Farm located in Meghalaya

Challenges Faced by Farmers of Northeast India are Not Visible at First Glance

More so than other parts of India, Northeast India region is an agrarian economy, and the northeast India agriculture is dominated by rice cultivation. Driving past the lush paddy fields and fruit-laden trees of Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya, one can’t help but feel envious of the people who work in those fields. The beauty and serenity of their surroundings never cease to calm the white-collar worker’s mind which is bursting with number crunching and information overload 24x7!

Yet, a closer look and one can tell that the life of a farmer today is no bed of roses. We share with you the challenges faced by farmers of Meghalaya, one of the eight states that make the Northeast Region of India, as we know about it first-hand because we work with the farmers of that state.

What are the challenges faced by the farmers of Northeast India – given the mountainous topography of the region?  Northeast India climate ranges from temperate in the higher altitudes to tropical. The altitude in Meghalaya, which is mountainous with valleys and plateaus, ranges between 450 ft above Mean Seal Level (MSL) to over 6,000 ft above MSL. With abundant springs and fertile land the state is home to  a treasure trove of herbs and spices and there is potential for farmers to get good returns, but they face many challenges.

Here’s a quick look at some of the challenges faced by the northeast India farming community.

1. Fragmented Land Holding

Between 1951 and 2001, the population of Northeast India saw a 350% increase (Source). And with this kind of growth, it was inevitable that the pressure on land would only increase.

As an example, 81% of the population of Meghalaya is agrarian, with individual landholding averaging half an acre. This fact has resulted in numerous side effects which are already causing long term damage.

For instance, overusing the same plot of land again and again without proper knowledge of crop rotation has severely diminished soil fertility.

Another very serious side effect of fragmented land holdings is that farmers earn only enough to sustain their immediate needs.

This means they do not have the means to invest in their land, which keeps them from upgrading or adopting new farming techniques, which would have brought higher dividends for them.

Farmers of Meghalaya plucking bird eye chili

2. Lack of a Stable Market

In an  interview with Mr. Barry Syiem, the then District Horticulture Officer, South West Khasi Hills,  stated that unless the markets don’t open up, farmers will continue to grow conventional crops, which in turn, are heavily influenced by the market.

Since markets won’t open up, farmers refuse to experiment with new crops. And needless to say, the ones to suffer from this predicament are the farmers.

If the markets were more encouraging, then farmers could start growing low volume but high-value crops that not only work well with their small landholdings but also provide greater value.

Farmer from Meghalaya planting Chili in his field  
Ri-bhoi farmer with Raj Kharmih (Zizira team). This farmer grows carrots on his half acre plot. Imagine if he knew there were other plants that would bring him more value for his plot of land!


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3. Lack of Mechanization

Other than Assam, the other states in Northeast India have adopted little in terms of mechanization. It is not an uncommon sight for farmers to manually plough, sow, harvest or winnow their crops. Even transportation is time-consuming.

Often produce is loaded in handwoven bamboo baskets and manually transported as there are no roads for vehicles to pass.

So you ask what stops them from mechanizing their operations?

There are two primary reasons.

Firstly, given the hilly terrain of the region, it is neither feasible nor practical for large mechanized operations to take place.

Secondly, even if farmers did happen to own land in the plains, small landholdings prevent them from making the kind of investment required for mechanization.

The lack of modernization is also visible in post-harvest activities for high-value produce like the high curcumin Lakadong turmeric.

Farmers still manually clean, slice and dry their produce, which unnecessarily adds to their labour cost. Ironically, this causes the majority of the turmeric farmers to just sell their produce in their native raw state at far lesser prices.

Had they been able to adopt mechanization, their produce would have sold at higher rates.

Hills of Meghalaya  
Much of the terrain in Northeast India is hilly, thus preventing mechanization

Meghalaya tapioca being sold a Meghalaya market  
farmers not agreeing to modernize post-harvest methods

4. Agricultural Infrastructure

In India, post-harvest losses due to unavailability of proper storage are said to be as much as 30%!

With limited connectivity, hilly terrain, subsistence agriculture, and fragmented land holdings – the numbers for the Northeast region is bound to be much higher.

Did you know that wastage in fruits and vegetables cost the Indian economy more than ₹ 2 lakh crores annually due to lack of storage, food processing units and proper market infrastructure?

And all of these factors only compound the challenges faced by Northeast India farmers.

It is not wrong to say that any plans that are drawn up for the economic development of northeast India has a better chance of success if it is tied to the agricultural sector which is the backbone of the region. Such a success could create many agricultural jobs in northeast India too.

Farmer tending his field in Meghalaya

5. Lack of Education Creates Gap Between Northeast India Farmers and Prosperity

A government survey on India’s adult literacy estimates that 32% of the country’s rural population is illiterate, as compared to 15% of the urban population. Extrapolate that to the farmers in the rural areas, the figure must be significantly higher.

Education is not only a basic right, it also helps reveal opportunities and scope for improving one’s circumstance in life.

For instance, the majority of scientists that Zizira has met maintain that jhum cultivation is one of the most harmful practices of Northeast India farmers. And with the mounting pressure on land, fallow period is now less than 3 years as compared to 20 years earlier.

Additionally, there are several organizations helping farmers who work diligently to aid in upgrading and adopting more productive and efficient farming technologies.

However, given the lack of proper education, farmers more often than not, are unable to even capitalize on the various government schemes for farmers and the unemployed youth of the region.

Farmer from Meghalaya

government survey on India’s adult literacy estimates that 32% of the country’s rural population is illiterate, as compared to 15% of the urban population. Extrapolate that to the farmers in the rural areas, the figure must be significantly higher.

Education is not only a basic right, it also helps reveal opportunities and scope for improving one’s circumstance in life.

For instance, the majority of scientists that Zizira has met maintain that jhum cultivation is one of the most harmful practices of Northeast India farmers. And with the mounting pressure on land, fallow period is now less than 3 years as compared to 20 years earlier.

Additionally, there are several organizations helping farmers who work diligently to aid in upgrading and adopting more productive and efficient farming technologies.

However, given the lack of proper education, farmers more often than not, are unable to even capitalize on the various government schemes for farmers and the unemployed youth of the region.

 

Zizira and several other organizations, government and otherwise, are doing their best to highlight the challenges faced by Northeast India farmers. Zizira is also meeting with farmers and helping them understand that there is a market for their produce and as well as low volume-high value varieties.

Considering that organic farming in northeast India is more viable than other states of India, mitigating the challenges faced by northeast India farmers is so important.  We are sharing with you an interesting comment we read on organic farming in northeast India in a Government portal: The areas like North Eastern region of India and other hilly areas, where a lot of biomass is available from forest, weeds, crops etc. organic farming would be more economical. Moreover, organic produce are expected to fetch premium price (at least 25per cent) and therefore should be economical to the poor farmers.

If you know a farmer in northeast India or anyone who knows one, check to see if the points listed above apply or if there are more. Write to us with your thoughts.

 

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1 comment

Niladri Sircar

Niladri Sircar

An interesting issue to ponder about. Incidentally more than a decade ago I was stationed in Guwahati to cater to the agri finance on behalf of a Pvt Sector Bank . I think your states potential can be like Kerala for aromatic plants, spices etc. True nature’s handicap in mechanization of farming due terrain and small holdings. You can explore machine for processing. Organic farming may be of big advantage in your area. The Other important point is you need a very strong Marketing net work across India, Whats holding you back in this regard.

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