It was their love for pearls and its cultivation that got Ashok Manwani and his wife, Kulanjan Dubey Manwani, together in 2003. The couple met for the first time that year at an event organised to learn about the cultivation of pearls. The rest, as they say, is history for this couple.
Ashok was born into an agricultural family and after reading a few articles about freshwater pearl farming, his interest in the subject piqued. As a college student, he started experimenting with pearl farming by collecting mussels from the Morna river in Akola district. This, however, turned out to be a series of failed attempts.
Speaking to The Better India, Ashok says, “It was only in 2000 that I finally underwent training at the pearl culture institute in Bhubaneswar. After that course I felt confident of even teaching others this art. Meeting Kulanjan in 2003 added impetus to my work and together we started experimenting and trying various different techniques. It was great to have a partner in this, finally.”
While the end product of pearl cultivation is a beautiful gem the entire process is one that is very demanding.
Adding to this, Kuljana says, “It was not easy at all. In the beginning, explaining to people that were trying to cultivate pearls in itself was a big task. No one seemed to understand our work. We have had to live in jungles and cook on wood fire many days. There have been so many failed experiments and heartaches that the two of us have shared.”
The couple worked on developing various techniques and even tools in pearl cultivation.
Through their work, they have proved that pearls can be found not only in salt water but also in fresh water sources like rivers and ponds in villages and cities. “Tools like the mussel opener and wooden mussel stand to cultivate designer pearls, which seem rather common today, are tools that we developed over the years,” says Ashok. The uniqueness of these tools, they claim, is that they do not lead to the death of the oysters. They are very gentle tools and the price point of the tools is yet another reason that led to many taking up pearl cultivation.
Over the last two decades, the couple have so far done pearl farming in 12 states other than Maharashtra. They have conducted programmes and awareness drives in Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam, etc. “We try to work with State departments wherever we can. We have seen that most farmers reach out for assistance to their own state agriculture departments,” says Kuljana.
In 2001, the couple started an organisation called Indian Pearl Cultivation with the sole objective of training as many individuals as they can to take up pearl cultivation. Kuljana says, “For us, it is the thrill of seeing that pearl at the end of all the hard work that is motivating. We are not in this for the money but want to make sure that India becomes a hub for good quality pearls. It is possible for us to achieve that target, even if it means it happens after our lifetime.”
While on an average, one is able to extract only two pearls from one shell, Ashok says that the technique they have developed can lead to cultivating up to six pearls from one shell.
“This is a technology that state governments are now disseminating to other farmers,” he adds. He also urges those who are keen on learning to only go to government-approved centres and not pay a hefty sum and learn for private centres.
To ‘Ethically’ Harvest Pearls
“First and foremost, it is important that farmers stop buying oysters from other states in an attempt to cultivate them. The climatic and water conditions will be very different and it is best that you find the oysters from your own region,” says Ashok. Learn to hunt for it in a water body near you. Chances of the oyster thriving and doing well will increase, if you get it from your own region.
For a farmer to get started with pearl farming with limited space, one can do so with about 1,000 sq ft of space, in which up to 2,000 shells can be cultivated. “In 1 sq ft you can have two shells placed comfortably. The water should be light green in colour and it is advisable to add spirulina to the water, which is considered to be the superfood for the animals. The micronutrients in the spirulina are very beneficial for good growth,” says Kuljana.
The couple is also an advocate of using organic products to increase the nutrient content of the water.
The cost is dependent on which state you are in and Kuljana says, “In Maharashtra, each shell will cost you between Rs 30- Rs 40 while in Karnataka it will cost you a minimum of Rs 50 per shell. The average cost of cultivating two pearls is Rs 60, and if the quality is good and certified, can earn you up to Rs 500 per pearl and sometimes even more. “There are instances when a single pearl has been sold for Rs 12 lakhs as well,” adds Ashok.
If someone wants to start pearl farming by making a pond in their backyard or space available in their homes then it will cost around Rs 25 lakhs to have the entire set-up done. However, in an attempt to encourage pearl cultivation, the government is providing a subsidy of Rs 12.5 lakhs to farmers.
Having conducted over 400 training sessions and workshops across the country for various state governments, the couple are also recipients of several awards, which include eight national and over 70 other awards. They are also recipients of Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture’s (CIFA) first progressive farmer award.
With no interest in running this as a commercial business, Ashok says, “My mission is to see that even the poorest of farmers can earn through pearl cultivation. It is a great way to substitute one’s income and can be done alongside whatever your mainstay is.”
Ashok and Kuljana can be reached at +91-9860661174 or via email at email@example.com
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)