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Reaping Israeli Fruit on Indian Soil

Indo-Israel joint ventures have given a new fillip to agriculture in arid Indian states, says Kunal Majumder

DRIVING SOUTHEAST of Bikaner, Rajasthan, all that meets one’s eyes is the sand and shrubs. Vegetation is scarce, agriculture of any kind non-existent and the only green one can see are a few patches of grass in the sand. Two hours ahead, taking a left from the NH-65, on the road to Didwana, the dry brown landscape suddenly changes colour. Olive trees, around 14,000 of them spread across 30 hectares, dot the desert land. This is the Bakliya farms, one of seven such farms in Rajasthan, result of an Indo-Israeli agricultural venture.

It started with Vasundhara Raje’s visit to Israel in 2006. The sight of an olive farm in a kibbutz in the Negev desert of southern Israel struck the former Rajasthan chief minister as something that could be replicated in her state. On her request, the Israel government agreed to help set up olive groves in Rajasthan, a hitherto failed experiment in India. The Israelis had developed a technology through intensive plantation and drip irrigation that allowed them to grow olive on arid land. Exactly what the then chief minister wanted for her dry state.
The Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Limited (ROCL) was set up as a public-private partnership with investments from the Rajasthan government and expertise from Indolive, an Israeli olive farming company and Pune-based irrigation equipment manufacturers, Finolex Plasson Industries. In the next six years, seven areas in the state were selected for growing seven varieties of the plant. Cuttings of high yield olive plants were imported from Israel. Drip irrigation, another Israeli invention and a common Indian practice now, was also used. Fertilisers, cutting techniques, soil testing — all the expertise came from Israel.
Kailash Kalwania, manager of the Bakliya farms, shows us around the olive groves. The flowering season is over, and small olives have started sprouting on the trees. “Of the seven varieties we planted, Barnea has been the most successful,” says Kailash. Jaipur-based Gideon Peleg, 68, the Israeli specialist in charge of the olive project in Rajasthan, adds that olive cultivation in the desert state has not been a cut-and-paste job. “It took us time to realise and understand what variety is best suited,” he says.
The results have been quite impressive. Of the seven districts where the olive experiment took place, four have done well. Buoyed by the success, the Rajasthan government has declared huge subsidies — 75 percent on plant cuttings, 3,000 per hectare on fertilisers and chemicals, and 90 percent on drip irrigation — to promote olive plantation in the state. An olive oil refinery is also coming up in Lukhransar, north of Bikaner. “Last year we made pickles out of the green olives but after the refinery is ready we will make olive oil,” says Sitaram Yadav, supervisor of the Lukhransar plantation.
The Rajasthan experiment has also given Israel the impetus to expand into other agriculture and horticulture segments across India. The first step has already been taken with the signing of the Agriculture Cooperation Agreement between the two countries in 2008. In December 2011, a three-year work plan was finalised between the Ministries of Agriculture of India and Israel, which included components like joint visits of agriculture experts, seminar and courses for farmers. The standout feature of the agreement is the Centres of Excellence for the set-up of “transfer of applied research and technologies to the farmers in various states across India”. The technologies to be transferred include irrigation, soil solarisation for disease control in plants, polyhouse farming, fertilisers, hybrid plants and seeds. While Israel has already entered into agreement with seven state governments to set up these centres, the most successful model has been Haryana.
Varun Bajaj, 35, from Rehor Parwala village, 30 km from Panchkula, is a beneficiary of this Indo-Israel agreement. Bajaj has been growing seedless cucumber since January 2012. A retailer by profession, he decided to grow vegetables after visiting the Indo-Israel Centre of Excellence for vegetable in Ghauranda, Karnal. Impressed by the concept of protective agriculture, he approached an agriculture company to set up his farm on a turnkey basis. The first farm was set up on an area of 4,000 sq metres. Polyhouses were put in place for protective farming, drip lines and machines were set up. Bajaj got 90 percent rebate in installing drip irrigation, and 65 percent subsidy on polyhouse under the national horticulture mission and additional subsidy from the Haryana government. He has now added an additional 6,000 sq metres to his farm and supplies to retailers and the open market. “My farms have already produced 50,000 kg in just six months,” he says. It is not cucumber alone; the Gharaunda facility has seen a manifold rise in the yield of chilli, capsicum and tomato.

THE ISRAEL experiment has gone beyond vegetables. In Bhiwani district, Ramesh Tanwar has been growing kinnow on an area of six hectares with the help of the Centre of Excellence for Citrus Fruits in Sirsa. “The yield increased after we adopted various technologies from the centre,” he says. Haryana has also been trying to grow olive in the Sirsa centre, though it is still in the initial stages.

Tanwar and Bajaj’s farms are part of the 200 acres in Haryana that have already adopted technologies from the Indo-Israel Centres of Excellence. “The target now is 10,000 hectares in five years,” says Satyavir Singh, Director General, Horticulture, Haryana. The state government expects business worth $1 billion from the Israeli agro-technology. Each centre has been created on a seed money of Rs 6 crore invested by the state government. Three new centres for mango, flowers and an apiary have already been set up. Not content with areas confined to Centres of Excellence alone, the state is setting up 14 versions of such centres on a smaller scale in villages. “This will truly ensure that technology reaches the farmer,” says Arjun Singh Saini, additional director, horticulture in Haryana. To be set up at a cost of Rs 25 lakh by the government on farmers’ land and under their ownership, Saini calls it the public-private-farmer partnership.
The experiment doesn’t end with Rajasthan and Haryana. Maharashtra is already seeing results on mangoes. The latest state to have signed an agreement for such a centre is Bihar where the technology would be used for growing mango and citrus fruits.

Uri Rubinstein, Counsellor, International Cooperation, Science and Agriculture at the Embassy of Israel, New Delhi, says that Israeli technology in agriculture is not all about being hi-tech. He points out the concept of seedling as an example. “The centres offer seedlings grown in soilless medium,” he says. “This is a technology that ensures the plant survives unlike direct seed planting.”

Saini says there is a need for a second green revolution in India. “It is no more about basic agricultural produce,” he says. Rubinstein agrees: “Many of our needs are similar. Perhaps that’s why the Indian government decided to partner Israel under the National Horticulture Mission and not big countries like the US.”


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