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Tuesday, Jan 18, 2005

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`Hill Banana' growing by Palani's grace

L.N. Revathy

Coimbatore , Jan. 17

THERE is a sudden spurt, both in area and demand for the Hill Banana - Virupakshi.

Though the demand for the fruit did not ever die down, growers have been disinclined to raise this variety because of its susceptibility to the Bunchy Top disease, which wiped entire plantations in the past.

The area has trickled to a few hundred acres from over 25,000 acres in the mid 70s.

In September last, the Palani Temple Devasthanam decided to prepare the Panchamirtham using the Virupakshi Banana. With the temple authorities indicating their requirement of the fruit for preparation of the Panchamirtham, growers have decided to support the cause and expand the area.

Legend has it that this particular variety was solely used in the preparation of Panchamirtham. The non-availability of the fruit in sufficient quantities necessitated the temple authorities to use other banana varieties in preparing the prasadam. This decision has reversed the trend and the area for cultivation appears to be increasing, albeit slowly.

The Fruit Grower's Association of Tamil Nadu has started direct procurement from the growers for supply to the Palani Devasthanam. Speaking to Business Line, the FGA (TN) Secretary, Mr Arun R. Nagarajan, said the association managed to procure 10,000 kg of the fruit on a weekly basis from 188 growers of which 110 growers supplied close 40 kg every week.

A procurement vehicle collects the fruit at the farm gate. "We are at present covering 26 villages. The procurement van operates four days a week. Bunches are weighed and payments disbursed to the growers on the spot. Apart from direct procurement, growers can drop the fruit at the purchase centre which operates throughout the day," he added.

Virupakshi is not grown in plains. Raised as an intercrop in coffee plantations, it has come to serve as an alternate means of income for the coffee growers in Palani Hills. The first crop is harvested in 15 months and subsequent harvests are made every 8 months. The plant life is 6 years.

The FGA is hoping to expand the area to its earlier level by 2007 to meet the growing demand from the Palani Devasthanam. It has tied-up with Jain Irrigation and Growmore Biotech for supply of three lakh disease-free tissue culture plants. The supplies are expected to commence from July.

To meet the financial needs of the growers, the association is in talks with State Bank of India and Canara Bank formulating a scheme.

On price fixation, he said Hill banana was conventionally traded in "number of pieces". To introduce uniformity, the association chalked a system of procurement on weight basis. "The banana hands are weighed and payments disbursed on the spot. At present, the purchase rate is Rs 19 a kg. No service charge, transport cost or commission is charged to the grower," he added.

He explained that the fixed schedule of procurement facilitated in planning the harvest. The number of farmers who have joined the scheme has increased from 5 in September 2004 to 188 in the first week of January. The monthly supplies have also shot up from 3,270 kg in September 2004 to 46,875 kg in December 2004.

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