After nearly nine months of persistent persuasion by India, the European Union finally lifted its ban on the import of Indian mangoes on January 20.

The EU had imposed the ban on May 1, 2014, after EU’s trade authorities in Brussels found 207 consignments of Indian fruits and vegetables to be infested with fruit flies – pests that are native to Indian soil but that could infest and damage European crops.

Along with the famous Alphonso and other Indian mangoes, the ban stalled Indian exports of four vegetables: bitter gourd (karela), eggplant (brinjal), taro plant (arbi) and snake gourd (chichinda).

The ban was supposed to last until December 2015, but various agencies under the government of India have been working hard to meet the EU’s import requirements and have the ban revoked much earlier. The efforts, however, have borne fruit only in the case of the mango, perhaps India’s most famous food export.

While mango traders can expect a profitable season in 2015, what of the less-glamorous gourds, taro and eggplant that continue to be banned in Europe? Have they been left out by the mango lobby?

How mangoes won the race

Because of the presence of fruit flies in the mangoes and vegetables from India, EU authorities claimed early in 2014 that India’s export certification mechanism was not up to the mark.

“They wanted to know what we were doing to set this right, and the Indian government pledged that all food exports would be sent from APEDA-recognised pack houses,” said Vinod Kaul, former deputy general manager at the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, a trade body under the central government’s ministry of agriculture.

Working overtime to modify its certification mechanisms according to European guidelines, APEDA and the central government pushed for the EU to send an inspection team to audit Indian packing houses in 2014 itself. In September, says Kaul, the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office finally sent a team of officials for an exhaustive audit of packing houses across India.

“Mangoes were not even in season when the team visited India, but they were eventually satisfied with our export certification mechanism for bigger fruits and vegetables like mangoes,” said Kaul.

When the ban was lifted this week, however, the four banned vegetables remained on EU’s taboo list.

Goan connection?

India exports at least 4,000 tonnes of mangoes every year, and the volume of vegetables exported is not very different, says APEDA chairman Santosh Sarangi. “Perhaps the EU decided to start the ban-lifting with mangoes because it is the most visible item India exports to countries like the UK or Germany,” said Sarangi.

Kaul and other trade experts believe mangoes were prioritised largely because of persistent lobbying by a strong industry of traders both in India and in Europe, and the particular efforts of Indian-origin British parliamentarian Keith Vaz.

Soon after the plan to ban Indian imports was announced in March, Vaz sent British Prime Minister David Cameron a boxful of Alphonso mangoes as an early effort to push the United Kingdom to oppose the ban. In May, he launched a ‘Reverse the Mango Ban’ campaign to bring other parliamentarians on board and has referred to mangoes as “symbolic of India”.

“Maybe because his roots are in Maharashtra, Vaz chose to lobby for mangoes more than the vegetables,” said Kaul. (Vaz’s roots are actually in Goa, which is part of the Konkan belt that produces Alphonso mangoes.)

Vegetables will have their day

In India, too, experts believe it is easier for mango exporters to push their agendas through compared with disparate vegetable growers.

“There is one unified industry for mango trade in India, so it is comparatively easy for them to demand change,” said Rafiq Ahmed, president of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations. “In the case of vegetables, there are different bodies for different varieties so it is not easy for them to organise themselves.”

Despite this, officials at APEDA and FIEO claim that on its part, India has made equal efforts to work towards the lifting of the export bans of both mangoes and vegetables.

“We are hopeful that the vegetable ban will also be lifted well before December 2015,” said Sarangi.