Mango growers in Malda district, a major fruit-producing hub in India in its own right, have appealed to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to arrange for the immediate resumption of exports to neighbouring Bangladesh.
As has been previously reported, the traditional sale of West Bengal-produced mangoes to Bangladesh has been badly hit this year. The reason: An increase in export fees ordered by Bangladesh authorities, which makes the fruit costlier by 40%-50%.
As a result, West Bengal based growers, concentrated in Malda, 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Nadia districts, have found it difficult to make even routine sales across the border as before. The loss of the lucrative Bangladesh market right at West Bengal’s doorstep has hit the multi-crore mango-based economy hard.
Indian State Agriculture department officials told Bangla Tribune that, in an average year, around 500,000 tonnes of mangoes were sold in Bangladesh alone.
With exporting to such a large market getting difficult, growers are facing a crisis, figuring out where else to offload such large supplies. The fact that this is a bumper year for mango production has not helped at all.
Swapan Saha, an exporter who works out of Kolkata’s largest fruit wholesale market at Mechuabazar, has said: “We have been forced to sell our fruits to other states, but the problem is we do not know outstation markets very well. With sales assured in Bangladesh, there was no need to look for other buyers.”
“Now we face a tough situation and production in other states this season, whether in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar or Maharashtra, has been very good as well. And the result: Let alone profits, even our operating margins have been impacted,” he said.
Mamata Banerjee in recent administrative meetings had announced a hard line, reacting to recent developments.
She said: “We should explore alternate markets, like the UAE, the European community, and the US to expand our exports. We should not concentrate only on the Bangladesh market, now that they have increased local charges there.”
Interestingly, there was no move by the West Bengal state government to contact the Bangladesh authorities to discuss the situation either at the official level or through diplomatic channels. However, it seemed that the situation had not improved for growers.
Only days ago, the state minister told journalists that she had referred to the matter in a recent message to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She had also mentioned the problems faced by West Bengal on account of a reduction of water supply from the river Atreyi in North Bengal because of a dam put up on the river by Bangladesh.
Political analyst Charubrata Roy has said: “This indicates that instead of trying to initiate a dialogue, which is not difficult given her warm relations with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, [Mamata] Banerjee is more interested in highlighting difficulties faced by her state because of decisions and developments in the neighbouring country. She has made a complaint to the prime minister [Modi], instead of trying to settle things amicably,”
More worryingly for the mango trade, there has not been much concrete action on the part of West Bengal authorities to help the growers. The only initiative has been to send more mangoes than before to an annual fair in New Delhi, raising the supply from 10 to 20 tonnes.
As for State Minister Banerjee’s hopes of achieving major sales to the US, officials say that only around 10 tonnes or so are usually exported. There is also keen competition from other states like Maharashtra, UP and Bihar, which export more because of their pro-active administration, unlike West Bengal.
Existing prospects are also not much better where fruit exports to West Asian countries are concerned. Saudi Arabia now has its own financial problems, even without taking into account the recent tensions between Qatar and other countries in the region.
The question for growers in the Malda-Murshidabad-Nadia belt is simple: How to find a market that would immediately consume around 500,000 tonnes of mangoes?
Despite Mamata Banerjee’s bold call to “diversify Bengal’s fruit exports,” officials confirm that so far their efforts have been mostly exploratory – contacting foreign buyers and locating markets, etc. From such a beginning to securing concrete time-bound orders, they admit, could take some time.
This is a pity because clearly mango growers in West Bengal will certainly lose millions of rupees because the state government was not prepared to handle the situation. In Malda alone, over 250 varieties are produced regularly, which delight all palates.
In this context, the frantic appeal made by Malda Chamber of Commerce Chairman Jayanta Kundu assumes significance. He has been quoted as saying to the media: “If our chief minister arranges to revive our sales to Bangladesh, the present crisis may be solved. As for exporting to the US and other countries, it seems she was not briefed properly.”