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Nawada: Once the most favoured paan leaf among the nobility of Lucknow and Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is today one of three products from Bihar with a GI tag, and finds a ready market in the eastern states as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet, few who daily relish the Magahi paan’s taste know the misery of those who grow it.
The paan, about 3.5 to 9.5 inches in size, is pungent, non-fibrous, soft and sweet, and easily soluble in the mouth. It is best grown in the clay loam soil found only in the Magadha region of southern Bihar, comprising Gaya, Nalanda, Nawada and Aurangabad districts.
It is also grown exclusively by around 100 farmers of the Chaurasia community of Dheuri village, 132 kilometres from Patna, in the Nawada Lok Sabha constituency. People like 45-year-old Shobha Devi and 40-year-old Vinod Chaurasia, who grow this paan on land leased from other farmers, as the community members, who are spread across 60 villages in the Magadh region, own little or no land.
This correspondent met Shobha Devi, as she opened her lunch and watched over the Magahi paan plants growing in the five cottah of land (one cottah is about 720 sq feet) she has leased. “We pay the landowner Rs 2,000 per cottah per annum,” she said. “My husband Ajay Prasad Chaurasia works as a daily wage labourer and I look after Magahi paan field with my children."
Last year, severe cold hit paan productivity hard, forcing her to take a loan to pay the lease. “So far, we have borrowed more than one lakh rupees from the local money lender. Income from the paan is too little to support my family. I have an adult daughter. Without money how will I get her married?” she asked.
Vinod Chaurasia now grows paan only on three cottahs of land due to uncertain weather, whereas earlier, he used to plant five cottahs. But the vagaries of the weather are only one of Vinod’s many problems.
After laboriously harvesting the leaves and selling them in the market in Varanasi, he recently returned home empty-handed after selling 100 dholis (200 leaves in one dholi) of paan, as the buyer asked him to come back six months later to collect his money. “This happens every year in the Varanasi market,” said Vinod. “We are paid in installments. Sometimes, money is paid after one and a half years.”
This is a problem faced by all the Magahi paan growers. Sunil Chaurasia, 36, is owed Rs 50,000-60,000. “When I return after selling the paan, money lenders rush to my house to get their dues,” said Sunil. “They think I have received money from the sale.” Having taken five cottah of land on lease, Sunil is struggling to provide for his three children, one of whom is ill.
Sowing of the Magahi paan is during March-May each year, with leaves plucked during January-March. On a good year, each plant can give 40-60 leaves, giving a yield of 500 dholis per year per cottah. Every year, farmers have to sow new plants. When everything goes well, farmers can earn Rs 70,000-1,00,000 from one cottah of land.
But rarely does everything go well and all that the leaf growers get for their efforts is Rs 100-200 per dholi. Their wish is Rs 300 per dholi. One item in a fairly long wish list.
The pain in Magahi paan
Ironically, for a product with a Bihar GI tag, the Magahi paan has no wholesale market in its home state. Growers have to spend over Rs 1,000 to cart their produce to Varanasi, where they are invariably at the middleman’s mercy. According to farmers, middlemen exploit them in different ways, one of them being taking eight dholi extra for free on every 100 dholi paan sold.
Also, no insurance or MSP facility is available to these farmers as Magahi paan, which is highly susceptible to bad weather, is classified a horticulture, not agriculture, product. Last year in January, 2,680 farmers, 1,286 of them from Nawada, lost their entire Magahi crop due to excessive cold.
According to agriculture department data, Magahi paan is currently being cultivated in only 439 hectares. And the number of paan farmers is on the decline because of lack of any state help to ease their high cost of production, as the plant requires an artificial conservatory to grow. Basically, it requires a long hut made of paddy straw, bamboos, arhar stalks and rope (preferably coconut coir). A 200 square feet conservatory costs Rs 55,000-60,000 and has to be rebuilt every two years or so.
Recognising the farmers' hardships, two separate government schemes were launched in 2011-2012, with provision for annual monetary assistance. While it lasted, the schemes did empower these farmers, but they were discontinued after a couple of years without citing any reason.
Farmers had hoped for better days when the paan got the GI tag last year, but nothing has changed for them. State agriculture minister Prem Kumar did visit some of the farms and promised financial help. But nothing has happened since and the minister was unavailable for comment.
So why do they continue to cultivate the Magahi paan? “Our ancestors were cultivating Magahi paan, so how can we leave this?” asks Sriprakash Chaurasia, as he plucked leaves on his leased 10 cottah of land. “We are trapped in this web. Every time we expect a good income and every time, we face loss.”
Ranjit Chaurasia, secretary of Magahi Pan Utpadak Kalyan Samiti, said, “If the government really wants to give Magahi paan farming a boost, then it has to do a couple of things. First of all, we need paan market in Gaya. Second, it should be categorised an agricultural product so that farmers can get insurance."
A market in Gaya would mean an immediate 15-20 percent savings for farmers. “All that such a market needs is a big piece of land, some facilities for farmers to exhibit their produce and some godowns to store the paan for a few days,” said Ranjit.
Most important, a local market would cut out the exploitative middleman, at whose mercy the farmers are when they land in Varanasi. Traders come to Varanasi from across the country and deal with the middlemen who negotiate the price. Farmers have no direct access to traders and have to sell to the middlemen only.
A market in Gaya will bring traders to the farmers, a win-win situation for all. “We have been raising these demands for a decade. We have met the agriculture minister a number of times, but nothing has been done so far,” said Ranjit Chaurasia.
SN Das, a scientist at the Magahi Paan Research Centre, Islampur (Nalanda) said that a meeting was held in February with the agriculture minister and other stakeholders to open a paan market in Gaya. “Though a final decision is yet to be taken, things are moving forward,” said Das. “We have also recommended that Magahi paan should be included in agricultural products so that farmers can get their product insured and Minimum Support Price (MSD) is fixed."
One reason why the Magahi paan farmers' sorry plight is not taken seriously, even during elections, is the state’s rampant caste politics. Nawada Lok Sabha constituency has around three lakh Bhumihars whose numbers and influence have ensured a Bhumihar is elected from there and protects their interests. Their concern for the difficulties faced by the Chaurasia community is minimal. The current holder of the seat, Giriraj Singh, has never even met the paan farmers, let alone raise their problems in any forum. We tried to contact Giriraj Singh a couple of time but his number was either switched off or not reachable.
So even as the campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls intensifies, there is little cause for hope for these GI tagged Magahi paan farmers.
(The author is a Patna-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.)