Mitesh Patel, a grower of flowers at Badarkha, a village near Ahmedabad, is desperate for an end to the lockdown.

“Otherwise, my rose plants will get burnt down in this heat. My irrigation motor is in disrepair and I am unable to find a technician because of the lockdown. Somehow, I am managing to get water from other sources to keep the plants alive, but that isn't sustainable. And if a plant dies, it will take at least six months for a substitute plant to bear flowers,” Patel said.

In more than a decade into floriculture, Patel has never before gone through the painful chore of dumping the entire harvest of fresh pink desi roses and marigold into a waste pit, as he has done daily for the past 17 days.

Down the drain

“We have to harvest the flowers because leaving them on the plant to rust will eventually impact productivity. It entails labour cost and we’ve to dump the entire harvest into a pit since we can't sell a single piece. This has been the routine for many days now. There is no income. We are just watching our money going waste,” said Patel, who grows flowers on approximately seven acres.

About 25 km away in Bhetawada village, where floriculture is the only source of income for about 100 farmers, they are counting the days under the lockdown.

Bolt from the blue

Piyush Makwana, a jasmine grower narrates how he was expecting a bountiful crop this year and the lockdown has dashed all his hopes. “The jasmine production had just begun in mid-March. And the market prices were nearly 40 per cent more than last year’s. But just around that time, this lockdown was was declared and the business collapsed completely,” he said.

Jasmine prices ruled at ₹400 a kg in the wholesale markets of Ahmedabad before the lockdown, while it was ₹250-280 per kg last year. “Unlike rose, which is a round-the-year crop, jasmine is for just three-four months. Most of us make our annual earnings during these three months,” said Makwana, who also cultivates the desi rose variety and jasmine on about 4 bigha land (approx 2 acres).

Since these flowers can't be stored in cold storages or processed for other purposes, there is a net crop loss for them. Makwana admits that he received ₹2,000 from the PM Kissan Fund in his account, but expects additional relief to offset the losses.

Perished stocks

In Ahmedabad city, florist Kunal Yadav, who sells a variety of flowers for temples, home décor, party or event decorations, has his shop stinking. After about 10 days of lockdown, when he visited it recently, the fragrance had turned into a sour smell. “My entire ₹15,000 worth of flower stocks were rotting and stinking. I had to discard it, sanitise the shop and lock it completely. We don't know when this lockdown is going to get over,” said Yadav.

Cities such as Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, and Rajkot get their regular flower supplies such as desi rose, marigold etc from nearby flower growing clusters. However, flowers required for decorative purpose such as lilies, gerberas, miniature or hybrid roses are sourced from Bengaluru, Pune and Ujjain, among other regions.

“They come through parcel service on buses or trains. These exotic varieties can be stored in cold storage for at least a month. So we expect that once this lockdown is lifted, there will be a flush of these old stocks and flower prices may fall,” Yadav said, adding that there is no income for them and the outlook remains grim as bulk consuming segments such as public events, marriages and religious functions may not start immediately amid the coronavirus scare.

At a standstill

For Shreekant Bollapally of Bengaluru, a large-scale grower of cutflowers such as carnations and roses, the lockdown has offered no option other than dumping the flowers into manuring pits or feeding the stalks to cattle. “Flowers don’t come under essential commodities and growers are suffering,” said Bollapally, a director of South India Floriculture Association (SIFA), a body of cutflower growers and exporters.

Areas around Bengaluru and Hosur in neighbouring Tamil Nadu are considered ideal for floriculture because of the climatic patterns, and hundreds of growers depend on flower cultivation for their livelihood.

“Exports of cutflowers have completely stopped due to the disruption in air connectivity and the lockdown,” said Keshava Murthy a floriculturist in Denkanikottai, who shipped an average of 1.2 lakh roses a month to countries such as New Zealand and Malaysia.

Bollapally and Keshava Murthy said growers having greenhouses are forced to incur huge operational costs as the plants have to be maintained even if there are no sales. “Maintenance is crucial to protect the capital invested. Cutflower growers incur an expenditure of about ₹1.5 lakh per acre to maintain the plants towards labour and fertilisers costs. This expenditure is exclusive of the interest costs on the capital investments,” Bollapally said.

In districts such as Chikkaballapur, adjoining Bengaluru, small farmers have left their fields of chrysanthemum and marigold unharvested, while several of them have started uprooting the plants as they are unable to sell their produce.

Scene in the North

The scene is no different in Himachal Pradesh. “We suffered huge loss. I grow flowers on 3,000 sq metres. I normally grow chrysanthemum and a bit or carnation flowers. I already cleared Chrysanthemum flowers in 1000 sq metres. Will wait till April 14. If the lockdown is not lifted then, I have no option but to destroy the flowers growing in the rest of the field also. I would incur a total loss of at least ₹15 lakh. In the area I cleared now, I am planning to grow capscum and French beans,” said Ashok Kumar from Jhaja village in Solan. Jhaja is a floriculture hub with hundreds of farmers growing flowers. The total loss of the village will run into several crores of rupees, he said.

In the Ghazipur market in Delhi, flowers worth several crores had to be dumped since the lockdown has come into effect, said Teg Singh Choudhary, President, Ghazipur Flower Market Traders Association. “We are also concerned about farmers who grow flowers,” Choudhary, who himself is a flower farmer with a floriculture farm in Hapur where he grows flowers such as Rajnigandha, Chrysathemum and gladiola. Normally, the maximum flowers come to the market in March and April months. The demand for flowers are also more in this season as this is mainly the wedding season, said Choudhary.

‘No easy recovery’

Nemom Radhakrishnan, President, Thiruvananthapuram Florists Association,says the trade will not be able to recover at least for the next six months from the impact of the lockdown. This has direct implications for lives and livelihood of some 60 traders and hundreds of workers they employ (around 600) in the district. “The situation is unprecedented and pales in comparison to Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 or the floods of 2018,” he said. The florists cannot even think of mounting any relief work for which it had received accolades on these two previous occasions. “How can we provide relief to others at a time when we are seeking it from elsewhere,” Radhakrishnan wondered, citing the present crisis.

The association has submitted a memorandum each to the Kerala Chief Minister who has taken note of its plight and promised help even though association members do not subscribe to own welfare fund, unlike counterparts in most other labour/trade in the state. “We belong to the unorganised sector and look to the government for help. We may not be able to resume work unless substantial help reaches us from banks or other institutions at low interest rates.”

But this is ruled out for the next six months, if not longer, even if the lockdown goes. This is because the growers across the border in Nagercoil have themselves been laid low by the twin crises. They need to follow seasonal cycles to go to the fields again. And the next harvest would not become possible in the short to medium term. So, players in the trade on either side of the border are faced with an uncertain future. They would need to start from a clean state, and start building their lives from scratch, Radhakrishnan says. Thiruvananthapuram does not have an export trade for the past 15 years; it has shifted to Kochi and Kozhikode.

(With inputs from T V Jayan in New Delhi and Vinson Kurian in Thiruvananthapuram)