TN farmers unite to revive local banana varieties

It took 23 years of gruelling efforts by a small group of farmers in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu to revive the almost-extinct species of a plantain. 

Virupakshi hill plantain, an endangered species which has delicate flavour, is used for making the world famous “Panchamrutham”, a jelly like sweet, offered at the renowned Subramanya temple in Palani. 

Till 1970, the rare banana variety, which is grown only in Palani lower hills in Dindigul district, was cultivated in more than 30,000 hectares.

Virupakshi has always been grown as a shade tree for young coffee plants. With coffee being a long-term crop, it was the Virupakshi banana, which supplemented the income of the farmers in the remote and hilly terrains till 1970s. In addition, another rare variety called Sirumalai banana, which is
 also a rare variety, was grown along with Virupakshi. However, in the mid-1970s the dreaded bunchy top disease spread like wildfire in these hills, threatening the two varieties of bananas. Within a decade, the cultivation shrunk to a few hundred hectares.

But a dedicated group of farmers in Dindigul and surrounding districts got their act together under the banner of Tamil Nadu Hill Banana Growers Federation and sought the much-needed help of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the Centre for Banana National Research to save the species. 

Another distinct feature of this fruit is that it maintains clumps and consumes only 18 months to yield the fruit. The crop is grown mostly under organic condition and needs evenly well-distributed rainfall not less than 110 days in a year with the quantum of 1500 mm. “We formed our organisation with about 200 farmers. All of us worked very hard for more than 20 years to save Virupakshi and also Sirumalai,” Federation Vice President R Pavalarajan said. 

He said due to dedicated efforts by the members of the association, the cultivation area has increased to about 3,500 hectares. According to him, the cultivation area dropped from 30,000 hectares in 1970 to around 10,000 within a span of a few years. “It went down further to about 600 hectares in 1990s,” he recalled.

The spreading of virus, known as “bunchy top”, results in the shrinking of the leaves, which are bunched together, preventing the plant from fruiting. The virus also spread vertically through infected propagating suckers.

Association Secretary T V S N Veera Arasu said when the cultivation area came down, estimated loss was to the tune of Rs 20 crore, which was high in those days. Besides, the reduction in area also affected the employment potential directly and indirectly.  “Earlier, in 1970s we had supplied about five lakh fingers (bananas) per day. Rapid spreading of this disease during 1980-2000 brought down supply to the market by 50,000 per day,” he said. 

He said the farmers had not only worked hard to restore the soil fertility with the help of scientists and experts but also fought for disease-free cultivation over the years. Adding further plight to the farmers, hill banana was also hit by wilt disease during that time where one third of the planted banana was ready for cutting in the plantations. Virupakshi and Sirumalai, that are native to the area were conferred geographical indication (GI), status a few years ago, giving them a unique identity and recognition as products bearing the special characteristics of a particular geography. 

The Virupakshi pulp acts as a natural preservative and this “Panchamrutham” can be stored for more than a year. In addition, it can also be given to babies since it has a high content of vitamin “C” and other medical significance. This is the only variety that can be consumed by all age groups. 

The popularity of the banana increa­sed further when the Subramanya Swamy temple authorities decided to mix the fruit to “Panchamrutham”.With multi-medicinal features, this is a fruit with much sweet, taste and flavour that increases hunger pangs. This fruit is available all through the year.  

A senior official from Centre for Banana National Research said various scientists from his organisation were working with these farmers for more than 10 years to revive the variety. Pointing out that the bunchy top is a virus that had constantly affected the cultivation, he said “we supplied healthy plants to the farmers by which they could establish virus-free plantations over the years.” 

In addition, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University were multiplying tissue culture plant-lets and supplying to farmers. 

Recalling the efforts taken to raise the variety and the returns it fetched, K Murugasen, a farmer who also worked hard to restore this variety, said the  farmers, who got Rs 1.50 per plantain a few years back, are now getting Rs 4 per fruit. “In order to cultivate more, our members have asked for 10 lakh plants from various research centres,” he said.

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