Bihar’s litchi farmers fight acute encephalitis syndrome rumour, seek relief

Maitri Porecha Muzaffarpur (Bihar) | Updated on August 15, 2019 Published on August 15, 2019

Most of 400-odd death due to AES were from litchi growing areas

When 10-year-old Rahul Kumar in Mustafapur village of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar got convulsions on June 1, the entire village got panicked. He was rushed to Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital (SKMCH). After nine days, he succumbed to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) and hypoglycemia (a condition of low sugar). Rahul’s father Krishnaprasad is a landless labourer who toils in others’ farms. Around his house are lush green litchi trees. The harvest season is in May-June which is now over.

“As the word spread about AES, farmers were forced to abandon their litchi harvest. At one point of time, police from nearby Jamalabad police station came charging at us with lathis, warning us against sending litchi boxes to Darbhanga fruit market,” said local ASHA worker Meenadevi.

Bihar produces 1.98-lakh tonnes of litchi in a year and annual sales are pegged at ₹600 crore. On August 1, a delegation, including local litchi processors, submitted an appeal to Muzzafarpur district administration pleading that the officials undertake a survey on the quantum of losses that farmers may have incurred on account of crops destroyed due to excessive blowing of wind and reduction in demand due to rumours linking all AES cases in the State due to consumption of litchis. They also claimed that one fourth of the litchi crop in Bihar was destroyed due to climactic conditions.

Plea for insurance cover

In their appeal, the processors demanded the inclusion of litchis, mangoes and vegetable crops in Restructured Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme (RWBCIS) in Bihar. “Launched in 12 States in 2016, RWBCIS is being implemented in nine States and mitigates hardships of insured farmers against likelihood of financial loss due to adverse weather conditions such as rainfall, temperature, wind, humidity and so on,” said Prabhu Kushwaha, owner of Shree Gold Agro and Beverage Pvt Ltd.

One major Muzaffarpur-based litchi processing firm, which didn’t want to be named, claimed that Himachal Pradesh Horticulture Marketing & Processing Corporation (HPMC) withdrew from a contract to procure 200 tonnes of litchi pulp, a senior HPMC official told BusinessLine categorically said that the firm did not back out from any contract because of the AES scare. “If at all we have not got into an agreement with someone, it could be because the quality of pulp was found wanting.”

Reinvestigation demand

Litchi growers also demanded a reinvestigation into the cause of AES deaths and see whether it is also linked to the issue of malnutrition.

A research paper published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet in 2014, which studied 104 AES cases, had stated though the association between certain toxins found in litchi fruit and the illness is plausible, they were unable to establish a necessarily sufficient causal pathway between the two.

While 65 per cent of AES-affected children had reported eating litchi, 52 per cent had visited a fruit orchard, and 78 per cent had reported absence of an evening meal. The paper went on to suggest that minimising litchi consumption, correction of glucose and ensuring children receive an evening meal was the way to go.

“Although litchi fruits are ubiquitous in the orchards surrounding the villages in rural Muzaffarpur, typically only one child in an entire village develops this acute illness. Based on these observations, we conclude that our findings reflect a plausible, but not necessarily sufficient, causal pathway between litchi consumption and illness,” said the HPMC official.

But such nuance is lost on most, and rumours linking the fruit directly to AES caused a scare not only in Bihar but also in Punjab and Haryana. Vishal Nath, Director of National Research Centre on Litchi, said, “A direct link between consuming litchi and AES cases has not been established. As far as dent on litchi business in Bihar is concerned it was not huge. When the deaths started peaking around mid-June (over 400 cases were reported in June alone), the harvest season was about to end. But this had a ripple effect on harvest sales in Punjab and Haryana too. Also, there are concerns that farmers may not get adequate returns next year due to the scare.”

With inputs from TV Jayan in New Delhi

Published on August 15, 2019
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