07 May 2006 # IANS
By Liz Mathew, Tirur (Kerala): For decades, the Malabar betel leaf has been a favourite of Pakistanis. No wonder every time relations between India and Pakistan sour, traders here see the juice draining out of their business.
Most of the 2,000-2,500 baskets of betel leaves dispatched daily from Tirur's Vettilangadi, also called Pan Bazaar, are meant for export to Pakistan.
"The rest of the baskets go to parts of India like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh," Mohammed Moopan, a municipal councillor here, told IANS.
The Malabar betel leaf is grown in the Tanur, Vylathur, Ponmundam, Edarikode, Arikode, Ponmala and Tirur areas of Malappuram district. Around 100 traders in the region are engaged in the trade.
Farmers here produce varieties such as Kanni, Pathi and rough Pathi that are a favourite of domestic pan chewers.
Although farmers from other parts of Kerala have tried to grow the Malabar betel leaf in their regions, it hasn't quite worked and it continues to be a specialty of Malappuram.
"Agriculture scientists and farmers from various parts of the state tried to grow it. But it does not grow even in neighbouring Kannur," said Moopan, adding that the soil and the wind in Tirur were best suited for the plant.
Fresh betel leaf stems are planted in June and the harvesting takes place from December-June. The villages around Tirur have around 2,000 acres of betel leaf plantation. Interestingly, the betel leaf creepers are planted in between coconut trees.
The packaging of the leaf is also an art. Farmers make a bunch of 100 folded leaves and these bunches are arranged in a bamboo basket and covered with damp hay to keep them fresh.
Most of the betel leaf farmers in Tirur are landless people who take up land on rent for cultivation.
"Traders send the leaves twice a week – Monday and Thursday – by train to Delhi and Mumbai," said P.K. Ashraf, a betel leaf trader in Pan Bazaar. But there are also farmers who directly transport baskets by air from here to Mumbai from where they are flown to Lahore.
Besides farmers, the trade indirectly provides livelihood to thousands of others. Little wonder then that troubled India-Pakistan ties during the Kargil war and the subsequent cessation of air and train links crippled the sector.
After the resumption of air and rail links between the two countries, the sector is now making desperate attempts to revive.
"Betel leaves from Sri Lanka have become a threat to the Malabar trade. After Kargil, traders in Pakistan were forced to import from Sri Lanka, from where they could be directly flown to Lahore," said V.P. Ummer, another municipal councillor.
The Karachi market alone imports over 165 tonnes of betel leaves from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh every month.
"Things are better now. But if the government takes initiatives in permitting direct flights from Karipur (the new Kozhikode airport in Malappuram district), it would make a great difference," Ummer said.