The journey of individualistic farming to the collectivism of marginal farmers of Mengio circle

[ Pill Biman ]

One of the world’s oldest exotic spices, large cardamom/black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) is grown across the eastern Himalayan region, including Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and some parts of West Bengal hills in India. But the large cardamom cultivation gained momentum back in 2003-2004 in Arunachal Pradesh. At that time, cultivation of large cardamom was witnessed only in a few selected districts in the state on a trial basis. Meanwhile, in neighbouring states like Sikkim and West Bengal grasped the interest of the international and national spices market for quite some time with alluring prices for large cardamoms.

During the years 2009-2012 Arunachal Pradesh’ farmers saw the potential of this crop with the promising high yields, and started large cardamom farming after bringing the saplings from other states. Large cardamom farming dove into the race of cultivation on a large scale in 13-14 districts of the state.

Eventually, within a few years of large cardamom cultivation, the farmers showed top results in terms of quantity and quality. As a result, over-production of large cardamom and very little exposure to market linkage created a market situation with high productivity with few buyers that brought down the rate exponentially. In simple terms, lack of selling points. Here comes the involvement of the middlemen or, in marketing term, we call them inter-mediators. The farmers were in a dilemma whether to sell the produces to farms at low prices or take the risk to sell the produces to the nearest market with an uncertain price and bearing the bumpy journey on country roads.

Altogether, extensive large cardamom farming and traditional post-harvesting methods for drying the capsule brought down the rate of the magical cash crop and witnessed the ever-changing price fluctuation. They range from Rs 450-1,450 to the current market rate of around Rs 350-450 per kg.

Small farmers like Nabam Tahi (52) from Sakiang village used to sell his produce at the farm rate with the lowest price as offered by the buyers due to lack of market linkage, road conditions, extra costs attached to transportation (the distance of the capital market) and cultivating the crop in a small area.

Ingenuity to change the paradigm

We know Arunachal Pradesh for its largest forest coverage, jhum kheti, terrace paddy field cultivation, and from the very beginning of civilization, farming is an integral part of the tribal community.

The substantive farming practice, ‘hand-to-mouth’ practice and individualistic farming practices have presented acute shortage of production of different agriculture and horticulture produces in the state. The same challenge is faced by today’s small farmers. Small farmers with a small quantity of produce, depending on the farm-gate selling points with little or no negotiation power, and marginal farmers like Nabam Tam (42) are forced to sell their produces at a very low rate. To tackle these challenges faced by the farmers, this project team chalked out a plan and initiated the concept of farmers’ cooperative farming at the village level and sensitized the farmers to work as a group of community with the same interest and related occupations.

The transforming story of individualistic farming to collectivism farming started with one final year MBA case study by a student named Chukhu Apu for her MBA final year project, under the supervision of Dr S Chodhury, HoC, Centre for Management Studies, North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology, Nirjuli.

Her case study underlined three major challenges faced by the marginal farmers of Mengio circle. The first challenge is that the marginal farmers are not able to sell their products because of lack of market linkage and high transportation costs.

The second challenge is the post-harvesting process, traditional drying methods of large cardamom capsules. And the last one is the lack of market linkage and bargaining skills, which are indispensable parts of marking skills to survive in today’s business competition.

In due course, Dr S Chodhury and his fellow team members conducted an initial survey and prepared a detailed project proposal under the project entitled ‘Large cardamom and other multilayer innovative farming in Mengio circle of Arunachal Pradesh and its impact on sustainable rural livelihood entitle’. It was approved by the National Mission Himalayan Studies (NMHS) in 2018.

The project partners are GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development (GBPNIHESD), Itanagar, and the department of the food engineering and technology, Tezpur University, with the lead proponent Dr Shibabrata Choudhury.

The objectives of this small grant project are profitability augmentation for the marginal farmers, socioeconomic development of the region through incorporating entrepreneurial skill sets amongst the local inhabitants, and creating environmental awareness through sustainable farming.

The participatory rural appraisal (PRA) was conducted by Pill Biman, junior project fellow, and soil samples were collected and sent for soil testing. A village-level committee has been formed and 10 resource persons have been selected for village level training and coordination.

Training for trainers (ToT) was done with the selected resource persons and industrial exposure trips was also organized by the project team.

Transubstantiate phase

To mitigate the challenges faced by the farmers related to collectively selling their annual produces, the steering committee team committed to form a farmer’s cooperative society or SHGs in Mengio circle to aggregate the farmers’ products under one banner and sell these products at a reasonable price with the more bargaining power.

At the start, it was quite challenging to convince the farmers to work collectively and aggregate the products under one banner and sell them collectively. But, with time and training, workshops and industrial exposure visits, the farmers decided to give it a try. The farmers’ cooperative society was formed under the observation of Biman, with the name Paniar Multipurpose Cooperative Society Limited, with 100 registered farmers currently operational under the society.

On 3 March, 2021, a registration certificate handing-over ceremony was organized at the NERIST ET cell in presence of entire project team members, the chief guest and MBA students. The registration of the cooperative has been a long dream of NERIST Director Prof HS Yadav. He is committed to a vision to make the NERIST a technological intervention research hub for the holistic development of this region. He congratulated the farmers and the entire project team and expressed his best wishes for the future.

NIRD&PR, NER Director Prof RM Pant officially handing over the cooperative society registration certificate to the society’s chairman Nabam Tahi.

Not too long ago, the village farmers almost lost the hope in this cash crop that comes with lots of expectation to improve the livelihood of the village farmers. But because of the continuous decline in the rate of large cardamom, the state has some serious concerns about the future of farming this cash crop.

But today, after the formation of the multipurpose cooperative society, many farmers believe that this new concept of cooperative farming and collective approach toward the problem faced by the farmers will be solved and gradually will improve the livelihood of the farmers in the long run.

For the past two years, the project team has observed the entire pre-harvesting to post-harvesting process and assisting in every help through trainings and sharing of information related to farming and marketing. Apart from the training and industrial exposure visits, the project team is working on a prototype solar-based drying system to eliminate the use of firewood and minimize the drying process duration from 7-8 hours to 3-4 hours maximum.

The solar-based dryer prototype was designed and constructed under the supervision of Dr AK Parida of the department of electrical engineering, NERIST, in collaboration with Dr K Das of the department of food engineering and technology of Tezpur University. The prototype solar dryer is in the final stage of completion and project team members are expecting to run the first trial of the dryer machine at the end of this year.

As stated by Dr Parida, we are confident that this experiment will bring the expected results and minimize tree-cutting for firewood used for the drying process of large cardamom capsules. One of the farmers said we need to bring forward such collectivism concept, especially in the agriculture sector. It is to be hoped that more such area-specific projects with real-time solution to real challenges and problems faced by the rural population will be taken up. (Pill Biman is Junior Project Fellow, NERIST, Nirjuli)