The North East Region [NER] constitutes eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. Its population of 39 million [2000 Census]constitutes 3.8% of the country’s population. Rural Population of 327.71 lakh is 84.34% in NER as against 72.20% in India.
Agriculture provides livelihood support to 70 % of the region’s population. It produces only 1.5 % of the country’s foodgrain production and continues to be a net importer of food grains even for its own consumption. Against this background this paper reviews, in brief, the current scenario of agriculture, horticulture, irrigation, institutional infrastructure and suggests a strategic action plan to accelerate the process of agricultural development during the Twelfth Plan.
AGRICULTURE IN NORTH EAST INDIA
Agriculture: Agricultural land including fallow is 22.20% [varying between 37.43% in Assam and 4.40% in Arunachal] as against 54.47% in India. Cultivators [41.61%] and agricultural laborers [13.07%] together constitute the majority of the workforce as against 31.65 % and 26.55% respectively in India. The land is held almost by all. The share of marginal and small farmers is 78.92 %. Land distribution is mostly egalitarian rooted in the principle of community way of living and sharing.
The productivity of the land as compared to its potential is low since NER, according to the latest available statistics, has only 29 soil testing laboratories, NPK consumption is low viz. NPK kg/ per hectare is 130.5 [Manipur], 46.6[Assam], 29.4 [Tripura], 17.0[ Meghalaya] and very low in other states; indigenous plow is the main farm implement (95.66%); irrigation covers only 11% of the net sown area; area under High Yielding Variety(HYV) paddy is 9.50 lakh hectares (35%); HYV seed replacement rate is extremely low and 4.31 lakh farmers possess Kisan Credit Cards. Nearly five lakh families practice shifting cultivation [jhuming] covering about 2.2 million hectares of which 17% is jhumed at any point in time.
Land tenure system: NER manifests two types of land tenure systems viz.
(i) Government administered revenue system operates in the plains and valleys of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and in the hilly state of Sikkim
(ii) Village level customary land tenure system operates in the hilly states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland and in the hilly parts of Assam, Manipur, and Tripura. The land records system is outdated and farmers’ access to it is time-consuming and expensive. Only in the Assam land records system is being computerized.
Horticulture: Diverse agro-climatic conditions, varied soil types and abundant rainfall have endowed NER with promising horticulture and value-added products that can be marketed within the country and abroad.
Irrigation: NER is endowed with 33% of the country’s water resources. It receives annual rainfall ranging from 2,480 mm to 6,350 mm. The annual water availability of 16,500 cubic meters per capita and 44,180 cubic meters per hectare is the highest in the country. Due to high rainfall, NER has an inherent advantage to exploit rain-water harvesting. However, the rate of harnessing and utilizing irrigation potential has been low since only 11% of net cultivable land is irrigated. Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program[AIBP] emphasizes exploiting surface irrigation through Minor Irrigation[MI] schemes in NER.
Under MI schemes, an irrigation potential of 46,500 hectares has been created of which 34,300 hectares [73.76%] are being utilized. Besides, irrigation potential of 2, 93,110 hectares under Bharat Nirman is targeted comprising 1,09,140 hectares under major and medium irrigation and 1,83,970 hectares under MI schemes. North Eastern Council [NEC] cautions against intensive exploitation of underground water as hazardous elements have been found at several locations.
Institutional infrastructure: NER has local institutions, Research Center for North Eastern Hill Region at Umiam established in 1975 with six regional centres North Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation Ltd [NERAMAC], processing units[Nalkata, Agartala, Byrnihat], credit institutions, among others, which need to be strengthened and optimally utilized.
Strategic Plan: Strategic planning and implementation are necessary to develop agriculture and make region marginally, if not significantly, the surplus in food production by integrating research, extension, and education duly supported by time-bound reforms in land tenure system in each State. Harnessing agricultural potential would generate a surplus to support the secondary sector, create demand for goods in the rural areas, increase the disposable income that could enhance purchasing power of some 33 million people, and bring socio-economic development. The impact of agricultural growth on farmers’ income is evident from the fact that one incremental percentage growth, according to an estimate at the national level, leads to an additional income generation of Rs. 10,000 crore for the farmers and create additional employment opportunities.
Agricultural development strategy has to be evolved depending on resources, conditions, and people’s needs and priorities. Private sector participation can provide additional resources and create the necessary environment to generate job opportunities, better utilization of resources, and enhance credit flow impacting directly on farm sector development. With appropriately defined targets, clear outcomes, strategies, and coordinated planning, the NER can become increasingly self-reliant in food output. Effective computer-based monitoring and management information systems can facilitate timely implementation of programs with improved quality and service delivery that can avoid the cost and time overruns and yield envisioned results.
Agriculture: As the land use pattern in the plains and hills is different, significant resources need to be allocated for research and designing separate strategies to improve farm productivity to match the requirements of hills and plains. The land productivity as compared to its potential is low except for few pockets in Manipur, Assam, and Tripura. Land productivity and farm output can significantly be enhanced through initiating measures, among others, viz.[i] Formulating a State-specific land and water use policy and adopting agro-climatic Zonal planning for agriculture sector suggested by the Planning Commission [ii] ICAR, SAU and CAU to facilitate breeder seed production of HYV and their multiplication and distribution involving SHGs of Youths and establishing State-wise warehouse, centers for certified seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, farm- equipment depending on the scale of operation, in coordination with NSC, NFC, and Governments [iii] Improving and expanding agricultural extension service network significantly to demonstrate and transfer among farmers proven yield-maximizing technology developed by ICAR and SAU [iv] Making small operational holdings of farmers economically viable and profitable through forming farmer-SHGs, participatory approach and community action on a cluster basis [v] Establishing institutions for capacity building of farmers to adopt technology and centers at strategic locations to supply reasonably priced quality seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and farm equipment [vi] Enhancing public investment and institutional credit to enable farmers to access technology to achieve and continue the expected growth of agriculture, horticulture,agro-processing, and irrigation [vii] Neutralizing soil acidity through soil testing and judicious application of lime and cultural practices [viii] Reasonably reducing crop duration by evolving short duration hybrid and high yielding varieties [ix] Commercializing traditional diversified farming system [x] Farmers practice organic farming particularly in the hills and organic products fetch high market price, potentials of which can be exploited by improving grower’s technical skill, formulating action plan linking with input delivery and marketing services [xi] Exploiting the potential of non-traditional and high-value crops like aromatic and medicinal plants, flowers, spices and condiments that are endemic to the region [xii] Replicating the Integrated Agricultural Development model piloted successfully in Tinsukia (Assam) and Bisalgar (Tripura) [xiii] Total involvement of the community to guarantee the success
Jhuming: Efforts need to address the social and human aspects of the problem of jhuming and offer alternatives acceptable to the farmers in consultation with the local farming communities. NEPED project raising cash crops and horticulture using the forest as an alternative to jhuming in Nagaland has proved to be a promising model demonstrating environmental soundness and profitability. This can be replicated in other jhuming areas. This alternative promises success to minimize jhuming by involving farming communities and integrating with the timely provision of quality planting material and production inputs, and efficient extension and marketing services. This would also need adequate financial resources to sustain field operations including maintenance for the initial five years. Besides, tea, cardamom, and rubber plantation can be tried successfully on a pilot basis.
Horticulture: The agro-climatic and altitudinal advantage accompanied by the tradition of growing fruits and vegetables should help enhance the productivity and output by formulating a State-specific program on selected fruits and vegetables linking with, among others, the supply of planting material, inputs, processing facilities, and marketing network. On a priority basis, Small Farmers Horticulture Estate (SFHE) can be established on an area of 200-400 hectares by forming fruit grower-SHGs, training them to upgrade their technical and managerial skill, and providing credit support. A system has to be put in place that ensures post-harvest handling, assembly, storage, transport packing, processing, credit, and modern marketing system for horticulture products in public-private-partnership mode. Flori-culture potential available in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Sikkim can be exploited on commercial-scale through preparing feasibility studies and action plans.
Irrigation: To ensure targeted growth in agriculture, the available water resources need to be fully harnessed to timely irrigate a variety of agricultural, horticultural, and plantation crops.NER has a significant amount of unexploited irrigation potential, particularly in the Imphal valley of Manipur and in Tripura. Till recently, about 19% of the total potential of 5.7 lakh hectares is exploited in Assam as against 40% in India. Manipur can attain about 10% of its potential to cover 65,000 hectares. Irrigation potential in Tripura can cover 2.81 lakh hectares. Surface irrigation potential in Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim needs to be exploited since topographical conditions do not favor the exploitation of groundwater for irrigation. In view of high rainfall and fragile topsoil, an integrated program for water development and soil management is considered necessary. The program should have an appropriate institutional mechanism and should mobilize adequate funds to equitably spread the benefits of irrigation.
The strategy should focus on[i] framing State-wise water policy [ii] formulating district-wise water management plans [iii]bringing all degraded, rain-fed and wasteland under the watershed project [iv]promoting drip and sprinkler irrigation system
AIBP: It is necessary to simplify and streamline the administrative procedures to speed up land acquisition and timely release of adequate funds to successfully implement the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program. The Union Ministry can consider liberalizing norms adequately to suit the needs of NER and each State rather than uniformly stipulated for the country under AIBP. Suggested flexibility by States include[i] Increasing per hectare project cost in NER and releasing funds in one installment before the working season commences [ii] Tripura, due to inadequate surface flow, is unable to access benefits under AIBP. The norms need to include groundwater development and provision for renovation, an extension of pipelines and maintenance cost [iii] For Nagaland, AIBP to include the construction of check dams [iv]For Arunachal Pradesh, AIBP to include extension/renovation of existing schemes. It favors the tapping of groundwater wherever feasible [v] For Sikkim, eligibility criteria to be five hectares as the threshold for MI schemes in small hills instead stipulated requirement of minimum irrigation potential area of 20 hectares per scheme [vi] Union Ministry to release funds timely in Mizoram to help implement AIBP in a limited working period [vii] NEC to assist Meghalaya in hiring competent professional consultants to formulate micro/minor irrigation projects
ICAR: Detailed evaluation is necessary to assess the usefulness of ICAR and SAUs farm researches to farmers, identify deficiencies and reasons why farmers have yet not accepted and benefited, and redesign research programs involving farmers. ICAR should intensify research on designing small farm implements to meet the needs of hills and small farmers. One Krishi Vigyan Kendra in each district be established and linked with ICAR’s center on a pilot basis to empower farmers including women farmers.
The KVK should act as a change agent to transfer technology, extension services, market- information, impart skill, and management up-gradation training and agent for social mobilization. Their performance should be critically evaluated after two years and more KVKs be considered duly redesigned to match emerging local needs. Enabling product and area-specific rural infrastructure should be created to add value to horticultural products, viz. passion fruits cultivated in Senapati district of Manipur, Anthurium in Aizawl district, Mizoram, Strawberry cultivated under horticulture mission in RiBhoi district of Meghalaya, Apple Cultivated in Arunachal Pradesh
Local Institutions: NER has 7,564 local bodies comprising 5,106-gram Sabhas, 2,023 village panchayats, 376 Block Councils, 47 Zilla Parishads, nine Autonomous District Councils [ADCs] and three Hill ADCs. While ADCs strive for the preservation of tribal identity and heritage, Village Councils act as administrator, justice provider and custodian of the land, and other resources. The Village Councils function in Nagaland, Mizoram, and Tripura. Nagaland and Tripura have utilized these institutions to a large extent.
The PRIs functioning in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, major parts of Assam, and plain areas of Tripura act as development agents. The participation of these institutions for decentralized development is asine qua non. These grass-root institutions need to be organizationally and financially strengthened, their functions clearly defined and their capacity built to plan, implement, review, and monitor farm development projects seeking local people’s participation. The District Infrastructure Index of NE states issued on September 24, 2009, should help Autonomous District Councils responsible for development to optimally utilize the already created infrastructure and plan and place in time the required infrastructure for farm development in concerned districts. Social/Community mobilization needs a sharp focus to improve program performance and sustainable farm development.
Women Empowerment: The status of women in NER is relatively better than in many other States. Despite women actively participate in economic activities, particularly in the hill areas their participation in the decision-making process is low. Even in many tribal societies, social systems and certain customary laws smack of gender discrimination. Focused attention should be paid to empower women through
(i) Formation of SHGs
(ii) Strengthening women NGO’s to make their voice heard[iii]Launching program for woman literacy, training, and motivation that helps capacity building [iii]SHGs as an economic tool for women empowerment to improve their creditworthiness and bargaining strength as a group. The provision of micro-credit would help SHGs develop micro-enterprises of women that would give even the poorer section among them economic strength.
NERAMAC: North Eastern Regional Agriculture Marketing Corporation needs to be strengthened financially, organizationally, and professionally in consultation with the National Institute of Agricultural Marketing that can facilitate processing, marketing, and establishing a network of common facility centers in each State.
Credit agencies: As of March 2011, Commercial Banks had 1,255 branches. Their performance has been progressively improving in respect of mobilization of savings, deployment of agricultural credit, disbursement of micro-credit under NABARD’s SHG-Bank Linkage Program, supporting Government programs, etc. As of March, 2009 Commercial Banks’ outstanding credit to agriculture amounted to Rs.2731 crore covering 3,80,613 borrowers and in March 2011, under microfinance program banks disbursed Rs.95.45 crore to 422 NGOs and MFIs for on-lending to 1,59,983 beneficiaries in NER.
Since banks have a significant role as a catalyst to accelerate the process of agricultural development in NER they should be pro-active and make financial services available to farmers by establishing branches at strategic locations and through technology applications. In a time-bound program, they can provide Kisan Credit Cards to all farmers and where the necessary link with insurance companies to facilitate farmers access insurance products. They can design simple borrower-friendly lending policies, procedures, documentation, and customized and flexible financial products that match the needs of farmers in NER rather than one-fits-all for the country as a whole.
The factors responsible for low performance as compared to targeted include, inter alia, difficult topography, sparse population settlements, inadequate infrastructure, discouraging land tenure system, lack of agricultural entrepreneurship, a massive amount of grants and subsidies under Government programs, and law and order conditions in some parts
State Governments should create an enabling environment that can improve credit absorption capacity of farmers and geographical areas, accelerate the flow of credit and loan recovery simultaneously. Banks, Government, and print/electronic media can launch massive campaigns to create awareness among farmers to avail of financial services.
Conclusion: Let the year 2013-14 be fully devoted to creating awareness on-farm technology that should motivate farmers to adopt technology and substantially raise farm productivity and output during the Twelfth Plan. Farmer-SHGs should become an empowered group of farmers to exert pressure on elected representatives right from villages to parliament and Rajya Sabha for strategic planning and implementation of agricultural development projects to yield results envisioned in Vision 2020 during the Twelfth Plan.
About the Author:
Dr. Amrit Patel is an agriculture & rural banking Consultant. He can be contacted by email at dramritpatel@yahoo(dot)com