The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 19-03-2023 | 12:45 pm
Some three kilometres from the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal’s Nadia district, patchy rows of date palm trees demarcate plots of agricultural land growing winter vegetables. Just as dusk is about to fall, tightening the knot on his blue chequered lungi, 40-year-old Sanjit Ghosh climbs up the tallest date palm tree in the grove — nearly 20 ft high — and makes a small incision with his knife. Then, he gently inserts a thin bamboo nozzle into the incision and hangs an earthen pitcher at the top of the trunk.The pitcher that Sanjit has left on the tree will be filled by date palm sap that has trickled into it through the night, and on the next day, just before sunrise, he will make a trip up the tree to bring it down. If he is lucky, it will be filled till the brim, he says.Sanjit is harvesting the last of the season’s nolen gur, or date palm jaggery, a coveted food in the region. This date palm is a wild species indigenous to India that grows in abundance in West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh, and is cultivated for its sap.But factors like climate change and a complex set of socio-economic conditions are throwing the production of the state’s traditional winter delicacy into jeopardy.Winter; blink & it’s gone Harvesting gur has been a family business for Sanjit, one that he has been engaged in for nearly three decades. In his family, he is the second generation siuli, the Bengali term for the community that extracts date palm jaggery. “We used to have three months of winter and we were able to cut trees till the third week of February. This year we saw that February had just arrived but the winter was almost gone,” he says.During the winter months in the state, the maximum temperature hovers around 20°C, while minimum temperature drops below 15°C. But this year, by the first week of February, winter had been quickly replaced by warmer weather.“My generation has seen the weather changing. We would sell sap to vendors through February but the weather was so bad this year that we hardly extracted any. We have suffered heavy financial loss,” Sanjit says.The vulnerability to climate change is more pronounced in the case of date palm because even a minor rise in temperature severely affects the quality of sap that is extracted. The siuli say that over the past few years, a date palm tree that in ideal weather conditions would give five litres of sap, gives an average of two to three litres now, severely reducing the produce that they are able to sell.Some scientists, however, say that it may be too soon to form conjectures. “I can’t say whether climate change has been a contributing factor, simply because there hasn’t been any research on this,” says Dr. Debabrata Basu, an expert on agriculture at the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya in West Bengal.Growing up in the Nadia district, Basu’s ancestral home had some 40 trees of date palm, known as khejur in Bengali, from which sap would be extracted to produce fresh, unadulterated jaggery. As a result, he has seen the business of gur extraction and production up close, and more intimately than most. “From my observation, I can say that the amount of sap that used to be collected isn’t available any more. This is happening for two reasons: one, the water table has reduced. Date palms love water, which in turn produces sap,” he explains.The second, he says, is more complex. Till a little over a decade ago, monocrops were largely grown in regions in the state with high numbers of date palms, which did not use large quantities of ground water. That has changed, adding additional stress to the water table which is naturally lower during the winters. “Farmers say that because the roots of the date palm tree don’t go very deep into the soil, they aren’t getting enough water, resulting in low yields of sap. It is likely one reason behind the low production of jaggery,” he says.The demand for jaggery has also put pressure on siuli who are cutting into the trees at shorter intervals, says Sanjit, within three to four days of the last extraction. “When my father worked, he used to cut the trees at intervals of five to six days. As a result, the quantity of sap that he would extract was larger and the taste was superior. But our generation needs the money, so we cut them as soon as possible,” Sanjit explains.Dr. J. C. Tarafdar, former principal scientist at the Institute of Indian Council of Agricultural Research, believes that while climatic factors are most certainly a reason why the production of nolen gur has reduced, it could have been overcome if there were enough siuli. “It is really the lack of skilled labour. The skills required for cutting the trees and collecting the sap are getting lost since the new generation doesn’t want to learn it,” Dr. Tarafdar says.Endangered skillsLike other traditional skills that are slowly disappearing, the art of gur extraction is also under threat. The process of harvesting this sap is highly technical and the required skills can only be learned every day on the job, the siuli say. It is also a method of food processing that has not been successfully mechanised, making it entirely reliant on a generation of siuli who do not have successors to whom they can pass on these skills.“The cutting of the bark, the process of collection and the placement of the pitchers are all skills that nobody wants to learn anymore. The insertion of the bamboo nozzle is another skill that is very important in the process. The trees are 15 to 20 feet high and these days, people don’t know how to climb them without harnesses. And the siuli who have aged are unable to climb these high trees,” says Dr. Tarafdar.As a young boy, Sanjit remembers following his father and uncle as they harvested date palm sap, starting his training from scratch, by doing odd jobs like hauling pitchers of sap after collection. Mastery over the skill of gur extraction would take him three decades to achieve.28-year-old Biswasjit Ghosh grew up in Bhajanghat village, some seven kilometres away from Majdiha, and was compelled to take up the profession of his grandfather and father, despite having graduated from college with a degree in Geography, because of a lack of job opportunities.Among the most complex tasks in the process is the cutting of notches into the delicate tissue of the date palm bark from where the sap slowly seeps into the pitchers. If done incorrectly, the tree may be damaged and there will be no sap to collect. An experienced siuli will climb up the tree, and shave a bunch of palm leaves from one part of the top of the trunk. The bark is removed and the delicate inner tissue of the tree is exposed, where a ‘V’ shaped incision is made. A precisely shaped bamboo tube is attached to this incision, from where the sap drips into the pitcher.“This is such a difficult job; it is such a difficult skill to acquire. Just because our forefathers could do it, it doesn’t mean that we can. I have been trying to learn this skill for five years but I haven’t been able to,” says Biswajit.It isn’t just the technicalities involved that make this a difficult profession. While the grace and agility with which experienced siuli climb up date palm trees make the job look simple, it is far from it.Young men in siuli families are increasingly unwilling to take on the risks that come with this job, Biswajit says. “This is a very tough job. You have to climb up a tree without a harness and there is always a concern that if you fall down, you may be seriously injured. Only someone who has done this will be able to explain how difficult it is to balance on trees using just a rope. There are a few people from my generation who are doing this, but the future generation will definitely not want to do this job.”There is also a very short window during which the collected sap can be processed to make jaggery. The pitchers that have collected the sap through the night need to be brought down from the trees before sunrise, after which the process of fermentation increases the alcohol content in the liquid, rendering it useless in the production of jaggery.A question of economicsIt is also a question of economics for young men in villages that have historically been centres of date palm jaggery production in West Bengal. There is little that the siuli get in return for their labour, a factor that has discouraged the younger generation from taking on the profession of their fathers and grandfathers.“The income they earn is very less. There is huge disparity in the price at which the siuli sells the sap and the price at which the customer purchases the adulterated gur,” says Dr. Basu.With fewer siuli extracting jaggery, the quantity of pure gur available for purchase in the markets has drastically reduced over the years. Approximately 80 per cent of the jaggery being sold as nolen gur is adulterated, say agriculture scientists. During the process of heating the sap, in most cases, sugar is added to the liquid in an attempt to increase the quantity of jaggery. But the siuli and middlemen say that they are unfairly blamed for adulteration.“Pure jaggery is sold at Rs. 400 to Rs. 500 per kilo. The siuli near our university tell us that if they don’t mix sugar they won’t be able to sell gur at affordable prices,” says Dr. Basu.Sugar costs Rs. 50 per kilo and when mixed into the sap, it reduces the market price of jaggery, making it affordable for the public. “There is a large percentage of sugar in the gur that is sold at Rs. 150 per kg. None of us get pure jaggery these days. It is very rare,” he says. Not many people are able to distinguish between pure and adulterated jaggery, in part because the process is so difficult and because they have never tasted pure nolen gur.The value and cost of fresh date palm jaggery are usually high because it is available only for eight to ten weeks every year during the winter months, agriculture scientists say. A wide range of Bengali sweets or mishti in the state are prepared specifically using nolen gur and such is the popularity of this seasonal produce, that it has been appropriated for preparing everything from nolen gur essence to ice creams in the flavour.In the name of jaggeryIn his shop outside Majdiha’s railway station, Jhantu Das has been selling blocks of jaggery and jars full of liquid nolen gur, also called jhola gur, for over a decade.“Even 10-12 years ago, the jaggery was good. But these days, sugar is added because the quantity of jaggery available has reduced. The siuli have aged and the younger boys can’t cut the trees. Many of them don’t want to. Although the quantity of jaggery has reduced, the appetite for it has not and so sugar is added to the liquid. It is not just us shopkeepers, but even customers understand that jaggery is adulterated. In Majdiha however, you will still get better quality jaggery because less sugar is added here. But in some other places, they just sell sugar in the name of jaggery,” says Das.An identifying feature of pure patali gur or the solidified blocks of date palm jaggery most commonly sold in markets, is that it is an incredibly delicate food product, and melts at room temperature, explains Tanmoy Bera, the proprietor of Sreemanta Gurer Arat, a 200-year-old establishment in central Kolkata that sells different kinds of jaggery. To increase its shelf life and make transportation of the product easier, sugar is added to give it the form of hard blocks which are then wrapped in newspaper and sold in marketplaces.In West Bengal, date palm trees are also not found in organised plantations, making their numbers drastically less in comparison with the demand for their processed sap. “Date palm is not grown for its fruit in the state and farmers aren’t interested in growing this. These trees were traditionally used for buttressing ponds because it has anti-erosion properties,” says Jayanta Kumar Aikat, Director, West Bengal’s Department of Food Processing Industries and Horticulture.These palms are usually wild, found in several parts of rural West Bengal. In villages across the state, Aikat says, in addition to securing shorelines of ponds, the trees are also used to demarcate land and agricultural fields.In West Bengal, the tree has traditionally not been grown for its fruit. Despite the popularity of its jaggery, especially during the winter months, Aikat says, the state government has not observed any serious demand among farmers for the tree’s plantation.The absence of formal plantations is another challenge for the siuli across the state because they are forced to rely on rapidly reducing numbers of wild date palms. “Khejur trees are reducing in number in many districts across West Bengal because brick kilns are constantly looking for khejur wood. The wood of this tree burns slowly, on low flame, which is ideal for brick making. The siuli have told me that the trees are disappearing because the wood is being sold off,” says Basu. Since there has been no formal documentation of the number of trees that grow across West Bengal, it is difficult to estimate how many are lost each year.The complex socio-economic circumstances and climatic conditions indicate a challenging path ahead for the date palm trees and the siuli of West Bengal. “It is not an exaggeration to say that pure nolen gur will become an endangered product in the future,” says Dr. Basu.