Nagaon, Jan. 25: It was a project that could have put Nagaon district's Pakhimoria development block on the international map. But four years down the line, nothing remains of the pioneering effort to turn the area into a lemon producing export zone.
The project to commercially grow the common Assam lemon (as opposed to the elasi and kaji varieties), quite popular for its flavour and medicinal value, under the MGNREGA scheme took off in 2009 with unprecedented enthusiasm but lack of follow-up and rampant corruption made the dream of exporting lemons to Norway die young.
The initiative, aimed at expanding the district's lemon area by another 1,000 hectares, was launched on an experimental basis in 10 gaon panchayats under Pakhimoria development block. It initially covered 50 hectares in Tulsi Deuri, Dakhinpat, Dakarghat, Bhutai Pathari and Bengenaati gaon panchayats. User groups, comprising members possessing land, were formed and the panchayats were offered all possible financial, technical, manpower support, with each panchayat being sanctioned Rs 5 lakh.
A beneficiary said even a team from Norway visited the area to strike up deals to buy the produce, while a New Delhi-based export firm, Shimla Hills Offering Pvt Ltd, signed a memorandum of settlement with the local agriculture office to export Pakhimoria lemon from Nagaon to Norway.
It was win-win situation ' the locals benefiting by way of improved livelihood options and the panchayats successfully implementing the MGNREGA scheme by creating man-days. "Normally a farmer got Rs 2-5 per kg of lemon. Had the initiative been implemented honestly, and export to Norway materialised, growers would have got more than Rs 8 per kg," said Nabin Hazarika of Dakhinpat.
But that was not to be.
It is understood that widespread corruption involving elected panchayat representatives and government officials and lack of follow-up and disinterest killed Pakhimoria's dream.
"Initially the orchards were set up using locally available saplings and bamboo fencing was used to protect these. But the officials forgot about the project as soon as the orchards were set up. We still don't know what happened to the money sanctioned against heads such as irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers and weeding. Nobody visited the farmers to help them avail of these facilities," rued a Dakhinpat-based beneficiary, most of whom are angry with the existing panchayat members for killing their dream.
According to official records, Rs 2.4 lakh was spent against each of these orchards, which were to generate 1,454 man-days.
The remaining Rs 2.6 lakh was reportedly spent on seedlings, fertilizers, pesticides and providing irrigation facilities and setting up bamboo fences, among others.
"Where have the orchards gone? There should be a high level inquiry into the failure of the project," demanded Bireswar Saikia of Chuta Hoibor gaon panchayat under the development block.
Anti-incumbency sentiments here are strong, with most hoping the new elected members will not let such opportunities go waste. Pakhimoria votes on January 30.
Sources said a similar venture was being tried out in Dhemaji at a cost of Rs 3 crore. "Though these are early days, reports emanating from Dhemaji are not encouraging. Even schemes being taken up in Nalbari through self-help groups have not delivered. Proper monitoring is needed or precious development funds will go down the drain," a Dhemaji resident said.
The 2010 Dhemaji project envisages turning the district into the lemon bowl of Assam by bringing 1,000 hectares of unutilised fallow land in 39 villages under lemon cultivation. It involved 390 individuals belonging to 39 self-help groups constituted by the respective gaon panchayats in a phased manner.
An area of 8,700 hectares in Assam is under lemon cultivation, growing three varieties ' kaji (green lemon), axomiya (common lemon) and elasi (a scented variety). With a record average of 1,982 metric tonnes in annual lemon production on 458 hectares, Nagaon tops the list of lemon growing districts.
Besides the medicinal value of vitamins C and B, lemon is also used for making juice and is good for the digestive system and skin. It also helps control blood pressure, an agriculture department source said.