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The monks who grow orchids

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Buddhist monks Palden Bhutia and Sangay Bhutia don't own a Ferrari and probably never will, but they can now at least hope for a decent standard of living. An entrepreneurial venture has put these two monks from Karthok village near Pakyong in East Sikkim on the road to riches. So what's the secret behind their good fortune? An exotic flower. Palden started growing orchids five years ago on a small hillside plot of land his family owned. He got help from the state horticulture directorate in the form of a greenhouse, fertilisers, insecticides, knowhow and other inputs. And he hasn't looked back since. "My parents used to grow only maize and some vegetables and could barely make ends meet. I learnt about the government scheme to encourage orchid cultivation and applied for help to set up an orchidarium. I underwent training and took an instant liking to orchids, " Palden, 45, told TOI-Crest. Palden is attached to the Karthok monastery near Pakyong where he spends most of the day. Come evening, he returns to his parental house, a common practice among monks who live near the monastery. That leaves him with enough time to focus on growing orchids. Today, he earns about Rs 4 lakh a year from 2, 000-odd orchid plants. His success has inspired fellow monk Sangay, 22, to follow in his footsteps. Palden and Sangay are just two of the more than 3, 500 orchid growers reaping rich dividends from orchids in Sikkim. Ever since the 'orchid mission' took off in the state in 2005, it has emerged as the largest grower of cymbidium orchids in the country, exporting about 15 lakh cut flowers to various big cities. In the metros, demand for orchids has boomed. The bloom is used for decoration at Indian weddings since it is considered both exotic and inaccessible.

Sikkim's agriculture secretary Vishal Chouhan told TOI-Crest that orchids are cultivated over 27 hectares in the state. "Every year, we get 500 to 700 new orchid growers and production goes up by about four lakh cut flowers, " he said. The farmers, says horticulture additional director P C Rai, sell each stem for at least Rs 50 while the more organised growers who export the flowers get at least three times that.

The blooming business in orchids has lifted many rural families out of poverty and enriched many middle class ones. A prime example of this is Lakshmi Rai, 44, a primary school teacher at East Sikkim's scenic Assam-Lingzey village who enrolled in the orchid mission in 2005. "I started with one greenhouse with 500 saplings. Today, I have a large farm with 7, 000 plants that yield at least 30, 000 superior grade orchid stems a year, " he told TOI-Crest. With each stem fetching him at least Rs 80, it translates into a cool Rs 24 lakh a year for him!

Anuradha Sharma, 40, of Karthok village, is another such beneficiary. "We grew millets, maize and some vegetables on our small plot of land and my husband also worked as a labourer, but that wasn't enough to get us two square meals a day. I approached the government and got help to start growing orchids in 2007. Since 2010, my earnings have improved substantially and I'm sending my children to school. " She has even bought a TV set and added two rooms to the house.
Her neighbour Karma Bhutia has also seen his fortunes improve dramatically since he started cultivating orchids in 2006. "I used to drive vehicles, but the income wasn't steady. I learnt of this orchid mission and applied. Nearly everything, save my labour, was provided free by the government. Now I am planning to buy more land to expand my orchid farm, " he says. Growers like Karma, Anuradha and Lakshmi sell their orchids to the Sikkim Marketing Federation which then sends the flowers to big florists around the country.

Under the state's 'orchid mission', explains Chouhan, anyone who has a 150 square metre plot (for a greenhouse) can apply for help. "We build the greenhouse (cost: Rs 1. 4 lakh) free, give the farmer 500 saplings, train him, provide other inputs like fertilisers and insecticides and give other help. We get the new farmers to meet established ones to learn from the latter's experiences, " said Chouhan.

The year-old saplings that are distributed free of cost to new farmers take about three more years to mature and start flowering and the horticulture department does a lot of hand-holding of the new farmers during this period, says Rai.
Technical help is provided by the ICAR's National Research Centre For Orchids at Pakyong and the Cymbidium Development Centre at Rumtek near Gangtok that imports thousands of mother plants from Australia, New Zealand, Holland and Thailand every year for tissue culture and incubation of new clones from which new varieties are developed for distribution to Sikkim's orchid growers.

Sikkim, says Chouhan, is now eyeing the international market. "For that to happen, we need to increase production, set up a proper cold chain as well as quick access to international flights. The state government is working on this, " he said.

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