- Betel leaves worth around Tk50 crore are sold in the district every season
- The price of betel leaves went down by 60% during the shutdown
- 40% of betel leaves remained unsold
- When the lockdown was lifted, the price dropped again
Over 5,000 Khashi families in Sylhet, involved in betel leaf farming, have incurred a loss of around Tk25 crore this year following a decline in sales due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Normally, betel leaves worth around Tk50 crore are sold in the district. The lockdown started just when the betel leaf market had started to pick up. Since shops and markets closed, tea sales fell by 80%, the price of betel leaves went down by 60% and about 40% of betel leaves remained unsold.
When the lockdown was lifted, the price dropped when the production of betel leaves spiked.
Ellison Sung, secretary of the Khasi Social Council, said the price of one kuri (2,880) betel leaf in March, April and May was Tk3,000-Tk4,000, which dropped to Tk1,200-Tk1,300 at the onset of the pandemic. Moreover, 40% of betel leaves remained unsold, due to which earnings decreased by about 60%, compared to last year.
Approximately 30,000 Khasi people live in 75 Khasi villages in different hilly areas of Sylhet, including 40 villages in Moulvibazar. There are about 6,000 betel gardens, with 1,000-5,000 betel trees per garden. At least two kuri (5,760) betel leaves may be collected from a small garden.
When the production spikes during June-September, the price drops to Tk250-Tk500. On average, betel leaves worth Tk50 crore are sold annually from 6,000 gardens.
The price of betel leaves in October-December range from Tk600-Tk900. Between January and February, one kuri (2,880) betel leaves is sold for Tk1,000-Tk2,500. From mid-February to March, betel growers are busy maintaining their gardens.
Saju Marchiang, a betel leaf grower, said that buyers were not allowed to enter the garden during the lockdown; moreover, they pay less for the betel, which also impacts farmers.
Philah Pohthmi, secretary general of the Greater Sylhet Tribal Forum and the head of Lauachhara village, said almost every family in the Khasi community has a betel leaf garden, which is their primary source of income. We anticipate that we will recover from this loss next year.
He also said that every sector in the country is in crisis due to the pandemic, and we are still not out of the woods. The government has stood by the side of many and I hope that it will stand by our side as well.
Khasi betel leaf growers said they use traditional methodologies to cultivate betel, and they have been doing so without any cooperation from the agriculture department. They feel government initiatives are needed to eradicate betel leaf diseases.
Flora Babli Talang, general secretary of the Inter-Village Development Organisation, said since betel leaves are exported overseas, farmers could have greatly benefited from financial support from the government.
Megha Tila Village Head Monica Khangla said betel cultivation has not yet been officially recognised as an industry. In addition to the aboriginals, many Bengalis are directly and indirectly involved in it. She opined it is high time that betel cultivation is accorded industry status and is developed as such.
However, betel growers of Sreemangal said they had received official training in Moulvibazar this year.
Nazrul Islam, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Sreemangal, said that for the first time this year, training of Khasi betel leaf farmers will be continued, and the government will provide all manner of support. He said, "Our goal is to modernise betel leaf cultivation through training."
Employment opportunities around betel leaf cultivation have been created for many in the tea community. Around 20-30 people work in a garden, with each worker receiving a daily wage of Tk150-Tk300. Betel is collected from the tree three years after planting.
A third of the branches of the betel tree are pruned once a year for light and wind.
Since Khasi betel leaves are of good quality, there is a solid market demand, both at home and abroad, with them being especially popular amongst Bengalis living in the UK.
However, betel leaves are occasionally vulnerable to diseases, for example, uthram, which causes severe damage.