Betel leaf farmers in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh - who grow the strongly flavoured variety famous across the country and even outside as Mahoba paan - see the state election as an opportunity to highlight their problems.

The cultivators are mostly from the Chaurasias, a community which is exclusively dedicated to betel farming and are backing one of their own, Rajesh Chaurasia, who is a BSP candidate from the Maharajpur constituency.

Rajesh Chaurasia says the farmers are supporting him because Shivraj Singh Chouhan's government failed to keep its assurance on recognising betel leaves as an important trading commodity and offering them support.

"I fight this election for the sake of my community," he says pointing out that the chief minister did not follow through with his promise of a full-fledged betel development corporation.

Chaurasia's candidature is likely to make the going tougher for sitting MLA Manvendra Singh of the BJP in a seat where the BSP came second in 2013. Some political observers at least are of the opinion that farm distress in the district will result in much closer contest between the opposition Congress and the BJP, which last time won five out of six seats here.

Betel gardens require regular watering besides a lot of care, and the subtropical climate around Chhatarpur is considered ideal for cultivating the vine. But spiraling input costs and unpredictable weather, like the untimely rain and hail in 2016, have played havoc with the crop in recent years.

Old timers in Chhatarpur say the number of betel farmers have dwindled rapidly from over 10,000 to just 800-900 during the last few years. "Earlier we used to transport close to 1,500 bundles every week, each bundle weighing around 700 kg. Now the paan mandi is almost on the verge of closing down," says Harkishan, a farmer.

It has been its strong, crispy flavour and its delectable aftertaste that makes the Mahoba paan such a favourite with connoiseurs in northern states and even in Pakistan. The variety takes its name from the Mahoba district of the Bundelkhand region which lies in Uttar Pradesh.

Betel leaves are also cultivated in West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tripura and some of the southern states, though of late increasing input costs and unpredictable weather have made it a less cost effective crop

Chhatarpur's farmers complain that the state government has not helped with even the small things - like providing bamboo at subsidised rates - let alone provide long term support like research.

"We cultivate paan here the same way it was cultivated a hundred years ago," says Pradeep Chaurasia, brother of the BSP candidate. "Successive governments have done nothing to help betel cultivation."

It is that negligence, the Chaurasias say, they are fighting this time. And if the farmers rally the kind of support they claim to have , MP's paan belt can raise a bit of worry for the ruling BJP to chew on.

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