Dialogue  January - March, 2009 , Volume 10  No. 3


North-East Scan



Food Security versus contract farming


Patricia Mukhim*


Large parts of the North East are now sold to the idea of contract farming. Contract farming essentially means that large hectares of agricultural land are alienated to the growth of bio-fuel crops like Jatropha, and to other types of mono-culture plantations. Jatropha cultivation is promoted, ostensibly to meet the country’s growing need for fuel. Jatropha is touted to be a wasteland crop. But this has been disclaimed by renowned scientists like Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign who state categorically that (a) there is  no wasteland in the North East since the entire region is inherently fertile (b) Jatropha grown in wastelands does not yield as much oil seeds as it does in nutrient rich soil and is therefore not as viable. Like every other plant Jatropha although a hardy crop does require enough water and soil nutrients.                         

        Our problem today is that the word “wasteland” is being grossly misconstrued and wrongly defined. In the North East where jhum cultivation continues to be practiced by village communities for the simple reason that they have little or no access to the public distribution system and therefore the jhum fields provide food security, fallow land that is left after a five or seven year cycle of jhum, cannot be defined as “wasteland”. This land is left by the farmers to naturally rejuvenate and regain its soil nutrients. Fallow land cannot be called wasteland. According to your@dictionary.com wasteland is land which is uncultivated, barren, or without vegetation. It would be difficult to find such land in the North East. The only wasteland one can think are the large stretches of abandoned coal mines which are all hollow inside. These are ubiquitous in the private coal mine areas of Meghalaya where there is no mine closure policy. But contract farmers will not touch such land with a bargepole. This therefore suggests that the whole notion of identifying temporary fallow land as wasteland is a subversive move which scientists and environmentalists should be awake to. 

          North East India is a biodiversity paradise. It is home to nearly half of the country’s medicinal plants and its fauna is indescribably rich. Jatropha is a crop that is not new to the region but like broomstick it has always been a fence crop. The fact that broomstick cultivation in Meghalaya has encroached into agricultural and forest lands has caused some concern among agriculturists and environmentalists because this crop tends to cause very quick depletion of nutrients from the soil and causes extreme soil dehydration. To make any kind of fence crop into a major crop would create a major change in soil condition which could lead to long term soil infertility and ultimately result in climate change.        

      Asmriti Herbs and Biofuel Farm (AHBF) with headquarters at Hojai are aggressively promoting Jatropha cultivation in Assam. AHBF claims that the total area of land currently classified as marginal, waste or degraded land in the North East is a total of 9,31,000 hectares. The Company defines wasteland as that which has lost its fertility or fallen out of production and not suitable for regular crops. It therefore concludes that such land should be diverted to Jathropha cultivation so as to ‘save thousand of crores of foreign currency’.

      Astonishingly the Company also claims that Jatropha cultivation will ‘make barren land fertile and enrich the environment’ without citing scientific evidence to this effect. Rural unemployment and poverty in the region have become the alibi for cultivating bio-diesel crops in the North East ostensibly to convert families living below poverty line to rise above poverty line. The intention is noble but there are not enough studies to indicate that the acreage of wasteland in the North East is so extensive. What the promoters of Jatropha cultivation are looking at is to plug into the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of the Government of India calling it a labour-oriented scheme where labourers can be engaged in Jatropha cultivation.

      The problem with contract farming is that land previously allocated for indigenous varieties of rice crops and which are therefore seed banks will very quickly be alienated for contract farming which gives the farmers money in the short term but has devastating effects in the long term. According to Dr Venkataraman of the National Biodiversity Institute, North East India has 62,000 varieties of rice. Agricultural scientists claim that these indigenous seed varieties are pest resistant and can grow in a temperature as high as 35 degrees centigrade, so that makes them ideal for coping with climate change. Unfortunately, farmers growing these indigenous varieties of rice do not get enough returns on their investments because of the absence of market linkages. Hill rice from Meghalaya and Manipur would fetch a good price in the national and international market if they are properly branded. The farmers’ intellectual property rights need to be protected by patenting these seeds as has been done with Basmati. If rice growing becomes a productive exercise in the region then it will be an incentive for farmers to conserve indigenous species of seeds. In that case farmers would think twice about leaning towards contract farming.

   The problem with new projects and programmes that are being introduced in the region  is that farmers do not know enough about the consequences of mono-cropping patterns and are therefore not in a position to make an ‘informed choice’. What happens after the land ceases to yield as much oil-seed and the contractors move over to newer and more fertile lands. Who insures the farmers against such eventualities? These are questions that are never answered because they are never asked. Farmers are often so distressed that they are ready to accept new plantation crops without the benefit of adequate information.  

     To turn jhum fields into mono-cropping plantations where maximum profits accrue to the companies while farmers continue to receive minimum returns despite doing maximum work is to expose the region to the vagaries of the market. It cannot be overstated that the public distribution system in this region does not reach almost 60 % of inhabitants in remote villages. If they do not grow their own food they will have no option but to starve.  Now that contract farming companies have penetrated even the remote villages it is possible more and more farmers get induced into plantation cropping. Dr MS Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution who is now talking about Evergreen Revolution, while speaking at the Indian Science Congress, NEHU, Shillong on December 3, 2008, said contract farming can only be carried out under the strictest monitoring and evaluation. Otherwise, it will become merely a profit making venture for the Company doing the contract farming leaving the farmers high and dry.

     We have enough institutions in the North East like the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, the Central Agricultural University and other state and central universities to carry out scientific research into the consequences of growing bio-fuels like Jatropha and  Pongamia Pinnata in productive land. The frightening question that arises is whether the 9, 31,000 hectares of land classified as ‘wasteland’ is really so. Above all, which agency has classified this land as being wasteland. We need answers to the above questions.    


Coping with climate change    


     Climate change has slowly crept upon us. Unseasonal torrential rains with great wind speeds, especially at the time of ripening of rice and other crops, followed by long spells of dry weather when it should be raining has devastated the farmers. They can no longer depend on the weather. It has become too unpredictable and consequently their biggest enemy. Farmers have stopped growing traditional, indigenous crops because they no do yield as much as they used to. So under the auspices of the Agriculture Department they have now begun growing more exotic crops in controlled conditions. But whether this coping mechanism affects biodiversity is a study not yet conducted. 

      In Meghalaya for instance, strawberries have become the horticulture crop of choice because they have a ready market and grow well in some of the warmer areas of the state. But this shift from food crops to horticultural crops also means that the State now has to depend on neighbouring states even for the normal vegetables that it used to produce for its own use and even for export in the past. Meghalaya grows potato, cabbage, cauliflower, beans and peas besides other vegetables. This year farmers in large parts of the state complained that the pea plantation has been badly hit by sudden storms which came at a time when the plant was flowering and therefore required a more sunny weather with light rains. Strong gales destroyed the flowers so there was very little crop. Peas are therefore selling at an exorbitant price of over Rs 100 per kilogram. This immediately affects the buyers many of whom can no longer afford to buy this vegetable. As a consequence nutrition is hampered.  

     In the plains of Meghalaya farmers have shifted to tomato cultivation. They are also growing newer varieties of vegetables, many of them hybridized. However they continue to grow ginger as a major crop. Farmers have learnt to cope with the glut in the market by adapting new techniques of storing ginger underground and selling it when there is a demand for the crop. This year ginger fetched a record price of Rs 40 per kilogram at the farm gate. Turmeric which is Meghalaya’s unique selling proposition (USP), particularly the one harvested from Lakadong in Jaintia Hills, which is known for it high curcumin content is also doing well, so the farmers are happy. Turmeric growers have also formed self help groups which give them the resilience to cope with the market forces.

     This does not however mean that everything is honky dory with the farming population. North East India as a region supports 63% of the country’s green cover. But this is slowly depleting because of mining and other commercial activities. All minerals are located under virgin forests. But the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) continues to give clearance for mining without setting guidelines for mine owners. In Meghalaya there is no mining policy and  all mines are operated by private owners. The MoEF  does not lay down any specific guidelines for closure of mines that have reached saturation point. As a result there are huge gaping holes across the coal mines of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya where rat hole mining is still in vogue. Talk of corporate social responsibility and mining companies have never heard of it. So rivers that have been poisoned from effluents such as sulphuric acid draining out of coal mines have reduced the Ph content of water to 3 and 3.7% making it highly acidic for human consumption. Traces of arsenic have also been found in tests conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.   

    Meghalaya faces another environmental threat which is also the leading cause for its climate change. Since the State Forest Department actually owns only 4% of forest land and the rest is in the private domain, officials claim that regulating the use of forests is a tough call. One wonders what has happened to joint forest management schemes in Meghalaya and why they are not working. These schemes are meant not only to create mass awareness about the dangers of depleting the forest cover at such reckless speed but also to inculcate in communities a sense of stewardship over their own natural resources. Surprisingly such schemes have hardly reached the people. Since conservation does not seem to pay, people do what they know best. They cut the forests and convert trees into timber or charcoal without caring about future consequences. 

    Meghalaya’s industrial estate in Byrnihat has several ferro-alloy industries which guzzle both charcoal and electricity. No one, except the State Industries Department really knows why Meghalaya should have ferro-alloy units when iron is imported from outside the state. A second danger is in converting hectares of agricultural land into cash crop plantations. The state has now gone into intensive cultivation of jatropha, the bio-diesel crop which is supposed to augment the fuel needs of the country. When jatropha was first introduced it was touted as a wasteland crop. But researchers have now found that jatropha does not yield as many oil-seeds in wastelands as it does in fertile land. Alienating prime agricultural land for jatropha cultivation at the rate that is being done today could lead to serious food insecurity especially among communities that depend  on their jhum fields for subsistence.    

     Sometimes it is surprising that jhum is considered an evil while mono-cropping of cash crops is encouraged. Studies now show that jhum fields are the repositories of indigenous seeds which are hardy and can withstand pests and the vagaries of weather better than hybrid crops. They are therefore the natural germ-plasm laboratories. Jhum fields moreover provide the nutrition that families needs because they grow different types of vegetables and herbs alongside their rice fields. In many parts of the North East, government distributed food grains do not reach the people because there are no road connections to the villages. In such cases there is no substitute to jhum farming. Incidentally the farmers in jhum fields know how to make this a sustainable activity. 

     It is only where the market enters the lives of communities that things get more complicated and less sustainable. Broom stick used to be a fence crop growing at the edges of the fields and in wasteland. But its demand as a commercial crop that is now exported to Middle-Eastern countries and to the West has tempted farmers to clear their forests and grow broomstick instead. This has happened particularly in the southern belts of Meghalaya adjoining Bangladesh. Broomstick rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients and  is highly invasive thus killing other trees and shrubs within its reach. If conversion of forest lands into mono-cropping plantations does not halt, Meghalaya’s forest cover will be hopelessly depleted.

      Climate change is already affecting us but we are not yet ready to face this gloomy situation. Even governments here are hardly conscious of this phenomenon. But environmentalists and a conscious civil society needs to get into action now and salvage what ever they can from the clutches of the avaricious market.


Murder in Manipur Larger Implications                       

J.N. Roy*


On Feb 13 Dr. Thingnam Kishan, Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of Kasom Khullan, Ukhrul Distt (Manipur) was kidnapped by the NSCN (IM) cadres from Ukhrul alongwith five of his staff members, two Manipuris (Meities) and three local Nagas. On Feb 16, mutilated bodies of Dr. Kishan and two Manipuris were recovered from the neighbouring Senapati distt. The missing three Nagas were later rescued alive. These murders aroused widespread reaction and agitation in Manipur. It could not be buried as in the past under the label of militant violence due to several reasons. The most important was the personality of Dr. Kishan who was a well known Manipuri intellectual, an idealist and claimed to have aroused the ire of vested interests because of his pro people approach. Besides, the brutality of the murder, widespread agitation, and hartals led by a Joint Action Committee (JAC) which led to an indefinite curfew, forced the hands of the state govt. The state govt., suspended the DM and S.P. of Ukhrul (complicity of DM has been alleged by the JAC), and announced generous compensation to the families of the those killed and handed over the case to the CBI. Even Naga bodies issued statements demanding action against the culprits.     The NSCN (IM) after initially denying its hand, later admitted involvement of its cadres including one self styled Lt. Col H. Ningshen and two others. The NSCN (IM) also claimed that they were in its custody and will be punished. The matter was also raised in the Parliament by CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta and Manipur Lok Sabha M.P. Dr. T. Meinya, demanding immediate action. Dr. Meinya. M.P., However also raised the issue of camps of the NSCN (IM) in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The national and the Assam media by and large ignored the issue underlining how innured our sensibilities have become against the worst kind of violence in this part of the country.

   Considering the past experiences there is little chance of those responsible of being brought to justice as demanded by the JAC, as the govt. of India and the State Govt. are unlikely to force the NSCN (IM) to handover the guilty to the state for trial. Earlier cases of kidnapping and murder (2003) of L. Elizabeth daughter of Manipur Education Minister F. Ngakokpa and two students in Senapati distt, in 2007 had gone no where as the militant groups would not relent. Similarly, the assassination (Dec 2007) of Wangcha Rajkumar – Ex MP in Arunachal Pradesh at the hands of the NSCN (IM) had met the same fate with some small fries being held.                                                           There are wider security and political implications of these developments which do not augur well for the peace in Manipur in particular and the north-east in general. Ever since, the ceasefire agreement between govt. of India and the NSCN (IM) in August 1997, the NSCN (IM) has been engaged in augmenting its influence and clout in the neighbouring states with claims of greater Nagaland and endeavoured to have the ceasefire agreement extended to the claimed Naga inhabited areas. They have by and large succeeded in the former in Tirap and Changlang distts of Arunachal, including alleged forced conversions to Christianity. However the effort to extend (June 2001) the ceasefire floundered in Manipur. In June 2001, the govt. of India extended it to the state but had to back-track in face of violent agitation by the Manipuris. Since then, the divide between the Nagas and Manipuris has deepened with slim chances of any reconciliation over the issue.

      It’s the question of governance and rule of law. Is NSCN (IM) above the law? Impression is that it is when it claims to try its cadres even if they have murdered senior govt. servants. It runs a parallel govt. and collects toll on highways and taxes from govt. servants and citizens is an a admitted fact.

     Another fallout of the June 2001 Notification has been the further alienation of the Manipuris from the country. Manipuri intelligentia believes that since the govt. of India began its negotiations with the NSCN (IM) it is beholden to it and will eventually concede the demand of greater Nagaland in Manipur. Frequent blocking of supplies of essentials to Manipur by trucks by the toll collection squads of the NSCN (IM) on Dimapur – Imphal road the and inability of the govt. to prevent this blackmail of the state is attributed to the perceived soft-corner for the Nagas and the NSCN (IM) by the govt. of India. Recently, in January 2009, the NSCN (IM) tried to set-up a camp in Siroi village in Ukhrul distt. (Manipur) and it took several weeks for the Assam Rifles and the govt. to disperse them as no designated camps were allowed out-side Nagaland. The manner in which the episode was handled, gave a clear impression that the govt. and Assam Rifles were begging the NSCN (IM), with various Naga bodies from Nagaland and Ukhrul supporting them during this stand-off. A press release of the Assam Rifles (Assam Tribune 24/1/2009) acknowledged that there are three camps in Manipur for the NSCN (IM) as “CAMPS TAKEN NOTE OF” by the govt. In 2007 also NSCN (IM) had tried to set up camps in Siroi and Khumbi in Ukhrul distt.

      All these developments and aggressive postures of the NSCN (IM) has created a perception in NE that the govt. of India will do nothing against them. Various incidents enumerated above tend to strengthen these perceptions. The mindset behind pro-NSCN (IM) thinking is the popular formulation that the Naga militancy is the first and mother of all other insurgencies in NE. and if it is tackled successfully all others would also disappear. Apparently there are people in Delhi who believe in this. Evidentally they are ignorant of the realities. The culmination of this kind of mindset was the June 2001 Notification extending the ceasefire to other areas outside Nagaland. These formulations ignore the serious apprehensions in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The public opinion in Manipur may be divided over the application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. (AFSPA) but not over the NSCN (IM) demands. The country cannot afford further alienation of Manipuris who represent culturally and intellectually the best in the North-East. In fact more than other insurgencies, the ULFA movement in Assam the Meitei alienation were the two greatest tragedies of the North-east. Both were the results of a policy approach which was a hang over of Verier Elwin’s philosophy – which was based on false premises. While the ULFA movement in Assam is running out of steam, the Manipuri, disenchantment with the country is deepening and needs immediate and comprehensive attention. It is not the Nagas and tribals versus the Manipuris. It’s the question of a fair and equitable governance and removal of a feeling that the govt. of India is soft on Nagas and harsh on Manipuris, including allegations of false encounters and others.

    The case of murder of Dr. Kishan, and two others, acquires more than usual importance. If the govt. is unable to force the NSCN (IM) to hand over the culprits it will send an unambiguous message that the NSCN (IM) is above the law of the land. That’s the apprehension of the JAC and they fear that handing over of the case to CBI is meant only to divert attention and buy time for doing nothing. If the past is any indication “pragmatism” is likely to triumph, unless the media and people can continue the pressure. However, the result of doing nothing will have long term consequences. History notes that the state which is party to undermining its own laws and institutions will end up undermining itself.    


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati