Apart from the sweltering, scorching heat Indian summers never fail to bring on a welcome malady – Mango Madness. It’s that time of the year when the heat and desperation drive people from all parts to feverishly embark on reckless debates – Ratnagiri, or Banganapalli, Saroli or Himsagar, Kesar, Langra or Gulab Khas! But there is one name that is universally revered, a name that has ruled roost since time immemorial – the ubiquitous Alphonso. Certified universally from the old lady next door to Gordon Ramsay, Alphonso is the undisputed king of summer fruits and key export from the Konkan region of Gujarat and Maharashtra. In all the country grows about 2300 tonnes of this coveted fruit. Harvested between April and May, the Alphonso is usually available between May and July and is known for its rich flavor and texture.
This year, however, fortune is less likely to smile upon Alphonso growers and exporters with the 28-member European Union (EU) having announced a blanket ban on the import of Alphonso mangoes. Apart from the fruit, the EU has also announced a ban on the import of four quintessentially Indian vegetables – the bitter gourd, snake gourd, the eggplant (aubergine/brinjal), and the taro plant. The ban comes into effect tomorrow, on May 1, 2014 and is likely to last till December 31, 2015.
In 2013, the EU’s Standing Committee on Plant Health found fruit flies and other quarantine pests in 207 of the consignments of fruits and vegetables imported from India into the EU. The EU port authorities had confirmed the presence of these harmful pests in 2 of the 18 interceptions carried out. There were other issues as well including certification issues but the ban did not relate to them. The EU ban noted that there were “significant shortcomings in the phytosanitary certification system of such products exported to the EU”. The EU ban affects the import of Alphonso and these vegetables to all the member nations including the UK – one of the largest importers of what has been called ‘the king of Indian fruits’. The UK alone accounts for over 90% of the total mango imports into the EU.
EU’s ban is definitely a harsh move. The pests and fruit flies were found in less than 6%of the total import consignments brought from India. In 2013, when EU had informed the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) about these findings, the board immediately moved to put in place an improved system of regulations and checks. In August 2013, the EU was informed that this enhanced system would go into effect on April 1, 2014. There are reports too, that fruit flies are found only in the Neelam variety of mangoes and the ban on Alphonso is an “excess”. Despite this, the EU ban was announced at Brussels on March 26, right at the start of the export season.
The impact of the EU ban will be worst felt by the Indian Alphonso farmers. The ban could adversely affect the export of at least 16 million Indian mangoes imported by the United Kingdom – a market worth about £6 million. The fruits that were to be exported are now likely to be dumped in domestic markets drastically bringing down the prices of what is usually an expensive fruit. In cities like Mumbai, Alphonso mangoes can fetch a minimum of INR 1,000 a dozen in peak season. This figure shoots dramatically up when the fruits start to disappear from the stalls. With all the fruits slotted for export flooding domestic markets, prices could go down by over 30%, farmers fear. Alphonso cultivation dominates over 130,000 hectares of the Ratnagiri, Raigad, and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra and the cultivators depend greatly on exports for profitability. In 2012, when Alphonso prices crashed and local retailers took to selling at about 75% discounted rated, many farmers went bankrupt. Fears also are that the two year ban may dissuade cultivators to give up on Alphonso altogether.
Importers in the UK are just as worried. The ban will cost them thousands of pounds that are earned in this period. While the Indian government broaches the issue with the EU Trade Commissioner, it remains to be seen if the EU will reverse the ban soon enough to salvage India’s beloved Haphus (Alphonso).