Olives from Israeli desert thrive in Rajasthan’s Thar

On a drive from Bikaner city to Momasar village, perched in neat rows atop sandy soil, 14-feet-tall trees pruned like cups cover vast expanses of land. Olives — toast of the Mediterranean and an alien species here until just a few years ago— are now blooming in Rajasthan’s desert.

The seed for India’s tryst with olives were laid when former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje visited Israel in 2006. She was struck by lush olive trees in Negev desert, an arid landscape much like Rajasthan. Soon, the Mediterranean trees were imported and planted over 180 hectares of government land with help of Israeli technology.

In 2014, an extractor machine was imported from Italy and an olive oil refinery was set up in Bikaner. When the first trees started fruiting in 2014 and 2015, 1,300 tonnes of fruit was collected. But few trees bore fruits the following year and it became clear early on that dependence on olive oil alone was not enough to fetch good returns. New uses were needed for the fruitless olive trees.

Olive leaves then found their way into steaming tea cups; olive groves were turned into agroturismo attractions and wood from the tree delicately carved into statuettes. That’s how India became an unlikely innovation hub for olives. Today, about 150 farmers are growing it in over 700 hectares. Three factories have come up to prepare the tea.

“We needed to find some use for the tree in case they failed to produce fruits. We experimented with olive tea. The recipe was prepared after tests and feedback from overseas experts,” Yogesh Kumar Verma, COO of Rajasthan Olive Corporation Ltd said. When Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called on President Ram Nath Kovind last year, he was welcomed with olive tea made in Bikaner.

Vardhan Jain Tijaria, who sells olive tea on e-commerce portals, said demand is slowly catching up. “The tea has antioxidant properties but not many are aware of it. With growing awareness, business is likely to grow.” Gopal Chandak has also been selling olive tea to customers in the UK. With a price tag of Rs.10,000 per kg, the returns are high.

That’s not all. ROCL is venturing into yet another ‘herbal’ concoction — olive wine. Research is being conducted at Vidhya Sagar University, West Bengal, Tripura University and Jiwaji University, Indore.

And if the wine doesn’t take off, the hospitality industry is always there. Amid vast expanses of sandy terrain of the desert land, some 30 km from Bikaner, Dr Rajendra Singh, a Haryana-based medical practitioner, has opened his 22-hectare olive plantation to tourists. “The resort is based on the theme of olive agro-tourism,” said Singh, adding that his 10-room resort often enjoys full occupancy.

Like Singh, others also want a slice of the Mediterranean in their garden. Olive tree landscaping is the latest fixation among the affluent. Dharmendra Singh, a Delhibased architect, said, “A tree imported from Spain costs between Rs . lakh and Rs.40 lakh. Most of the demand comes from farm houses, hotels, residential societies and high-end bungalows.”

Olives have now caught the fancy of other states. ROCL has distributed 4.5 lakh saplings to Punjab, Himachal, J&K, UP and NE states as India is eyeing to produce olive oil at home. In 2017-18, India imported 10,914.86 metric tonnes of olive oil.

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