Olive Cultivation project of rajasthan is a joint effort which is being undertaken in collaboration with an Israeli producer of olive oil -An expensive project to grow imported olive trees is not yielding enough oil, and imposing other costs

In May 2006, a delegation led by agriculture minister Sharad Pawar went to Israel to attend the 16th International Agriculture Exhibition. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje was part of the delegation that went to visit world famous Kibbutz, a community cluster, in the Negev desert of southern Israel. She was, clearly, bowled over by the lush olive trees in the arid landscape.

Olive is a small tree of the oleaceae family and is native to the coastal areas of eastern Mediterranean (Italy and Spain), northern Iraq and northern Iran south of the Caspian Sea. Its fruit adorns salads, but is used primarily to extract olive oil, one of the most expensive cooking oils.

On her return, Raje decided to replicate the programme in her desert state and went about it with single-minded determination. She was undeterred by the fact that olive is alien to this country and is unlikely to show the results she had seen in the high-tech agriculture of Israel. She approached the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, but was rebuffed. Reason: a similar experiment was tried at Himachal Pradesh in 1985 and had failed miserably. But Raje persisted. Within six months of her visit to Isreal, a tripartite agreement was signed between Israeli company Indolive Limited, Rajasthan State Agricultural Marketing Board (RSAMB) and Pune-based Plastro Plasson Industries India, now known as Finolex Plasson Industries (India) Ltd, to set up a joint venture. The result was the Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Limited (ROCL), which was formed in April 2007.

As per the agreement, Indolive provided the expertise, Finolex the micro-irrigation solutions and equipment, and the Rajasthan government land and funds. RSAMB and Finolex invested Rs 1.50 crore each. About 112,000 olive plants of seven varieties were brought from Israel. Their rooted cuttings were hardened at a high-tech nursery set up especially for the project in Durgapura, near Jaipur. After the cuttings grew into small plants, they were transplanted in agriculture training centres (ATCs) at Sriganganagar, Nagaur, Bikaner, Jalore, Jhunjhunu, Alwar and Jaipur districts.

The trees started bearing flowers and fruits in 2012, a year or two after they should have done so. Of the seven varieties planted on 182 hectare (ha), only three have yielded fruits, that too very little. The total production was only 10 tonnes and the oil yield was a mere 9-14 per cent of the olive production. This is what three-year-old trees yield the world over.

Yogesh Verma, manager of ROCL, claims the experiment is a success. “Lab tests show that oil content in our olives is between 10 and 14 per cent, which is good. Our focus now is on improving the yield and bringing it to international standards,” he says.

Notably, olive trees require a considerable supply of water to produce good quantity of fruits. This implies that irrigation for the orchards will tax heavily the local stock of water, whether tapped from rivers and ponds, or from the subsurface water table. In its obsession for olive, the state government has overlooked the ecological disaster for the local population in the near future.

Despite the threats, the state government has decided to expand the project. In the next three years, it aims to spread olive to farmers’ fields over 5,000 ha. Farmers get 75 per cent subsidy on plants, 90 per cent subsidy on drip irrigation and Rs 3,000 per ha for fertilisers and chemicals. Besides, they get technical support of one expert per 50 ha. At present, Rajasthan farmers get one olive plant for Rs 115, while farmers from other states buy it at the cost of Rs 150.

Gideon Peleg was entrusted the job of replicating the olive orchards of Israel’s Negev desert in Rajasthan. He came to India in September 2007, unsure how the project will fare. The trees he planted here started bearing fruits after six years. The septuagenarian now calls the project a success.

Peleg admits that farmers in Rajasthan are different from their Israeli counterparts who use advanced technology and are prosperous. The economic returns of olive come after a few years of plantation, “so either the government should provide farmers with monetary help or farmers should find a way to sustain themselves for this initial orchard investment period,” he says.

While the state government is confident that farmers will get a good price, the question is how sustainable olives are in Rajasthan’s climate and agrarian economy.

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