There's been a lot of buzz recently about Sikkim becoming a completely organic state. The state government has won kudos from many quarters, from being featured on the popular TV show Satyamev Jayate to being effusively praised by PM Modi. While there is no doubt that Sikkim is one of better governed small states in India, a more balanced view has been missing from the general discourse.
A regional 'advantage'
The decision to go organic in 2003 was based on the premise that farming in Sikkim and the wider Northeast region was traditionally organic. The Green Revolution and the heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides had altogether skipped this region. Therefore, the state was already starting from an advantage.
Decline in production
Secondly, Sikkim is the smallest of the Himalayan states and the second smallest state after Goa, with agricultural land of around 75,000 hectares. The number of tourists visiting the state has steadily grown for the past many years. In 2014, 611,593 tourists visited, a number that was marginally higher than the state's population of 610,577 (Census 2011). Thus, Sikkim has to feed not only its residents but also an increasingly large number of tourists.
[Y]ields through organic production tend to be lower than usual, at least initially, while the prices are higher. Will food remain affordable to the poorest in Sikkim?
The existing food production hardly meets 30% of the consumption needs of the state. Sikkim is a chronically food deficient state and is highly dependent on supplies arriving through Siliguri from other states. It has registered a 30% decline in food grain production in the last two decades.
It is known that the yields through organic production tend to be lower than usual, at least initially, while the prices are higher. Will food remain affordable to the poorest in Sikkim?
Supply chain issues
The market linkages and supply chain to export the organic produce is still poor. A large share of the produce from Sikkim comprises vegetables and fruits, which are highly perishable. The road that connects Sikkim to Siliguri and to the rest of India is in poor condition and prone to landslides and huge pileups. Thus, the transporters charge exorbitant tariffs. Moreover, transport to Kolkata can take up to two days, and delay even by a day could alter the quality of the produce.
A lot of the trade remains in control of the traders from the markets of Siliguri and Kolkata. Despite the efforts of the Sikkim State Co-operative Supply and Marketing Federation(SIMFED), many farmers struggle to get decent prices for their produce.
The cardamom conundrum
Finally, Sikkim's pride, the large cardamom (the state is India's largest producer), has been suffering for a while. The yields have reduced severely. The land under cultivation, according to a state official, has gone down from around 26,000 hectares to about 16,500 hectares. This has been due to a combination of prolonged disease and impacts of climate change. The pressure to remain organic has not helped the cause of the large cardamom, since research on bio-pesticides has not yet caught up with the problem.
Therefore, while the Sikkim Government deserves the kudos coming its way, one wonders if the single-minded focus to achieve the tag of a completely organic state and the following hype, has swept all of the above challenges under the carpet.
Varun Santhosh is a Programme Manager, Centre for Smart City Governance at the Takshashila Institution - a Bengaluru-based think-tank and school of public policy.
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