Giving up the ruinous Jhum cultivation, farmers from Hnahlan have taken up grape cultivation and are on the verge of minting money after the anti-liquor law has been repealed
Shifting or Jhum cultivation has led to the reduction of the green cover in different regions of the northeast and it is still practiced by tribal communities. But Hnahlan village in Mizoram has charted a different path – not only has it given up on the archaic agricultural practice but has now plunged headlong into cultivation of grapes for a livelihood.
Located near the Indo-Myanmar border in Champhai district, more than 70 per cent of the residents in Hnahlan are engaged in grape cultivation. It is a small village with about 560 families, and around 400 among them grow grapes for a livelihood. This is the primary reason that has contributed in making Hnahlan one of the largest producers of grapes in the country.
Usually, one quintal of grape juice is worth Rs 15,000 according to the current market rate which fluctuates at regular intervals. This village earns about Rs 1.5 cr annually from 6,600 quintals of juice that is produced. No wonder, Hnahlan is now placed among the best performing villages in the hill state. The annual income of the village has received a boost which is quite apparent with televisions, computers, vehicles and other luxurious goods seen in most of the houses.
Hnahlan’s enthusiasm had been given a boost by the amendment of the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition (MLTP) Act. The Act had earlier prevented them from large scale commercialisation of their products and winemaking from grapes. Civil society organisations and the church had also supported the government earlier in the crusade against alcohol, and defaulters were imposed fines and punishments. Owing to the fact that wine-making grapes in India were largely imported, Hnahlan is now entertaining the hope of becoming the largest raw material producer for wineries across the country.
Grapes are supposed to have originated in Armenia near Caspian Sea. The earliest evidence of grape vine cultivation and winemaking dates back 7,000 years. The history of viticulture is closely related to the history of wine, with evidence that humans cultivated wild grapes to make wine as far back as the Neolithic period.
In India, grapes were introduced from Iran and Afghanistan by the end of 12th century. The area under grape cultivation in India is 80,000 hectares approximately with an annual production of 1,878.3 thousand metric tonnes. Four varieties are grown in the country with the Bangalore Blue occupying the maximum area under cultivation. Most of the area under grape cultivation is in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In north India, only Punjab grows grapes over an area of 777 hectares with annual production of 22,088 metric tonnes.
Grape cultivation needs certain ideal weather conditions, such as around 1,500 hours of sunshine and 700 mm of rain through the year. Also, it needs a long and warm summer to let the fruits ripen properly so that the acids and sugars in the fruit are balanced. Usually planting is done from October onwards till January but sometime also during June-July in case the monsoon is late. Rainfall during harvesting season can be disastrous, as the fruits can get fungal infection.
The farmers of Hnahlan follow the traditional method of step terracing cultivation, which is considered an appropriate method of farming to produce good quality grapes in large numbers. This practice of the non-irrigation form of cultivation is also found in the grape producing areas of France and Germany.
In India, most of the grapes are consumed fresh with about 30 per cent of seedless grapes processed to produce raisins. Only a negligible quantity of grapes is used in India to produce wine, with French collaboration. The fruit is rich in sugar, acids, minerals and vitamins and a recent study claims that grapes also protect the retina in the eyes.
Hnahlan’s tryst with cultivation of grapes comes closely on the heels of similar examples of villages at East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, where wine making has emerged as a cottage industry. After a visit to Hnahlan, a team of experts from the Centre’s Horticulture Technology Mission was convinced that Mizoram had the capability for double-cropping of grapes, given its suitable climatic and soil conditions. The Mission which was launched by the ministry of agriculture has helped the grape growers of Hnahlan with more than Rs four crore financial assistance in the past five years.
Blue & Best
According to experts, the
grapes grown in Mizoram are of the Bangalore Blue variety which is best suited for wine making. However, Hnahlan grape growers also have their share of problems as well. Pests have often destroyed the grapes and to combat this menace, the horticulture department had been providing them with adequate pesticides and GI wires. Another
big problem the farmers have been facing was the lack of proper equipment for fermentation of grapes. Grape juice processed in Sintex plastic barrels is considered an unhygienic way of fermentation. The state government has recently promised to provide proper equipment for fermentation.
The remote location of the state along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh coupled with its hilly terrain has also fuelled problems of storing and packaging for the cultivators. Mizoram is connected with the rest of the country through Assam and Manipur but the highways are often in dilapidated conditions. Now, most of the farmers have been forced to make brews and sell it to the black markets in Aizawl and Champhai.
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