With October, the air is turning a crisp cool all over north eastern India. Soon, markets across the region will be flooded with winter vegetables and fruits including oranges. However, this winter will be far less juicier than the earlier ones. Orange trees are dying here, en masse. To most people, orange production in India is synonymous with Nagpur of Maharashtra. However, a number of places in the NE region - including Mizoram's Jampuii hills and Tamenglong district of Manipur grow Mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata) in significant quantity. In the year 2008-09 alone, Tamenglong district produced 17,311 metric tons of oranges. But this season, the production is going to be far less, thanks to a mysterious disease that's left hundreds of orange trees dead. "The decline actually started in 2000", says Achungmei Kamei a local whose family owns an orange orchard. "The orange harvest takes place annually in December and January. During these two months, we make our entire annual income. But now, dead trees have resulted in an incredibly precarious situation for us, affecting our livelihoods," Kamei adds.
There are about 1000 households like Kamei's, which are involved in farming oranges here, making about Rs. 60,000 minimum every season and a maximum of Rs. 1.5 lakhs. Today all of them are facing an uncertain future. Mr Katadim, another orange farmer, highlights this reality, 'farmers like me are in shock and are helpless, because for us these oranges are our only source of income to sustain our families.'
Desperate to counter the situation, orange farmers have started to grow banana plants. Whilst this may go some way to compensate the farmers' financial loss, it continues to puzzle agricultural experts and civilians on why the orange trees are dying in the first place. Locals believe that climate change is the possible explanation for this gradual death of the orchards. After a visit from the India Foundation of Agriculture Research, various interventions were suggested, namely the use of sprinklers and fertilizers, but alas, to no effect.The juicy oranges have been a big attraction for hundreds of people who visit the Tamenglong Orange Festival - an annual event, held in December. But this year, the festival venue has been shifted to state capital of Impahal city, adding to the woes of the local farmers.