The humble banana leaf is propping up the economy of Batlagundu, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district, about 80 km from Kerala’s border panchayat of Kumily. The village’s bustling daily market witnesses sale of banana leaves in tonnes, which get shipped to restaurants across Kerala besides Chennai and Bengaluru.
Surrounded by mountains, Batlagundu is not windy, which ensures that the otherwise frail leaves do not split. Farmers from some 20 villages, including Theni, Nilakkode, Vadippetty, Old Batlagundu and Chinnappetty, converge at the market with neatly-bundled leaves, each bundle comprising some 180 pieces, every day. On an average, the market witnesses sale of about 1,500 to 2,000 such bundles.
The market comes alive at 2 p.m. with the farmers bringing the bundles on two-wheelers, pick-up vans, and trucks. They are issued tokens and auctioning gets under way at 3 p.m. and goes on till 7 p.m. The price range per bundle vastly varies, between ₹300 and about ₹2,300 depending on the size of leaves, colour, strength, and demand. Prices the other day touched ₹2,800 a bundle, thanks to seasonal demand.
Ganapathi, who manages Doraiswami Sons Banana Leaves Market, says there were large-scale orders from Kerala until the COVID-19 struck. “With many vegetarian hotels shutting shop in the past two years, sales to Kerala have dipped,” he says. “Seasonal factors too play a role in determining the price. The prices naturally go up during marriage and festive seasons. Orders from Kerala witnessed a sharp spike during the Onam season this year,” Mr. Ganapathy says.
Sudhakar, a worker, says the market functions round the year except for three days during Deepavali.
Anthony, a farmer from Chinnappetty, 4 km from Batlagundu, says he pays ₹200 as wage for cutting, packing, and bringing a bundle of banana leaves to the market. Cost of transportation is extra. “While planting the saplings, a distance of eight ft should be maintained in order to get good quality leaves,” he says.
Balu, a farmer from Old Batlagundu, says he starts cutting leaves when a plant is six-month-old and up to 60 days after it bears fruit. “I have about 5,000 banana plants and cut the leaves twice daily. Most banana leaves sourced from the villages here do not split because of the absence of wind,” he says.
The sale of plantain leaves offers extra income to farmers, as the market hosts sale of banana fruit twice weekly, on Mondays and Fridays. “A significant volume of the fruit too travels to local markets in Kerala,” says Lawrance, an agent.