At around 2:30 in the afternoon on a cloudy July day, Rampada Das of Kalyani village in West Bengal’s Bankura district leaves for the pond he has taken on lease nearby. He carries a tube, which can be turned into a buoyant dinghy, for rowing to the centre of the pond to pluck white and pink lotuses growing there abundantly.
Das, 49, has been cultivating lotus, also the national flower of India, for the last 32 years. “Every day, I spend two to three hours in the water plucking 100 to 150 pieces of flowers. Then I row back to the side of the 20-bigha (1 bigha is 0.62 acres) pond to unload the buds and flowers. The collected flowers are arranged with lotus leaves in a box before being shipped to the wholesale market for sale,” explains Das.
Lotus is widely cultivated in the Sonamukhi, Taldangra, Simlapal, Raipur, Kamalpur and Chhatna areas of the Bankura district, which is 213 kilometres from the state capital Kolkata.
Bankura has favourable weather conditions for lotus cultivation and many are involved in farming what is also called the ‘flower of the gods.' The lotus cultivation season in the area begins in March and lasts through the end of October.
Lotus only requires unsullied water for cultivation. Ample rain and a good amount of sunlight are necessary for high-quality flowers.
Leasing lotus ponds
Most of the growers don’t own the ponds and have to take them on lease. The size of the ponds, which ranges from 10 bighas to 20 bighas, determines the leasing cost. The growers pay the pond owners between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000 per season to grow lotus.
Rampada Das gets around 2,000 lotus flowers every week. Pic: Partho Burman
Twenty blooms are produced by a single lotus plant and a one-bigha pond produces 5,000 to 6,000 flowers in one season.
On average, each farmer gets around one lakh lotuses every year. With each flower selling at a minimum of Rs 5 per piece, growers make at least Rs 5 lakh annually. The price goes up to Rs 10 around festivals and for exports.
The market price of a flower is determined by its availability. There is no fixed rate. While a single piece sells for Rs 5 currently, the rate was half of this a couple of years back. “When the flower crisis hit the market, the price increased to Rs 10 per piece. The rate naturally increases during festivals such as Vishwakarma Puja, Durga Puja, Laxmi Puja and Kali Puja,” says Gourango Pal (41), another cultivator from Bhagabandh village.
The growers form a group of five ahead of the festive season and lease three to five ponds for lotus cultivation. They raise 20,000 to 30,000 lotuses in each pond to drive economies of scale and improve returns. “I nurture lotuses throughout the year and produce one lakh flowers. Every week, I harvest around 1900 to 2,000 pieces,” Das told 30Stades.
Grown in Bankura, sold across the world
Pal, who has been growing lotuses for 12 years, says the flowers are meticulously picked while maintaining a lengthy stem. It is presumed that a flower is fresh if the stem is still green, and it can be inferred that it was picked a few days earlier if the stem goes black. The lotus has always been in great demand because it is used in worship and placed at the feet of all Hindu gods and goddesses.
Gourango Pal and his wife Momoni Pal with freshly-harvested lotus flowers in Bankura. Pic: Partho Burman
In addition to local flower markets in Bankura and Durgapur, the flowers are shipped across India.
They are also sent to Australia, Bangladesh and some European countries, including the UK, during the festival season of Durga Puja.
Export consignments are sent through flower agents in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. “The agents collect between 50,000 and 60,000 pieces of lotus flowers, which are then kept in cold storage. Flowers with a foot or foot-and-a-half-long stem are wrapped in a plastic box along with two-inch thick lotus leaves. Each package contains 500 to 1500 pieces of lotus. We pay an additional Rs 300 for packaging, and there is a charge of Rs 100 for 15 to 18 days of cold storage," says Pal.
On lotus exports, Deputy Director of the Bankura Horticulture Department, Krishnendu Nandan, says, “APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) provides us assistance through subsidy. Additionally, some exporters send flower shipments directly from the Malda district to Bangladesh.”
“If the growers contact us, we offer technical support, but we haven’t provided financial assistance so far.”
KRISHNENDU NANDAN, Deputy Director of the Bankura Horticulture Department
Pal, however, says that he did not receive any benefits from the government. “The horticultural department made a lot of promises, but I never got anything. The officials are indifferent. I received support from some of the agents during Durga Puja by having flowers sent to Chennai, Mumbai and even London, but I received no help from the government,” laments Pal.
Flowers are meticulously picked while maintaining a lengthy stem. Pal and his wife with his flowers. Pic: Partho Burman
Rampada Das however says, “Except for the lockdown during the Covid epidemic, the Bankura Horticulture Department has assisted me in selling the flowers.”
Lotus can grow in water up to 18 inches deep and requires at least half to one-metre deep water for good flowering. Once lotus seeds turn into saplings, they are transplanted into the pond at a gap of one foot from each other. If lotus plants are grown from seed, they usually bloom after at least six to eight months because the plant’s energy is focused on producing tubers (roots).
However, if growers plant tubers directly, which farmers in Bankura do, the plant starts producing buds within a few weeks.
A mosquito net covering is stretched over the surface of the pond to develop the best seeds while keeping insects and other pests at bay. Insecticides like Monosil and Democron are sprayed only if plants are threatened by insects.
“The lotus flower has a cup-like form and can grow up to 12 inches. Each flower has between 15 and 18 petals, which open in the morning and close at night. The height of a lotus flower and its leaves can go up to 60 inches,” Pal says.
Lotus – a versatile aquatic plant
The lotus has above-average strength. Unlike other flowers, it remains fresh for five days. This plant can be used in its entirety -- seed, flower, leaf and root. Lotus seeds have medicinal properties and are used in many religious ceremonies as well.
Fox nuts or makhana are popped lotus seeds and are considered a superfood as they are a good source of protein, carbohydrates, potassium, iron, fibre, magnesium, and zinc.
Lotus seeds are popped to make fox nuts. Dried seeds are used in religious ceremonies as well. Pic: Flickr
As per Ayurveda, many gastrointestinal disorders can be cured with meals served on lotus leaves. And the stems are consumed as vegetables and are also pickled.
A floating lotus on the ponds seems lovely above the water’s surface between the flat-circular leaves. However, tinkering with the lotus can be risky as a poisonous snake species known as the ‘Padma Nag’ often coils inside the plants. The reptile seeks cover under lotus for a variety of reasons.
Along with tiny frogs and other insects that rest on the lotus leaf, the snake also consumes lotus pollen.
In Bankura, over the last three years, at least seven growers have perished due to snake bites.
It’s interesting to note that the growers shift to other flowers after the season is over. “Lotus lasts for six months. I then grow marigolds,” says Das, while Pal continues, “I occupy myself with some work in a nearby factory.”
(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)