Nearly 1,000 acres of ‘banjar bhoomi’ in Banka district of Bihar is today flush with green as lemongrass cultivation has proved to be surprisingly bountiful on the stony and unforgiving terrain. With help from the district administration, more than 500 farmers have transformed their barren lands into fragrant fields, and have also set up their own FPO to export the lemongrass oil.
Rikhiya Rajdah (Banka), Bihar
Last year, when the pandemic brought the world to its knees, it had unexpected consequences for Manoj Kumar Yadav, who owned a couple of acres of farmland in Rikhiya Rajdah village of Banka district in Bihar, about 250 kilometres southeast of the state capital Patna.
“This land of mine was banjar. Farmers here are poor and do not have the knowhow to grow anything on the barren land. Let alone tractors, many cannot even afford oxen to plough their fields,” Yadav told Gaon Connection.
Not anymore as Yadav’s once banjar bhoomi is a fragrant field of green covered with the heady lemongrass.
“Last year, the agriculture department told us to grow lemongrass on our banjar bhoomi and guided us in the process, so now our fields are green and spread their fragrance,” he smiled happily.
Recognising the benefits of lemongrass cultivation, the Banka district administration has been strongly promoting it. Since last year, when lemongrass cultivation got a fillip, over 500 farmers in the district have taken up its farming, which covers about 1,000 acres area (mostly barren land) in Banka.
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“Banka’s geographical and demographical profile is unique as compared to the rest of Bihar. Its soil and the rainfall pattern do not support conventional farming. The land is stony and farmers can manage only one kharif crop a year,” Suharsh Bhagat, district magistrate of Banka, explained to Gaon Connection. Lemongrass oil is used in both herbal and cosmetic products.
“Lemongrass cultivation requires only a little water and can grow on stony land with minimum care. Also, the farmers can have three crops a year. With scant irrigation facilities, they can even harvest lemongrass four times a year. This way each farmer can earn up to Rs 50,000 per acre per annum,” the district magistrate said. The earnings from the conventional paddy or wheat crops is Rs 10,000-15,000 per acre per annum only, he pointed out.
Lemongrass farmers have also set up their own FPO [Farmer Producer Organisation] called Sugandhim Banka FPO Ltd and has 180 farmers registered with it. “The FPO, with support from the district administration, is setting up a lemongrass oil extraction plant, the first such state-of-the-art unit in Bihar,” Rajesh Singh, who is organising the farmers and overseeing the setting up of the oil extraction plant, told Gaon Connection.
The current wholesale price of lemongrass oil, an aromatic oil, is between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,400 per litre, and is expected to bring wealth and prosperity to the farmers of Banka, assured Singh. The plant, which is expected to extract 1,000 litres of oil per month, is at its final stage of construction.
Farmers like Yadav will soon be able to sell their lemongrass harvest to this unit. “Aasha pe lagaye hain lemongrass. Doosra koi upay nahi yahan [We have planted lemongrass in the hope we will earn something out of it. Otherwise there is no other option here],” said Yadav.
Banka district has a unique topography. A part of the district is under the Gangetic plains whereas its hilly areas, bordering Jharkhand state, fall in the Chotanagpur Plateau.
Of its total geographical area of 3,019.05 square kilometres, 13.5 per cent is officially categorised as ‘barren and uncultivable land’, as documented in the ‘Agriculture Contingency Plan for District Banka’.
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“Even if we own land, it is of no use as the land is stony and we have no irrigation facilities. We practise rainfed agriculture,” Manish Kumar Suman, a farmer who has taken up lemongrass farming in Rikhiya Rajdah village, told Gaon Connection. Suman, along with his brothers, jointly owns 15 acres (over six hectares) of land.
“We used to only grow a little bit of kulthi [horse gram] on our pathreela land. Then we heard about lemongrass cultivation. The district administration was giving protsahan raashi [incentive] of Rs 8,000 per acre to cultivate lemongrass and we decided to take the plunge,” said Suman.
He then bought lemongrass bulbs at a rate of 50 paisa per bulb and planted over 100,000 bulbs on his banjar land, and is waiting to harvest his crop.
Yadav, another farmer, did something similar. “I got my land cleared by hiring labour and planted lemongrass. The crop is long ready for harvest, but we are yet to earn anything from it,” he said. “We haven’t even received the protsahan raashi yet,” he complained.
Whereas farmers in Banka have taken up lemongrass cultivation, many like Yadav have not yet received the promised incentive of Rs 8,000 per acre. They claim that they invested their own money and are yet to earn a penny out of it.
“I bought one lakh lemongrass bulbs. I also spent money clearing my land. But so far, I have not received the incentive money that was promised to us,” said Suman. “We were told we can harvest our lemongrass crop thrice a year. It’s been a year and we have not harvested even once as the oil extraction unit, where we have to sell our harvest, is still under construction,” he added.
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“We are waiting to harvest our crop. We have also shared our bank account details to receive the protsahan raashi. But so far there has been no progress,” complained Yadav. “Things should move once the oil extraction plant becomes functional,” he hoped.
“Farmers should not worry. Majority of them have received the incentive money of eight thousand rupees per acre. The rest will receive it too. We have offered this incentive under the aroma mission of the National Horticulture Mission,” said Bhagat, the district magistrate.
The aromatic oil extraction plant, which is under construction in Banka, is coming up at a cost of Rs 10 million. “Thirty per cent of the total cost is provided by the district administration though the district mineral fund, and the rest has been pitched in by the Sugandhim Banka FPO,” informed the district magistrate.
“The plant’s ownership is with the FPO and it will be run by the farmers,” Bhagat added. The plant’s functioning will be monitored by the government’s district level Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA).
According to Singh, this 100 per cent stainless steel steam distillation unit to extract aromatic oil from lemongrass is the first such unit not just in Bihar, but also the neighbouring states of West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand.
Explaining the functioning of the plant, Singh said: “At a time, 600 kilograms of grass can be fed into the unit. From the boiler, steam will enter the lemongrass chamber. The aroma steam will then get into the condenser. Thereafter, it will go to the separator unit where water and aromatic lemongrass oil are separated. Water will settle down and oil will float at the top.”
According to him, about 200 kilograms of lemongrass can give a litre of lemongrass oil. “The oil coming out of our unit will be of export quality and will fetch Rs 1,200-1,400 or up to Rs 1,800 per litre depending on the market rate,” said Singh.
The lemongrass oil extraction unit in Banka is expected to produce about 1,000 litres of aromatic oil every month. Lemongrass oil is known for its antibacterial, anti fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It is used both in medicinal and beauty products.
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Lemongrass is also climate friendly as it requires little water, can grow on stony land, and helps in both soil and water conservation, said Bhagat.
“Lemongrass requires water only while it is being planted. We plant it in June, July and August when there is monsoon rainfall. Later, even if there is no irrigation, the plant won’t die, only there will be less biomass. And it is fully organic,” said Singh. “Farmers can get at least three harvests a year. At present, our main aim is not to earn loads of money but to help take the quality product [lemongrass oil] far and wide in the country,” he added.
“Lemongrass cultivation is a one time investment because there is no need to uproot the plants for five years, and the same plant can keep giving new harvest and beeya [bulb] for the next crop,” said Yadav.
Meanwhile, the farmers who never thought their banjar bhoomi will ever yield anything, watch their lemongrass fields with the hope that they will bring them the sweet smell of success.