurbhanj district,” says D.D. Patra, Deputy Director, Horticulture Department, Odisha. In 2013, it planted this variety of guava on 50 acres of adivasi-owned land and complemented it with an additional 250 acre in 2016. The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) is India’s flagship jobs guarantee program.

The keeping quality of the fruit ranges from 7-10 days in normal conditions and 20 to a month in controlled temperatures, which works in its favor among growers. “Guava varieties like Lucknow 49 or Allahabad Safeda, the Honey Dew papaya or Sapota, all have excellent taste, but due to their short shelf life, have failed to attract the national market,” A. R. Pathak, vice chancellor, Junagadh Agriculture University, told VillageSquare.in. “However, this is not the case with VNR-Bihi.” Appreciative of VNR-Bihi’s performance in a farm in Bahruch, Junagadh Agriculture University has planted its saplings in its plots in Nanakanda in Surendra Nagar and Talaja in Bhavnagar.

According to the Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET), 18% of fruit and vegetable production — valued at Rs 133 billion — is wasted annually in India. Two of the biggest factors related to food losses are the lack of refrigerated transport and the lack of high-quality cold storage facilities.  In such a grim situation, the enthusiasm for VNR-Bihi may be short-lived, thanks to the lack of warehouses closer to villages.

“Government bodies like the National Horticulture Mission and the National Horticulture Board have different programs to set up an aerated warehouse and cold storages but have failed to do much in this regard,” says Pathak. “What we have witnessed in the case of apples which are available almost year round we can witness in guava too.”

Efforts by organizations like Greenpeace, which installed the crowd-funded first ever solar-powered cold storage in Kedia, Jamui (Uttar Pradesh), are likely to go a long way in empowering the growers and usher a new life to the food processing sector. For instance, guavas can be dehydrated and powdered; ready-to-serve beverage made, and guava juice wine and guava pulp wine can be manufactured from ripe fruits.

Putting the issue of food waste in the right perspective, Mukesh Chawla, Business Development Executive, India Logistics Expo, writes in a Linkedin post: “While many of us may raise eyebrows on these statistics, unfortunately, these have not moved our law makers. While the Parliament and media have more than engaged themselves on a question of Rs 288,000 crore spent on Food Security Bill, unfortunately, they have not shown even a fraction of seriousness towards yearly loss of £44,000 crore due to food wastage. Stopping the food wastage should be the prerogative of the food security of the country.”

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

My article in VillageSquare

Bitter Sweet

Impure honey eats into small producers’ margins

Independent and small beekeepers are uniting against adulterated and diluted honey sold in the domestic market by companies fighting a price war

Apiarist Vivek Khalokar inspecting a hive in Amravati, Maharashtra. (Photo by Hiren Kumar Bose)

Apiarist Vivek Khalokar inspecting a hive in Amravati, Maharashtra. (Photo by Hiren Kumar Bose)

After a long hiatus of eight years, the purple-colored Karvi flower (Strobilanthes callosus) bloomed in the low hills of western Maharashtra, heightening the spirits of people like Ashok Shelar of Warsoi Koli village, neighboring Maharashtra’s favorite hill station, Mahabaleshwar. A proud owner of 80 bee colonies, he is both happy and uncertain about the natural event.

A local self- government employee and a honey collector since his childhood, he is uncertain whether he will able to fetch a premium for the amber-colored honey as the market has lately been plagued by price cutting indulged by the big brands and large-scale adulteration.

“Many branded honeys you pick up off the shelf of a mall wooed by the TV commercials are perhaps not the real honey and like most brands are adulterated either with invert sugar, liquid glucose or corn syrup,” Sudhir Sing Patil of Sat-Maha Honey told VillageSquare.in. Patil sources wild honey from the Sahyadri range including places like Trimbakeshwar, Bhimashankar, Mahabaleshwar and Koyna, and also from 40 farmer-run beekeeping groups — all processed and bottled in the unit located in the temple town of Alandi, 16 km from Pune. “To make a profit in a fight to offer low prices, the honey processing companies are resorting to contamination of honey,” he says.

Dabur has a dominant share of the Rs 6 billion branded-honey market while Patanjali by offering the cheapest honey is trying to edge out the dominant player. Although these brands have certificates from Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to their credit like others, boutique brands allege that the present-day standards are not conclusive enough to prove their genuineness.

Synthetic honey

Besieged by the big honey brands’ aggressive sale and marketing tactics that have eaten up into its sales, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC)-supported boutique brands have declared an all-out attack on synthetic honey. Beekeepers from Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Bihar met in New Delhi on the occasion of Honey Bee Day, celebrated every August 20, to chart a road map to expose the synthetic honey brands who have eaten into the sale of natural honey, collected by farmers and small time beekeepers spread all across the country. The daylong meet held under the aegis of Confederation of Beekeeping Industry plans to lobby with the government and the regulatory bodies to introduce new standards in the processing and sale of honey.

As many as 250,000 beekeeping families with nearly a million livelihoods and enterprises are directly or indirectly dependent on the country’s honey industry, according to industry estimates. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that an average of 54,000 tons of natural honey was produced every year in India between 1993-2014. A paper published by non-profit Centre for Science and Environment says that India produces 65,000 tons annually. About 38,177 tons of honey was exported during 2015-16, fetching nearly Rs 7 billion, according to India’s Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority.

Because of adulteration, the market is flooded with far more quantity than naturally produced honey, thanks to adulteration at the processing and bottling stages. With big brands dictating the price, independent beekeepers and honey collectors are forced to sell their produce at low margins.

Denatured commodity

Ever since honey has become a commodity, it has been intentionally denatured, altered and adulterated by adding water, sugar or high fructose corn syrup or by removing pollen (to make it clearer) to cope up with its increasing demand among India’s burgeoning middle class.

Apiarist Vivek Khalokar's bee boxes in a sunflower field. (Photo by Hiren Kumar Bose)

It was Baba Hukum Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Kairana-Shamli constituency in Uttar Pradesh during question hour in Lok Sabha on July 19, who brought the attention of the House to the issue of adulteration of honey. Naming brands like Dabur and Patanjali, he claimed that both do not have the Agmark License on their labels and their products contained low or no pollen grains, resulting in their clear appearance. Pollen residue is considered beneficial to human health but its presence clouds the honey.

According to Sadhuram Sharma of Beera Khedi village in Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and a proud owner of 2,000 bee colonies, there is erroneous belief among many consumers that “light and clear” honey is somehow cleaner and healthier than dark, translucent or opaque honey.

Pollen grain analysis

In fact, a comparative pollen grain analysis of various uni-floral honeys that was conducted according to BIS standards in 2014 gives a wide range — from jamun honey (3.9 million pollen count per gm) to 1,400 per gm in mustard honey. Incidentally, the products of the big brands failed miserably in this analysis.

According to Anil Singh Sandhu, a member of Sindhu Gram Udyog Samiti, which comprises 250-odd beekeepers spread in Hissar, Jind, Rohtak, Bhiwani, Karnal and Ambala districts of Haryana, nearly 85 percent of the honey in the domestic market is adulterated with corn syrup exported from China or locally available invert sugar. Most of the honey sold in the domestic market was not pure and contained sugar-mixed ingredients, B. L. Sarswat, executive director of the National Bee Board, has said in a statement.

“As we do not have storage facilities we prefer to sell honey to the traders who supply to the big brands after adulterating them,” says Sandhu, owner of 1,700 bee colonies. Sandhu has been migrating with his bee colonies to neighboring states to reap the benefit of the flowering seasons of different crops to acquire diverse flavors of honey.

Fear of toxicity

Knowledgeable beekeepers are generally wary of accumulating stock as high temperatures and long-term storage leads to elevated concentrations of HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural). According to Codex Alimentarius Commission, which oversees international food safety standards, HMF concentration in honey usually should not exceed 80 mg per kg. In some other countries, the limit is 40 mg peer kg.

Rather than compete with big brands in the price war, Amravati-based entrepreneur Vivek Sagar Khalokar has done something unique. He has opened “24K Amravati Honey,” a honey parlor in Pune’s Pimple Saudager neighborhood, which besides offering eight varieties of honey, has products like bee pollen, royal jelly, and honey cookies on its shelves. “The price war indulged by the top brands and the shopping malls insistence of huge discounts have adversely affected our sales leading to piling up of stocks,” Kaholkar told VillageSquare.in. Kaholkar travels with his bee colonies to Kota during the mustard growing season, to Gwalior during the coriander season, to Gorakhpur when litchi trees bloom, to Etawah when fodder plant Berseem begins flowering and returning closer home to Nagpur during the flowering of Jamun.

Setting standards

The Confederation of Bee Keeping Industry has submitted a representation to the FSSAI authorities urging revision of quality control parameters for natural honey. The issues raised include of moisture content, standardizing the sucrose content, defining the fructose: glucose ratio, on the insistence of total pollen count; and defining plant metabolites amount.

According to Sailen Ghosh, formerly of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre’s Food Sciences Division, all others parameters can be manipulated or camouflaged with invert sugar solution. “The brands should come clean simply by issuing a disclaimer stating that the honey has been procured from natural source and processed as per the standard protocol approved by the food authority or simply state it does not include invert sugar or any other added sugar,” says the food technology scientist who holds patent for manufacture of invert sugar manufacture using the biotechnology route, which has been commercialized with several units presently running in the country.

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

Experiencing Nature-Made

Being in the midst of nature can bring the child in you, I was witness to this phenomenon recently when a group of five, residing in Badlapur housing societies, visited my farm. But for one who was in her mid-twenties, the rest were in their mid and past 30s. However, the way they behaved moving around snapping a not-so-green turmeric leaf, crushing it between their fingers and smelling it and announcing, “The aroma is soooooooo strong”; tripping on the stones hidden under fallen twigs and branches, marveling on the dew drops on the leaves of a custard apple tree, caressing a banana bunch, watching the canopy of a jacaranda tree or inquiring about the identity of a particular plant.  Like kids who have entered a world unknown to them, discovering things new; something never seen or touched before.

c360_2016-11-26-11-06-15-141Living in the urban jungles we have created around us we rarely take the effort to escape it. For taking an effort means putting oneself at risk. The risk of the unknown.  Our urban existence has kept us away from the profound impact a “nature walk” can have on us.

Once nature surrounds you and you give in to her charms you lose track of time and place. You suddenly become free to ponder on life in its purest form. Away from the man-made world, you’re in the midst of nature-made. In a situation where you’re reminded that life is fleeting. What was green and living once is brown now and soon will become part of the soil you stand upon.

As you lie stretched on the ground and look up at the fleeting clouds you realise that nothing is permanent, but perhaps that’s what makes life so precious. I think that’s the reason why we all love views of the water, sunrises and sunsets, mountain ranges, etc.

Our man-made and man-centered world is so limited unlike the life outdoors. The number of trees around you; shapes of leaves; the insect types; the different contours of rocks and stones. It would take scores of a lifetime to know and experience the diversity around. As you delve deeper you comprehend that though there is chaos around it still exists in harmony. Chaotic harmony, I would say.

All these can make you humble and makes you recognise the fact we need to learn from it too.

Note: You can commune with Nature provided your mobile is off.

Dews of November

As I reach my banana grove to hack the dry leaves drops of water fall on my head like a shower and I’m soaked. They run like a rivulet down my head on my glasses.

Tup..tup..tup they fall all over upon the dead leaves and the branches spread below. As the banana leaves are broad and long too they look like rain drops. The dew drops on the leaves of the custard apple (sitaphal) tree shine as the sunlight kisses it. Numerous diamonds on a green carpet!

c360_2016-09-04-08-00-44-127It’s November and the mornings are pretty cold and so are the nights here in Chon. Moreso because the river is close by. You can see the steam rising from the water’s surface and scuttle around.

As minutes pass by I sit calmly  watching the sun playing hide and seek among the leaves, try identifying the bird call and enraptured by the noise of tup…tip…tup.. all around me.

Scent of The Seven-Leafed

Inhaling the jasmine-like scent last evening walking home it dawned on me how unfair were forefathers were. Because Saptaparni blooms at dusk it has been dubbed as the Indian Devil Tree! Its flowers never get pride of place in a vase or used in any ceremony. Just like the Plumeria. sapta

Interestingly both are great favourites of moths and other nocturnal insects.
The tallest Saptaparni I have come across is in Mumbai’s Byculla Zoo and is identified as Alstonia scholaris. The tree is over 100-year-old, I presume. Its canopy is spread all over and its height reaching the skies. You’re likely to see bats hanging from its branches. On the roadsides of the new housing colonies and even in old neighbourhoods of Thane you’re likely to recognise the Saptparnis when they bloom.
If you want to catch the fragrance of Saptaparni (it’s seven- leafed), now is the time for it. It begins blooming in the third half of September or in the beginning of  October and continues to spread its fragrance till November. The fragrance of its yellowish white flowers reminds you of Cestrum nocturnum or Raatraani (Marathi).
In Bengal, it’s known as Chatim. Interestingly, there are scores of Bengalis out there who have adopted its Sanskrit name as their own. You will come across Saptaparni Dey, Saptaparni Ghosh and many others.

Dance of The Wings

As the day breaks and a fresh new sun rises colouring the eastern sky they arrive, as if snatches of hues hanging in air. First a stray one, then a couple and soon a swarm flapping their coloured wings flying around the tall plant, deciding on whether to or not to and finally settling to drink the nectar the rattle pod plant offers.

bly 1The herbaceous plant’s common name comes from the fact that once the seeds mature they become loose in the pod and rattle when shaken. There are around 400 species in the Crotalaria genus and the one growing in my farm is Crotalaria retusa. Though considered a weed I let the flowering plant, belonging to the legume family, reside for it provides the much-needed nitrogen to the soil and ushers the flying colour–butterflies to my farm. Isn’t that a double whammy? The Crotalaria species are used as food plants by the larvae. In fact, the toxic alkaloid which the larvae feed on secures its defense from predators.

The butterflies generally arrive mid-September but this year they have come much early. The flowers haven’t blossomed but are likely to, soon. And till the lemon-yellow flowers survive the butterflies will be around providing a sight which we rarely encounter living in urban settlements but would like to savour nonetheless.

Observing the butterflies are a great way to learn about them but also a relaxing experience which I’ve realized having watched them for four seasons now. Most species of butterflies use flower nectar as their main source of food.  The use of the sugary nectar gives the butterflies energy and allows them to fly. Isn’t it a good idea to raise a rattlepod in your garden?

bly2Butterflies are great motion detectors and can be surprisingly fast fliers. They will inevitably fly if you or a predator approaches. Your slightest movement or even your shadow can trigger flight. Males spend most of their time looking for potential mates in one of two ways: perching or patrolling.

The butterflies in my farm are so inebriated having consumed the nectar that I have watched them just a breath way! At times even caught them with my fingers but released them soon after.

Until last year I used to get the Viceroy Butterflies in hordes but it seems the word has gone around, and last Sunday I chanced upon the new arrivals: the Tiger Butterfly. So large are their numbers that they have outnumbered the Viceroys.

The World Of Insects

Being a farmer one’s knowledge of insects goes much beyond the cockroach, the mosquito and the ant et al. One is suddenly thrown into the vast world of insects, beneficial or otherwise. With each day, the change of seasons and years one earns the reputation of being an amateur entomologist of sorts among ordinary mortals. Recognising whether the insect is friendly or inimical makes you an aware-farmer and prepares you to battle them or use them as an ally.


This March I had the opportunity to visit the Dapoli-based Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth while attending an international conference and happened to befriend a genial entomologist, Dr Shekhar Mehendale who not only took me around the city’s neighbourhood showing me what it offers a tourist, like the century-old temple with its huge copper bell and the inviting, languid  beach. But it was the few hours spent in the Entomology Department’s Insect Museum which made the trip memorable. It was my first visit to an insect museum and thousands of insects displayed according to their family made me realise the importance of the critters.

A mentor and guide to a dozen or so doctorates, Dr Mehendale is a storehouse of information when it comes to the world of insects. Here in a chat with Hiraman he dwells on the importance of insects, the farmer-friendly insects,biological control, pest management etc.

On the insect museum

We have the best collection of insects among the four agri universities in Maharashtra. Most of our specimens have been collected by students as part of their study. The Konkan region is rich in biodiversity, thanks to its insects, the vegetation and the  tropical climate. In short, it’s a haven for various types of insects. Insects here are distributed in line with the crops of this region e.g. Mango Hoppers, Rhino Beetle, Red Palm Weevil, Tea Mosquito which affects the cashew crop and some pests of rice, a commonly grown food crop. Here we have about 25-26, out of 29 orders given in Imms’ General Text Book of Entomology. The major orders in the collection are Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Odonata and Orthoptra. Apart from them some others like Neuroptera, Isoptera, Embioptera, Phasmida, Ehemeroptera, Trichoptera, Mecoptera, Dermaptera etc are also in the collection. Specimen brought to the Department usually comes to me first.  My interest in entomology is due to my guru, Dr. Anil Powar, presently vice president of Indofil Chemicals, Mumbai. It was he who aroused my interest in the subject. During my college days I had the opportunity to work under him. Whatever I have achieved in my life I credit it to him.


On the study of insects

Just two lines will explain everything: ‘Battle between man and insects is as old as civilization which was there in the past, is still continuing and will be there in future too’. It’s also said that insects accompanies man from his cradle to grave. Hence to understand them we need to study them. Their numbers are huge compared to the animals and we continue to come across new varieties very other day. The history of insect identification is quite old and dates back to the Vedic period where Prasastapada classified the whole animal kingdom in to two–Ayonija and Yonija. The former was again grouped as Swedaja, Usmaja, Udwija and Andaja (included insects). Aristotle classified insects initially into two groups Haustallets and Mandibulates. He formulated four insect orders as Coleoptera, Dipeta, Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera, even earlier than the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus in his 10th edition of Systema Nature formulated rules of classification and thereafter the binomial names came in to existence. During the British rule in India lot of good work on insects happened. Sir Maxwell Lefroy was appointed as the first government entomologist. He was followed by J.C Fabricius, Koening , Sir Ronald Ross (the man who studied mosquito for malaria parasite) etc. The museum concept was created and enriched by the Britishers and the title curator of museum came in to existence. Dr. Horsefield was the first curator of British Museum at Kolkatta. The Bombay Natural History Society was founded in 1883. The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), was also founded by the Britishers. They published special monographs on Butterflies and Moths of India, Ants of India, Termites of Thanjawar district etc.

beetleOn insects waiting to be identified

There are still insects waiting to be found, identified and given a name. Identification becomes tricky and difficult as the organism becomes smaller and smaller. Insects abound in huge numbers and in varying number of species, subspecies etc.  We have very few organisms are like them. Take elephants, which is limited to just two species. If you take the example of cockroaches, bees or dragonflies they are at least dozens of them. Hence insect identification is not as easy as compared to the higher animals. It’s an ongoing and continuous process.  Take the case of Mantophasmatidae which is a family of carnivorous insects within the order Notoptera, which was discovered in Africa in 2001.

butterfly1On making insects as allies

Some are pests while some predators. All insects are not harmful. There are many which are useful and beneficial to us. Most of the adult insects need a good source of carbohydrates, amino acids, sterols, fat etc for which they visit the flowers for its nectar resulting in pollination, a win-win situation for both. The list of the flowering plants a farmer should have is vast. I can think of maize, cowpea, surangi, mustard, coriander, fennel, carrot, raddish, castor, sesame etc. Ornamental plants like Kuphia, Gilardia, Cockscomb, Dahlia, Aster, Marigold, etc can be planted in one’s garden or farm plot to derive benefit of pollinators and predators and parasitoids. This concept is called Ecological Engineering or Habitat Manipulation and also forms a part of the ‘push and pull technique’ of pest management.

insect2On biological control of insects

All insects in the distant past lived in a state of harmony, what we call as General Equilibrium Position (GEP), maintained by action of abiotic and biotic factors over a period of time. All insects which do not damage our crops are beneficial to a farmer, namely the scavengers, pollinators and natural enemies of pests. A good example of this is a forest ecosystem undisturbed by human interventions. So long as man was lead a nomadic existence everything was fine. But when he learned to cultivate the land the problem began. The ushering of the Green Revolution changed the concept of agriculture due to crop improvement, fertigation, pesticides, biotechnology etc. which disturbed the balanced ecosystem, thanks to our hunger for more. And that’s when the insects became pests. Bringing back a balance is difficult but not impossible. The answer lies in adoption of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) or INM (Integrated Nutrient Management) etc with judicious use of resources like water, fertlilizers and pesticides. Besides promoting biological control wherever possible. Using some simple tillage operations, use of trap crops, crop rotation, use of crop refuge, maintaining unutilized area, use of plant origin insecticides, light traps, sticky traps, pheromone traps etc can be of immense help. Decreasing our dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, using selective insecticides with proper dose that too only when required, keeping pest residue as food for natural enemies, not mixing two/ three insecticides unless advised–can considerably bring down the damages incurred by the pests. We need to remember: Nobody can completely control the insects and it is not required too. We need to follow the concept called, ETL or Economic Threshold Level. As a Sanskrit saying goes:  ‘Jivo Jivaschya Jivanam.’

On reaching out to farmers

Whatever I’ve gained I’m eager to share. I do contribute articles in newspapers, give talks on radio, pay regular visits to farms  and is active on What’s Up. Beside the queries from farmers in the region I have been receiving queries from farmers in Karad district on certain pest problem. Recently, a farmer sent me images of leaf miner problem on Red Pumpkin in which 50 per cent of the leaves were infested. It was a serious infestation and I advised him to spray Cartap Hydrochloride @ 15 g per 10 lit. He followed the advice, sprayed it and a week later called up to say that about 90 %) larvae were dead. This insecticide is of biological origin synthesized from Marin Annalid- Lumbrinaris heteropoda.

Going Bananas

How does it feel being called a ‘tinpot dictator’ of a banana republic?  I’ve been called one.

In the 70s and 80s ‘tin-pot dictator’ was a commonest term  used by the newspapers to describe sort of individuals who imagined themselves as being an international statesman and/or military genius, and conducted himself in a manner inconsistent with his actual (diminished) prestige outside his small realm of absolute power. They embroiled their country in military escapades outside their borders. Idi Amin of Uganda and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are good examples.

Though the word ‘Banana Republic’ first appeared in O Henry’s short stories collection, Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it was in the mid 50s that it came to mean a country in which foreign enterprises pushed the government around, like it happened in Honduras and Guatemala.

banana skyIn 2013 The Economist reported: “By the end of the 19th century, Americans had grown sick of trying to grow fruit in their own chilly country. It was sweeter and cheaper by far to import it instead from the warmer climes of Central America, where bananas and other fruit grow quickly. Giants such as the United Fruit Company—an ancestor of Chiquita—moved in and built roads, ports and railways in return for land. In 1911 the Cuyamel Fruit Company, another American firm (which was later bought by United), supplied the weapons for a coup against the government of Honduras, and prospered under the newly installed president. In 1954 America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed a coup against the government of Guatemala, which had threatened the interests of United.”

Bananas have been around in South Asia for ages but archeologists are of the opinion that it was first domesticated in the Kuk valley of New Guinea around 8,000 BCE (Before Common Era). But it is probably not the cradle from which all other domesticated species sprang.

All commercially-grown bananas share the ancestry with Chiquita bananas even the Grand Naine variety growing in my farm. And yes, I don’t find it offensive being called a tinpot dictator of a banana republic. First, I don’t suffer from the delusion of being an international statesman and/or military genius and second (albeit sadly) my ‘banana republic’ is a mere 40ft by 30ft wide!

Grown in 135 nations worldwide, the word ‘Banana’ comes from Wolof, the language of the Lebus, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. The word passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Nearer home the Bangla word for banana is kola. It often follows the name of a cultivar. I have grown up on stories told by my father, who grew up in a village named Debipur in Howrah district of West Bengal of Martaman Kola, a highly fragrant variety of banana, now widely grown in the north and western areas of Bangladesh. Also called Malbhog Kola, it is grown in pockets of North Bengal, like Siliguri. Then there is Kantahli Kola (flavour reminiscent of jackfruit) and preferred for treatment of dysentery, Bichi Kola which has soft seeds. Kacha Kola’s fruit is rich in iron and the inflorescence has a good anti-diabetic effect.  Or Chini Champa or Champa, a cultivar similar to Elaichi or Velchi, grown in Vasai, which is fairly resistant to pests and is tallest among  banana trees.

Bird nest in banana

India is home to wide variety of indigenous bananas—the the famous ones being Basrai Dwarf, Malaivazhai, Sirumalai, Bombay Green,  Chevvazhai, French Plantain, Kadali, Karupuravalli, Shrimanti,  Rasthali, Nendran, Poovan, Ney Poovan, Monthan, Udhayam, Pachanadan and Lal Kela,  Among these Poovan is the only widely dispersed variety and found in  Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Interestingly, Poovan bears bunches weighing 20-24 kg each having 150 – 300 fingers and is distinguished from other cultivars by its pink pigmentation.


It’s been a year since I planted suckers of the Grand Naine tissue culture variety in July last on my farm plot which had earlier witnessed turmeric and tur on its body politic but on which now stands my banana republic—a thick banana grove of 200 plus banana plants of various age. Most bananas worldwide are produced as a result of asexual reproduction – meaning they aren’t grown from seeds. As new plants are propagated from shoots at the stem of established banana plants from the initial 160 plants I have a grove of around 200.

Increasingly farmers are preferring tissue culture plants as they mature faster at nine months instead of the usual one year, the fruits and trees grow a minimum of one and half times bigger than those propagated from suckers, the quality of the fruit is better and the starting planting material is free of bunchy top virus, a common virus which affects banana plants.

My purpose in having a banana grove has been three fold: to have a good amount of organic biomass, to create a micro environment and lastly commerce. Last week I sold two bunches, each weighing 18 kgs @ Rs 12 per kg. In July the rates were abysmal: Rs 8 a kg.

banana bunch

In its 11-month life banana yields a sizeable number of leaves. I have not kept a count but I am told it’s between 10 to 20 leaves. Imagine the volume of biomass the grove’s three year life time will achieve!

Banana is rich in moisture which you can see once a mature banana stem is felled. In the beginning months I used to flood the grove every fourth day which has now come down to once-a-week, thanks to the rotting leaves and stems on the ground. Lately, the soil around has become sponge-like with so much mulch around.

velchi banana

Though majority of the plant tissue culture biotech companies in India are engaged in the production of different varieties of Banana seedlings, the Grande Naine occupies the major share. Robusta, Williams, Jahaji, Amritsagar, Red banana, Hill banana (Virupakshi), Elakki and Malbhog from Assam are also grown using tissue culture techniques.

Introduced to India from Israel a decade back, Grand  Naine, true to its French name which means “large dwarf”, is of medium height and produces bunches that is almost three-fourths its size with each having over 200 fruits. Unlike the Robusta, Grand Naine bananas have a better shelf. While the former tend to drop from the bunch in two to three days after ripening, the latter stay intact on the bunch for more than two weeks after ripening, maintaining their peculiar aroma and taste. It is this quality of the Grand Naine which has made them appealing to farmers, markets and consumers. And it’s very likely that within a decade or so Grand Naine will be the only banana variety around.

TAIL PIECE: If you’re one of those who swear by the Musacae family or is a banana junkie do visit the ‘international’ banana market at Darang Guri in Goalpara district of Assam. Here every day bananas from three neighbouring countries, namely Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh arrive to be sold along with those grown in India.