By Chean Marak & Nabamita Mitra
Garo Hills is the state’s diverse agricultural hub with its hills and plains. Among the primary produce, cash crops like rubber, cashew nuts and coffee are the main stake of several farmers in the region.
Of the three cash crops, rubber is a popular choice and its plantation is found in almost all the districts of Garo Hills because it once fetched good price. Many like Alsing Marak started growing rubber after they saw the earnings of other planters. There was a time when planters would get Rs 300 for a kg but a downtrend in the market has left little room for the planters to make profit.
Alsing said many in Damalgre in West Garo Hills are growing rubber though his family is the only one to have a plantation in Chismokgre village. He has around 450 rubber trees. “My in-laws have been planting rubber for the last 10 years. I have also started my own plantation as well as I take care of the family one,” said the 48-year-old farmer.
Spread over five bighas, his rubber plantation lies at one end of the village and one has to trek to the vast stretch.
Semalin M Sangma of the same village said her family has stopped collecting resin two years back. “Business has remained stagnant. We stopped harvesting rubber as the place where we live is quite far (from the plantation). Besides, there are many hardships that we face when compared to the meagre returns,” she added.
Besides, rubber plantation has adversely affected soil fertility in the long run and many who replaced food crops with the cash crop are regretting their decision. Fr Sunny Joseph Mavelil, director of Tura-based NGO Bakdil, said replacing food crops with cash crops has boomeranged on poor farmers who have to buy rice and vegetables from the market.
The social worker said in many places people are replacing rubber plants with areca nut. “Rubber plants take a lot of water and after planting the saplings, you have to wait for five to eight years to actually start collecting the resin. Also, you need at least 100 trees to incur some profit,” said Probirts Sangma, who has a humble plantation in his village near Dudhnoi.
Semalin listed more problems like giving fertiliser in the initial stages of plantation and taking care of the plants. “We have to get saplings from far away and we have to be extremely careful during transportation as many saplings get spoiled,” she said.
A 2007 study by SN Goswami and O Challa said rubber was introduced in Meghalaya in 1970 by the Government of India with the help of the Rubber Board. “The rationale for introduction of rubber in Meghalaya has been justified on two grounds, viz., (a) to meet the ever growing domestic demand for natural rubber; and (b) to rehabilitate the jhum practising tribal farmers… A major consequence has been the destruction of forest, increased soil erosion from crop land, resulting in declining soil fertility and lower crop yields,” it pointed out.
The crop that was once considered an economic game changer at the local level here has not only disturbed the balance in agricultural produce but has also proved less lucrative over the years.
Planters of other cash crops also have their own problems. For many cashew nut growers in the region, profit is elusive as middlemen eat into their income. Galendra Sangma grows cashew nuts over less than one acre and sells at Rs 70 a kilogram. The processed nuts are sold for Rs 1,000 a kg. He also complained that there is no government support for cash crops.
An ICAR newsletter said cashew was introduced in 1954-55 (through seeds) “at Ma-changpani, Amphanggiri (Bagmara district) and Wa’ge asi pilot projects by the Soil Conservation Department, Assam, on trial basis”.
“The efforts of Soil and Water Conservation Department resulted in covering 1,459 hectares under cashew plantations in West Garo Hills alone… The Garo Hills lies in a heavy rainfall area and the practice of jhum cultivation has led to large scale erosion in many areas. Several cashew trees of this area had exposed roots due to severe soil erosion losses,” it said.
Both Galendra and Alsing, who also grows cashew nuts, said the bulk of the produce in the state is sold as raw product to processing plants in Assam, especially in Mankachar and Phulbari areas.
“There is no processing plant even after so many years. Had there been at least one in the region, planters would have incurred some profit,” said Fr Sunny.
As far as coffee is concerned, the present situation is tough for growers and the future looks bleak without government support. Veteran planter Wefstar D Shira, who markets A.Chik Coffee, rued the authorities’ apathy in promoting indigenous brands.
There are more than 25,000 growers in Garo Hills and over 20,000 hectares are under coffee cultivation.
Shira, who is from Rongbilbanggre in West Garo Hills, has been growing coffee since 1999. He buys seeds from farmers across Garo Hills and processes the coffee that he supplies to Shillong, Guwahati and Kolkata.
“There is no processing unit and I used to take the seeds to Assam. I started my processing unit in 2017. There are so many growers but we have no financial support. It becomes difficult to sustain,” said Shira.
Small coffee growers like Bulbuli Sangma of Tikrikilla are the worst hit because in most cases, they have to approach middlemen for selling the seeds.
The planters told Sunday Shillong that lack of infrastructure has affected the potential of the cash crops.
According to the Integrated Watershed Management Project 2011-12, there was Rs 40.6 lakh boost to rubber plantation over 473 hectares. Semalin said her family received government aid twice in the form of cash of around Rs 2,000.
Bakdil holds programmes to make farmers aware of the need for food crops as a contingency plan in case cash crops fail.
To promote the cash crops and improve livelihood of small-time planters, there is a need to strengthen the food processing sector and build a corpus so that farmers can be hedged against market uncertainties.
Photos by ST