Guwahati's Flower Farmers Face Uncertainty Owing to Pandemic, Flood Onslaught
With hundreds of bighas of flower plantation destroyed, the floriculturists in and around Guwahati are struggling to survive. Are Guwahatians still buying flowers?
“I have four kathas of land on which I cultivate flowers. My village has around 70 bighas of flower cultivation. We have been doing this business for the last 20 to 22 years. This year we have lost everything,” lamented Ratan Das.
Among other claims to fame, Guwahati is known for its temples. And true to this claim, Guwahatians are a religious lot. Dawns in Guwahati break with the flower vendors or ‘phoolwalas’ roaming around the city in their cycles, distributing flowers to the households and the temples for the daily religious rituals. They are a part of every household, leaving a package of assorted flowers in the early morning at the doorsteps, even before the newspaper vendors start their distribution.
But this regular practice has suddenly stopped. The reason... lockdown!
Guwahati, a city filled with concrete edifices, cannot produce the number of flowers that it needs. And so, given its daily requirement, villages in the proximity of the city cater to this need, cultivating flowers and distributing them. Every morning, hundreds of flower vendors enter the city at the break of dawn, go around their respective areas of distribution, and return to their villages by the afternoon.
A few kilometers away from the city is a village named Bardadhi located in Hajo Tehsil of Kamrup District. Come winter and spring, the village acquires a character of its own. Its fields - bighas at a stretch - are coloured in hues of orange and yellow by the flowers that spring up. Imagine a sight of 70 bighas with marigolds blooming.
Apart from the seasonal flowers, there are the hibiscus (joba) and the crape jasmine (kothonda) that bloom the whole year-round. And not just the fields, travelling through the village roads, one gets the feel of passing through alleys of flowering bushes.
However, this village now has a different look altogether. The flowering bushes that took years to mature mostly lie dead now. The marigold fields are now cultivated with rice crops, but all are in deep water.
Showing the now dead gardens, Ratan Das, a cultivator said, “I used to make a profit of Rs. 8000 to Rs. 9000 per month from this flower business. It took years for these bushes to mature. Now all are dead. We started the year on a bad note. The lockdown started and we could not sell the seasonal flowers. Last season’s marigold cultivation... all are wasted. I couldn’t even earn back the cost of cultivation.”
“We were hoping to do some business after the lockdown gets over, but the floods have destroyed years of hard work. Firstly, we could not work in the fields, so the plants were left without care, fertilizers, etc. And then the Puthimari river embankment broke. After the first flood, the second wave destroyed everything completely,” he continued.
“Now if there is no more flood this year and next year, we can plant anew next year. But that will take again 3 to 4 years to bloom for business. We have moved back by 6 to 7 years now,” Ratan sadly added.
The lockdown has partially opened. Ratan, along with the rest have started travelling to Guwahati with whatever little they could gather. But a new problem awaits them.
Firstly, travel expenses have doubled. Earlier, a round trip that costs around Rs. 60 in buses, now cost more than Rs. 120. Secondly, the lockdown has taught people (read customers) to cut down on regular expenses. While a few have taken to gardening themselves, others have adapted to doing religious rituals without flowers.
“Our customers are not taking the daily flowers; they have asked us to stop giving till the pandemic is over at least. Also, many daily wage earners like the drivers and others have taken to collect flowers from around the city and distribute those. So we have lost customers to them as well. We have nowhere to go,” Harekrishna Kalita, another flower cultivator from the same village lamented.
“We spent our savings within the first two months of the lockdown. Now we are left with no money. Living in rural areas, we have enough to survive, at least most of us. With the earnings from the flower business, we tried to provide a better life and education to our children. Now online classes are being conducted. Many do not even have a proper android device. Had we had our savings, we could have bought one for our children’s studies,” he further added.
Being in Guwahati every morning, summer or winter, sun or rain, these flower vendors are an integral part of the city’s daily life. They provide for the flower requirement of every religious institution, from Kamakhya Devalaya, Sukreswar Devalaya, to the small roadside makeshift temples. On special occasions like Bihu, Puja, the Sharavan month when people celebrate ‘bhole bum’, the requirement of flowers increases manifold. However, this year, none were celebrated.
“We are hoping the pandemic will end soon, it’s a one-time thing. But the flood batters the villages every year. We urge the government to rebuild the embankments properly and permanently. Another necessity is regular transport to and from Guwahati. We request the government to provide with some immediate relief as this year all have been lost and we cannot even expect the coming puja season to be any different,” said the vendors.
While the village of Bardadhi lost its lustre to the pandemic and the flood, they are not the only ones. Many other neighbouring villages which have been cultivating flowers are now left with none or with very little.
Yet, the villagers enthusiastically invite travellers to visit their fields the coming winter to gaze at the mesmerizing views of the blooming fields they hope to cultivate with renewed vigour.
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