Dussehri is suited for a specific kind of soil & micro weather conditions which are best found in Uttar Pradesh
Low-hanging fruit’ is a cliche used to describe tasks that are easily achieved — whoever coined it hasn’t savoured the Dussehri mango.
Poet Mirza Ghalib’s love for mangoes was legendary, so it isn’t surprising that he composed a long narrative poem or masnavi called Dar Sifat-e-Ambaah (On the Attributes of Mangoes) in praise of India’s king of fruit. Ghalib’s lines were ringing in my ears as I reached the small town of Malihabad, about 30 km from Uttar Pradesh’s capital and the historic city of Lucknow.
There are mango groves all around, with long, green, paisleyshaped Dussehris hanging low. It’s May-end and the mangoes are still green; in a week or two, they will turn yellow and will be ready to be picked.
Malihabad, along with the neighbouring towns of Mall and Rahimabad, constitutes the hub of Uttar Pradesh’s famous Dussehri mangoes, with more than 80% of the country’s produce of this variety grown here.
Insram Ali, president of the Mango Grower Association of India and owner of 70 acres of mango orchards in Malihabad, rues that Dussehri mangoes have not been able to make much of a dent in global markets.Except for a small market in the Middle East, Dussehris are yet to be exported overseas and have not reached the large markets of the US or Europe. The Alphonso from the western part of the country has not only become the country’s favourite fruit but is also exported to the UK, US and EU nations.
In the 18th century, the Dussehri was the pride of the gardens of the nawabs of Lucknow. But the reason behind this variety not becoming as popular and as prestigious as the Alphonso is lack of support from the Central government, says Ali.
“The government should develop an ecosystem of mango-based industries in this area. These should include juice-making units and packaging plants. Since the region has very poor air connectivity, a mango train to Delhi and Punjab will also be welcome to transport the crop to major domestic markets and also for exports,” says Ali. His own orchards are about an hour and a half’s drive from his home in Lucknow, along National Highway 24, and Ali and his wife and children often spend weekends in their sprawling farmhouse nestled amid the lush greenery.
Some of the problems that the Dussehri mango faces, says Ali, are a short season of about a month, between the first week of June and the first week of July. That’s briefer than most other mango varieties in India, including the Alphonso, which enjoys a twomonth long season. “Former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar was a champion of Dussehri mangoes and has visited this region and participated in our promotional events,” says Ali.
Ali has often organised day-long events in his orchards to showcase the Dussehri mango, which are attended not just by local mango growers and their families but diplomats and Central and state government representatives as well. “We have showcased the versatility of the fruit and even served mango paranthas and mango spices to our guests. Different raw mango recipes such as pickles and preserves too are a speciality of this region,” adds Ali.
Owners of the mango orchards in Malihabad show how critical the annual mango harvest is to the community by pointing out that a good crop can often help farmers get their daughters married off; this is a tradition that has endured for centuries, they explain. For two years now, a unique annual agribusiness and ecotourism mango festival is being organised by the Central Institute of Subtropical Horticulture, Mandi Parishad UP, UP Horticulture, UP Tourism and NABARD in Lucknow. However, Pervez Khan, a mango orchard owner in the region, says that both the Uttar Pradesh state government and the Centre should do more to develop the brand as well as the infrastructure.
“We need more of these events, not just here in Lucknow but across India, to promote the Dussehri brand,” says Khan, who lives in Malihabad. The third edition of the festival is scheduled for mid-June, with events in Lucknow city as well as in the orchards to showcase the different mangoes from the region — Dussehri, Chausa, Amrapali and some rarer varieties. Folk music and dance as well as mango delicacies such as biryani with aam ki chutney, aam panna and mango kulfi will be on offer.
Khan adds that mango tourism in the Malihabad region, if promoted by the state and the Centre, could provide revenue streams for the local people and help the economy of the region. “Financial support for local entrepreneurs can be explored along with mango tourism,” says Khan, adding that most young people from the families who own orchards in the region are moving away from horticulture since returns are low.
The local mandi parishad in Malihabad has been promoting Dussehri and other Uttar Pradesh mango varieties since 2006 by providing subsidies for brand promotion, freight, refrigerated vans and state-of-theart pack houses in Lucknow and Saharanpur. Mohsin Khan, a third-generation owner of mango orchards in Malihabad, says the parishad can do more: like providing insurance policies for small farmers, especially during the years when winters are severe and production is low; educating farmers on the use of pesticides; and even facilitating tax incentives.
Harish Chand is a contractor at Ram Bagh orchard in Kakori, around 20 km from Malihabad. The orchard is owned by Pratap Singh who lives in Lucknow; Chand lives in the orchard with his family during the season when mangoes ripen and have to be plucked. “There are 12 bighas of orchards here (roughly 7.5 acres) from which we got around 450 quintals (roughly 45,000 kg) of Dussehri crop last season,” says Chand, whose job ends once the mango crates reach the Malihabad mandi.
In the peak season of mid-June last year, prices per crate of Dussehri dropped to Rs 250 and Rs 300 in Malihabad. But Chand is not willing to speculate on which way the market for mangoes will go this year and how low the prices will drop. It seems like a good year for the Dussehri crop and Chand is hopeful. He agrees to accompany me to a small nearby village called Dussehri — according to the local folklore, the tree on which the first mango grew is located here.
“We call this tree the maika (mother’s home) from where seeds of the Dussehri mango spread to Malihabad, the sasural (the in-laws’ home), and other towns nearby,” says Vikas Yadav, whose family holds the contract for this particular tree and the large orchard nearby. A descendant of the nawab whose family still owns the tree lives in Lucknow but doesn’t visit often. Yadav, on the other hand, guards the tree and its fruit all day and even sleeps on a charpoy under it at night.
The Great Graftsman
Haji Kaleemullah Khan is a local celebrity of sorts and has been awarded the Padma Shri for growing 300 new varieties of mangoes through the grafting technique. He is one among the local custodian farmers, many of whom are conserving local mango varieties and helping them reach the plates of connoisseurs. On a torrid May afternoon, the temperature has shot past 40 degree Celsius, but the 60-year-old is sitting on a moulded plastic chair at Abdullah Nursery in Malihabad, amid his beloved mango trees. He takes visitors around and shows off the trees, each of which has many varieties of mangoes hanging from different branches.
He proudly displays sepia-tinted photographs of various celebrities down the ages, including former prime minister Indira Gandhi and President Pranab Mukherjee. “My mango tree at Rashtrapati Bhavan has over 70 varieties of mangoes,” says Kaleemullah proudly.
While his extended family owns large orchards nearby, he himself spends most of his time at the nursery, creating new varieties. But Kaleemullah rues the fact that not much effort has been made by either the state or the Central government to promote Dussehri as a brand.
“There are so many political leaders representing this region, but none of them has done anything for our mangoes. The local mandis are ill-equipped to handle the perishable fruit and should be modernised so that Dussehri mangoes can be exported to faraway locations in a more efficient way,” he says, adding that the Malihabad belt has been producing top-quality Dussehris for over 300 years but is yet to feature prominently on the global mango map.
The National Horticulture Mission, which was launched as a Centrally sponsored scheme in 2005-06 and later subsumed into the Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture in 2014-15, offers subsidies to farmers across Uttar Pradesh to plant Dussehri saplings.
“Dussehri is best suited for a specific kind of soil and micro weather conditions which are best found in Uttar Pradesh,” said an official of the mission working in Lucknow who did not want to be named. But then why does the Dussehri remain a relatively poor cousin of the Alphonso? According to the official, poor air connectivity and a brief season are stumbling blocks to exports. And he points to another deterrent: the sweet taste of the Dussehri, which consumers in the West are apparently not too fond of. If he’s right, that’s a bitter truth for the mango farmers of Malihabad.