Farmers in Jharkhand’s Khunti forgo opium cultivation, embrace lemongrass

Farmers in Jharkhand’s Khunti, known for illegal opium cultivation, and smuggling, are happy to script a new identity through lemongrass cultivation.

Anand Dutta
| Updated: July 29th, 2020

Farmers in KJharkhand's Khunti are happy to cultivate lemongrass instead of opium. Photo: Anand Dutta

Chara Munda and his wife, farmers from Kojrong village in Kuda Panchayat of Jharkhand’s Khunti district, filled a new lot of lemongrass to an oil-extracting device installed outside their house. They put it on heat from the dry wood and patiently waited for the oil to trickle, drop-by-drop, into the plastic bottle placed below. After all, it is not the temporary high from opium that Khunti farmers seek anymore, but the heady aroma of prosperity through lemongrass oil.

In the movie ‘Thappad’ that released last year, there are shots of actor Taapsee Pannu cutting a few leaves of a tall, green, stalky plant outside her kitchen window and adding it to the water boiling for tea. This is lemongrass, scientifically called Cymbopogon citratus.

Khunti, one of the worst Naxal-hit districts in Jharkhand, is infamous for illegal opium cultivation and smuggling as well. As per police records, at least 54 people from the district have been arrested for opium cultivation in 2020. A total of 673.60 acres of opium have been destroyed this year, and 2,571 kilograms of poppy shells and 65.96 kilograms of opium were seized.

However, the tribal and non-tribal farmers in Khunti are now fully committed to forgo the illegal opium cultivation and embrace lemongrass instead.

“Naxalism, left-wing extremism, the Patthalgadi movement, and opium cultivation—all of these substantially tarnished the image of the district,” said Ajay Sharma, a local journalist. “We are now trying to make it right with the help of villagers. A large number of farmers have also taken to cultivating flowers and watermelon,” he informed Gaon Connection.

“On June 14, 2020, a meeting was held at an auditorium in Khunti, as part of an initiative by the Seva Welfare Society, where farmers discussed lemongrass cultivation,” Munda told Gaon Connection. Munda has planted lemongrass in about two acres of land. He has also devised a crushing machine to extract oil from the grass and installed it in front of his house.

“Out of 700 villages in the district, a total of 80 villages have done such meetings so far. Everywhere, the farmers are gearing up for lemongrass cultivation and are being given lemongrass sapling,” said Arjun Pahan, another farmer.

India is the largest producer of lemongrass, in states Kerala, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, and the annual production ranges between 300-350 tonnes per annum. The urban crowd would know lemongrass as a common ingredient in Thai cuisine. It is known for its medicinal, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties. Lemongrass oil is used in aromatherapy to freshen the air and reduce stress.

The lemongrass cultivation in Khunti began last year, buoyed by the declaration of a prominent businessman to export lemon oil to the United States of America, provided substantial production of it in the area. A quintal (100 kilograms) of lemongrass yields a litre of oil. At present, the oil sells for Rs 1,500 per litre.

Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plant, Lucknow has stepped in to help the farmers with lemongrass cultivation. Following the institute’s directions, 50 to 100 litres of oil can be procured per acre of lemongrass. It can easily yield two harvests in the first year and four harvests in the subsequent years. Moreover, four harvests with irrigation, and two without, can also be done. 

“Every gram sabha has details of all its farmers. So based on their landholdings, farmers are provided with lemongrass plants. Once the lemongrass is sown, it can be harvested through the next three to five years,” Manga Mundu, a 25-year-old farmer, told Gaon Connection.

Lemongrass is a hardy, low-cost crop that can thrive on arid and rocky soil. Once a sapling is planted, it needs to be irrigated only twice. It needs to be protected from vermin only for about a month.

“Farmers recently extracted ten litres of lemongrass oil. Based on the number of farmers listed by the gram sabha, lemongrass is to be cultivated in 100 acres this year,” said Ajay, elated by the success.

Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society, an institution of the Jharkhand government is also promoting medicinal farming including lemongrass. The institution’s spokesperson Kumar Vikas informed Gaon Connection that there is a greater demand for lemongrass oil in the market and that it remains a much sought-after product in all central government’s e-bazaars and fairs.

Women engaged in lemongrass farming. Photo: Anand Dutta

Sanika Pahan, 35, spoke about the monetary gains from lemongrass cultivation. She is of the opinion that it can provide good income even from barren land. She, however, pointed out that farmers would require financial assistance from the government to raise capital for lemongrass farming. “Each lemongrass sapling costs 1 rupee. One acre takes about 22,000 saplings, that is, Rs 22,000 at least. Where will we get so much capital from? We will able to cultivate well only if the government helps us,” she said.

Will the government keep its word?

On July 1, 2020, Jharkhand Agriculture Minister Badal Patralekh met the lemongrass farmers, reviewed their work, and announced that the state government would bear the cost of lemongrass cultivation in the hundred acres.

The farmers, however, are skeptical. “The horticulture department spoke about giving us Rs 6,477 per acre. But for this purpose, the gram sabha will have to furnish photographs, the minutes of the meeting, the list of farmers with their Aadhaar card numbers and land details,” said Sandhu Pahan, a 31-year-old lemongrass farmer.

Lemongrass farmers walking with harvest. Photo: Anand Dutta

“In addition, a committee has to be constituted and after the committee has opened its bank account, the government has to be forwarded the account details,” Sandhu continued. “Due to the ongoing rains, the crop could have been easily sown. There is no irrigation facility in the area. Completing these formalities will take forever and the farmers would anyway be left to their own devices in the end,” feared Sandhu.

Gaon Connection reached out to the agriculture minister regarding the promise he made. “Since it was I who had encouraged the farmers for cultivating lemongrass, I shall also provide every support for it,” clarified Patralekh. “It is true that 20 days have passed and no money has reached the farmers yet. I will discuss the matter with the officials once again to identify and sort the glitches to make the process smooth. I would request the farmers to bear with us for a few more days,” he told Gaon Connection.