Down to Earth

ORGANIC CHALLENGE Lessons from Sikkim

Despite earning the `100 per cent organic' tag, Sikkim's transition to organic farming is yet to become a true success

- SONAM TANEJA | SIKKIM

IN JANUARY 2016, Sikkim became India’s first “100 per cent organic” state. Today, all farming in Sikkim is carried out without the use of synthetic fertiliser­s and pesticides, providing access to safer food choices and making agricultur­e a more environmen­t-friendly activity. But when Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environmen­t (cse) visited 16 farms spread over the four districts of the state— North Sikkim, South Sikkim, West Sikkim and East Sikkim—in November 2016, it found that the farmers’ experience of organic farming was far from satisfacto­ry. The findings of this survey hold lessons for the rest of the country.

In Poklok-Denchung gram panchayat near Namchi, the headquarte­rs of South Sikkim district, 85-year-old Nar Bahadur Rai is a disappoint­ed farmer. With his son, Rai grows maize, ginger and cardamom on their two-hectare (ha) farm. Since 2011-12, when they stopped using synthetic chemicals, their ginger production has plunged to only a third of the amount they used to grow when chemical use was permitted in farming. A fungal disease called sheath blight has affected their ginger crop and Rai has received no assistance from the government. “Why are we not

given any medicines for our crops? The government gave us only some manure for a short while. What is the point of the officers going for trainings if the farmers do not learn anything?” he asks.

Around six kilometres away, farmer Revathy Sharma faces other challenges. He grows pulses and maize on his small farm of about 0.6 ha. His pulse yield has fallen drasticall­y since he switched to organic farming. “When chemicals were allowed, I could grow 280 to 300 kg of pulses and now, after 4 years, I barely manage to grow 80 to 85 kg. This year, I am expecting a slight improvemen­t with a yield of around 100 kg,” he says. Sharma cites low productivi­ty and the susceptibi­lity of crops to pest attacks as the reasons for this fall in yield. The experience of farmers like Sharma and Rai shows that despite earning the “100 per cent organic” tag, Sikkim’s transition to organic farming is yet to become successful.

Shortfalls in execution

Sikkim decided to turn to organic farming in 2003 to protect its fragile ecosystem (see ‘Across the finish line’, p40). At the time, officials reasoned that the per hectare consumptio­n of fertiliser­s in Sikkim was already among the lowest in the country (at 5.8 kg per hectare). Farmers had also traditiona­lly never used chemicals in the cultivatio­n of cardamom, one of Sikkim’s main cash crops. “We were close to being organic by default. We have enough biomass as well,” says Khorlo Bhutia, principal director-cum-secretary of Sikkim’s Horticultu­re and Cash Crops Developmen­t Department (h&ccd). The government saw huge potential for the trade of highvalue crops such as cardamom and ginger and, hence, a resolution to the effect was passed in the Sikkim Legislativ­e Assembly.

From 2003, the state began reducing the subsidy on chemical pesticides and fertiliser­s by 10 per cent every year and banned them completely in 2014. Their sale and use was made punishable by law with an imprisonme­nt of up to three months or a fine of up to 1 lakh or both. “Initially, there was apprehensi­on among farmers and, in some villages, they refused to take up organic farming. But with continuous training and education, there was a shift in their mindset,” says M K Pradhan, additional director of the Sikkim Organic Mission (som), the nodal agency establishe­d to fast-track Sikkim’s transition in 2010.

som’s Perspectiv­e Five Year Plan (201318) states that 6,526 rural compost pits and 3,877 vermi compost pits have been constructe­d so far. S Anbalangan, executive director of som, explains that these pits have been constructe­d on people’s farms and the manure is to be shared by them. “som provides them with inputs and training for these pits and farmers maintain and use them. Additional­ly, to whatever extent possible, som distribute­s bio-inputs to farmers and they are expected to produce the rest themselves,” he says. The state’s organic farming policy also prioritise­s the training of farmers in composting methods and non-pesticide management of pests. Anbalangan says training sessions have been conducted by several agencies such as som, the state’s horticultu­re department, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, the Agricultur­e Technology Management Agency and the Indian Council of Agricultur­e Research (icar).

But the phasing out of chemicals has not been complement­ed by a simultaneo­us increase in the availabili­ty of and access to organic manure. The cse survey shows that while government-owned farms are well-stocked with bio-fertiliser­s and bio-pesticides, seven of the 14 private farmers interviewe­d have received neither of these inputs from the government. The government has also spent too little on enabling farmers to make their own organic inputs. The Mission’s Comprehens­ive Progress Report, 2014, shows that between 2010 and 2014, it spent only 5 per cent of the total expenditur­e of 54 crore on training farmers.

In West Sikkim district, Dawa Cssering Lepcha, a farmer who lives near the town of Rinchenpon­g, confirms that his ginger yield has halved since he stopped using chemicals. “Pest attacks are common and we have not received sufficient training on how to deal with them. The department taught us how to make some medicine for pest attacks in ginger, but that was not effective,” he says. Sharma from South Sikkim says he has reverted to the traditiona­l practice of using cow dung and cow urine to fight pest attacks, but they are not as effective as chemicals.

It seems that the government has no official data on the extent of pest attacks in the state as neither som nor the newly constitute­d National Organic Farming Research Institute (nofri), formerly known as the Sikkim centre of the icar Research Complex for North Eastern Hill

To discourage the use of chemicals, the state began reducing the subsidy on chemical pesticides and fertiliser­s by 10 per cent every year in 2003 and banned them completely in 2014. Their sale and use was also made punishable by law

Region, maintains such data. But nofri acknowledg­es that pest attacks are one of the major problems reported by farmers. “The problem of pest attacks has increased after the conversion to organic farming,” says Ashish Yadav, senior scientist at nofri. “If holistic management practices are followed, pest attacks or diseases can be avoided. nofri has been conducting at least four trainings per month for the past four years in each district. The training includes disease management.”

Food self-sufficienc­y

Sikkim relies largely on West Bengal for food to feed its resident population and tourists. Government data shows that apart from Sikkim mandarins (a native orange variety of Sikkim), the productivi­ty of every crop has either remained stable or improved slightly from 2010-11 to 2015-16 (see ‘Mixed bag’, p41). But cse found that only two of 14 private farmers reported an increase in yield and one said that his ginger yield had stabilised after an initial decline. Seven farmers who grew rice, maize, ginger, cardamom, pulses and vegetables said that their yield has worsened since they stopped using chemicals.

In response to this feedback, the state horticultu­re department said that though its mandate was to increase production and productivi­ty, the state must adopt a holistic approach in its transition to organic farming. “We can never become selfsuffic­ient in food. Since Sikkim became a 100 per cent organic state, the inflow of tourists has increased by 25 per cent and we will now also focus on wellness tourism,” says Bhutia. With its focus on cash crops and the rise in population and inflow of tourists, how the state plans to feed people is still doubtful. It is clear that the state will continue to depend heavily on convention­al produce, which is food grown with chemicals, from West Bengal.

Marketing neglect

Sikkim’s organic tag has not delivered on the promise it made to the state’s farmers some 14 years ago. To make the organic plan a success, the state had brought all farmers on board by assuring them that organic produce would fetch higher prices. But eight of the 14 private farmers interviewe­d by cse said they were not able to charge a premium price. For example, one of the farmers told cse that ginger used to sell for 1,500 per maund (1 maund equals 37 kg), but now fetches only 1,0001,200 per maund. The reasons for this drop in price are varied: some cite a general decline in market prices, while others say organic produce commands a lower price than convention­al produce as it tends to spoil faster. Farmers also complain that they still depend on middlemen for the sale of produce and these middlemen often pay low prices.

Chumsang Lepcha, a farmer in North

Sikkim, owns 7 ha of land and grows maize, cardamom, millets, buckwheat, squash and some vegetables. He also has a vermicompo­sting pit. Lepcha says that though his crop yield has stabilised since he shifted to organic farming in 2010, it still does not earn him a higher price. The middlemen he sells his produce to claim that they do not care whether the food is organic or not.

The state’s policy says that all organic produce is to be sold under the brand name “Sikkim Organic” in niche sections of the domestic or internatio­nal markets. But most of Sikkim’s organic food is not marketed and sold as organic produce. “Since there is no regulation on food that comes from outside the state, organic food grown in Sikkim competes with the cheaper convention­al food that comes from West Bengal. Therefore, farmers in Sikkim suffer a major disadvanta­ge,” says G V Ramanjaney­ulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainabl­e Agricultur­e, Secunderab­ad, Telangana. He works with more than 2,000 farmers in Sikkim.

The state government admits that marketing initiative­s are lagging behind due to the paucity of funds. It has now zeroed in on four high-value crops—large cardamom, ginger, turmeric and buckwheat—for profitable domestic sale and export. “Under the Mission for Value Chain Developmen­t for North East Region (movcdner), the plan is to process these four crops, package them, brand them and send them to other parts of the country or export them. Our objective is that after 2018, only processed products will be sent out of Sikkim,” says Bhutia. However, not every crop can be processed and marketing of fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables remains a challenge. Ramanjaney­ulu says that the government must support collection, transporta­tion and storage of food.

Skimming the surface

Of all steps taken by the Sikkim government towards becoming an organic farming state, the largest effort was devoted to getting all its agricultur­al land (78,000 ha) certified as organic. From the beginning of the state’s organic plan in 2003 until 2010, the state had got only 8,000 ha certified. But with the launch of som in 2010, the proportion of certified land in Sikkim saw a steady increase. Farms spread over 18,234 ha were certified in 2010-11, 19,216 ha in 2011-12, and 19,188 ha in 2012-13. Finally, by December 2015, the entire agricultur­e land in Sikkim had been converted into “certified organic”.

There are two types of organic certificat­ion systems in India: Third Party Certificat­ion, which is essential for exports, and Participat­ory Guarantee System (pgs), meant only for domestic sales. While Third Party Certificat­ion is an expensive affair, especially for an individual farmer, pgs involves almost no cost. Sikkim has spent an average of 8,400 per ha for three years for third party certificat­ion and is now expected to pay about 1,425 per ha per annum for renewal of certificat­ion. This means that the three-year cost of renewal will be a little more than half the cost of conversion. “Between 2010 and March 2016, som has spent about 77 crore, of which about 60 crore has been spent on certificat­ion and the processes connected with it,” says Anbalangan. This means som has spent about 78 per cent of its expenditur­e so far on certificat­ion and related processes.

The focus on certificat­ion appears to have diverted attention from helping farmers with organic inputs and crucial training. It is also uncertain whether the government will continue to bear the high cost of such third party certificat­ion as the state policy and five-year plan have suggested switching to pgs in areas that do not supply for export. The government, however, has no such plans. “No decision has been taken yet to shift to pgs and we are more likely to continue with third party certificat­ion unless we have a serious budgetary concern,” says Anbalangan. Chief Minister Pawan Chamling adds, “The government has paid for certificat­ion till 2018 and to minimise the cost of certificat­ion, the state has establishe­d its own certificat­ion agency called Sikkim State Organic Certificat­ion Agency.”

Lessons for India?

In India, nine other states—Karnataka, Mizoram, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtr­a and Gujarat—

have an organic farming policy or law. Of these, Kerala has announced its intention to become 100 per cent organic. These states have a lot to learn from the Sikkim model. “Sikkim is a wonderful example as it has managed to change mindsets and that is something the state of Kerala could learn from Sikkim,” says Sridhar Radhakrish­nan from Thanal, an environmen­tal organisati­on in Kerala. Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainabl­e and Holistic Agricultur­e in Karnataka agrees. “While the agro-ecological zones are different (in different states), policy measures are applicable everywhere. Each state can learn from Sikkim how to roll out an ambitious plan and execute it,” she says.

On the other hand, K K Chandra, consultant to the Kerala state government on organic farming, says that since farmers in Kerala have historical­ly used more chemicals in farming, Sikkim is not the right model for them to follow. The sentiment is echoed by experts in other states. Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab, says the model cannot be replicated in states such as Punjab and Haryana where the size of landholdin­gs varies drasticall­y.

Kapil Shah, founder of Jatan Trust in Gujarat, says the Sikkim government has exhibited commendabl­e political will in banning synthetic fertiliser­s and pesticides, but it is not enough. He rues that the problem lies in the mindset of the bureaucrac­y as most people in the agricultur­e department come from a convention­al agricultur­e background and do not understand organic farming.

Course correction

cse says Sikkim must aim for an improvemen­t in its organic farming policy and implementa­tion. According to cse’s recommenda­tions, instead of spending a large chunk of its budget on third party certificat­ion, Sikkim must demarcate areas which are not expected to contribute to export and switch to pgs certificat­ion.

It must ensure greater focus on training farmers to help them sustain organic farming. The state can achieve this by increasing its budget allocation­s to incorporat­e more training sessions for farmers and ensuring availabili­ty of bioinputs. It must support farmers till the time each farmer is able to manage her farm with inputs produced on the farm itself. Sikkim must also assess the performanc­e of the policy so far to ascertain which areas need work. It is important for the state to get data on the frequency and nature of pest attacks and organise research in those areas.

The state must ensure that farmers get the price organic food deserves, even for fresh produce. Marketing of produce must be streamline­d to enable the average consumer in Sikkim to access locally grown organic food. It is not enough to state that organic farming has proved beneficial to the environmen­t in Sikkim. The state must commission an impact study to evaluate whether the shift to organic farming has had the desired effect. (With inputs from Shreeshan Venkatesh)

Between 2010 and March 2016, Sikkim Organic Mission spent about 78 per cent of its total expenditur­e of L 77 crore on certificat­ion and related processes

 ??  ?? A man operates a power tiller at a government farm in North Sikkim. A CSE survey shows that unlike privately owned farms, government farms are wellstocke­d with bio-fertiliser­s and bio-pesticides
A man operates a power tiller at a government farm in North Sikkim. A CSE survey shows that unlike privately owned farms, government farms are wellstocke­d with bio-fertiliser­s and bio-pesticides
 ??  ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S: SONAM TANEJA / CSE
PHOTOGRAPH­S: SONAM TANEJA / CSE
 ??  ?? A farmer in South Sikkim shows ginger affected by blight disease. Many farmers have reported an increase in pest attacks since they stopped using synthetic pesticides
A farmer in South Sikkim shows ginger affected by blight disease. Many farmers have reported an increase in pest attacks since they stopped using synthetic pesticides
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 ??  ?? An Azolla (a kind of green manure) pond at a Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Mangan, North Sikkim
An Azolla (a kind of green manure) pond at a Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Mangan, North Sikkim

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