In onion belt, BARC unit to increase shelf life lies unused
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After high onion prices pulled down the BJP governments in Delhi and Rajasthan in 1998, the NDA government asked the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to set up an irradiation unit in the country's largest onion market — Lasalgaon in Nashik district — to treat onions and increase their shelf life.
The unit was set up in 2002 at a cost of Rs 8 crore. But 11 years down the line, the Krushi Utpadan Sanrakshan Kendra or KRUSHAK — as the unit is called today — lies dormant, barring its periodic use to irradiate kesar mangoes that are exported to the US.
The irony of mangoes being irradiated in the heart of the nation's onion belt is lost on many farmers of the region, many of whom are not even aware what purpose the sprawling facility that is located 500 metres from the market serves. "I do not know what happens inside. But my friends tell me that it is a facility used to make and test bombs," says Nandu Kor, an onion farmer from nearby Chittegaon.
The Maharashtra State Agriculture Management Board, which operates the facility, agrees there is lack of awareness. "The farmers are not very keen to come to the plant. I guess there is a lack of awareness about the benefits," says Chandrashekhar Bari, deputy general manager of the Board.
Maharashtra is the biggest producer of onions in India, contributing over one fourth of the total production. The produce is harvested thrice a year to help meet the 100 lakh metric tonne annual demand of India. Fresh produce is available only for five months; the country then relies on stored onions.
Both the kharif and late kharif variety, which account for almost 40 per cent of the produce, cannot be stored for long periods due to the high moisture content. The rabi crop, called Gavthi, can be stored for five to six months. But prolonged storage results in sprouting, which damages the crop. Irradiation prevents this.