Challenges Faced by Northeast India Farmers Is Not Visible at First Glance
Driving past the lush paddy fields and fruit-laden trees of Shillong, 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 finds no place in the verses of “The Miller of the Dee”. Challenges faced by Northeast India farmers today are numerous and there is no dearth of reasons. But here’s a quick look at some of the most critical ones.
Fragmented Land Holding
Between 1951 and 2001, the population of Northeast India saw a 350% increase. 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.
Lack of a Stable Market
In a recent interview with Mr. Barry Syiem, he 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 land holdings, but also provide greater value.
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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 hand woven bamboo baskets and manually transported as there are not 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 land holdings 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.
In India, post-harvest losses due to unavailability of proper storage is 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.
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. 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. If you know a farmer 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.