Lakadong Turmeric: The golden powder

By H H Mohrmen

The story of Lakadong turmeric is a story of a singular and unceasing blessing of nature to the people of Jañtia hills. Lakadong is a gift to the state for the unique plant is endemic to the area. The plant has now become not only the pride of the district from where it originated but it is also the pride of the state. Now the name of Lakadong turmeric has spread far and wide but has the state done enough to make the best use of this unique gift that nature had bestowed on the state? Has the government done enough to protect this unique plant that was gifted to the land? What has the government done to promote the plant?

This scribe’s story with Lakadong turmeric has so far been unsatisfactory. It has been many years since this writer had started following the story of Lakadong turmeric but unfortunately not much progress has been made either with regards to research or development of this unique crop or its commercial use.  Many of the readers of this newspaper would know that there are two types of indigenous turmeric that people in Jañtia grow, one is Lakadong and the other is Lakacheñ. Lakacheñ is not as popular as Lakadong as it is considered inferior because it has low curcumin content.

There is another important question that begs the answer and that is whether any of these varieties of turmeric or the Lakadong variety for that matter have been patented or registered under Geographical Indication?   The government has so far not come up with a specific sign or symbol specifically for Lakadong which may be used to claim that Lakadong that Jañtia hills district is the specific place of origin of this particular turmeric. The GI indication protects the crop from being used by a third party and for the State or its people retain ownership of the crop. One of the conditions for GI registration is that any product needs to have sufficient proof that its origin is linked to a particular geographical area. But the question is whether Lakadong turmeric has been registered. If not why hasn’t it been registered?  The answer like the famous singer and poet laureate says, ‘is blowing in the wind.’

While one is unsure if the State Government has got GI registration for Lakadong, yet recently this scribe came to know from the farmers that there are two varieties of Lakadong turmeric. The indigenous variety of Lakadong the rhizome of which of which the farmers traditionally preserve and the variety supplied by the Government. When asked how farmers know the difference between the crops the answer is that the very looks of the two varieties is different. Now the government has this additional issue to deal with. With regard to GI registration of Lakadong, the last time around the challenges that the officials encountered was that there are two villages with the name Lakadong in the erstwhile Jañtia hills. One in the East Jañtia Hills where there is no history of turmeric cultivation and the other in West Jañtia hills District where a large section of the farmers are engaged in the activity.

It is heartening to know that the government is embarking on a venture to promote Lakadong turmeric by starting Mission Lakadong. The main goal of the mission as of now is to increase production by increasing the area cover under Lakadong plantation. The effort to increase its production in the district is laudable, but is this enough? The government had done a study on the value chain of the crop but what are the interventions it has made so far apart from increase in production? How was the rhizome selected and stored before being planted? But the most important question is how it was dried and then ground into powder before it is sold in the market?

Till today turmeric is dried in the open mostly in frontage of the house which is susceptible to contamination from the surrounding areas. And even if the pulp is ground into powder using machines, the facilities need to be improved. The point is there is no proper quality control from the time the crop was harvested to the time it was ground into powder. If the government really desires to promote this golden powder, it needs to intervene at the different points in the production of Lakadong turmeric.

The other pertinent question is whether the Government has conducted any other study like for example the types of soil that is good for Lakadong or other studies in connection with this important crop. Questions like how is the crop planted; how it is dried and how the dried rhizomes are ground into powder? Hopefully the government has documented the traditional practices of growing Lakadong that have been passed down from one generation to another. In fact these indigenous practices will be of immense help to the government if and when it applies for GI registration of the crop.

It is also sad to know that in spite of Lakadong gaining a special place in the list of crops in the state, yet there is no facility for testing yet in the entire West Jañtia hills district to test the curcumin content of Lakadong produced from the area. In the absence of such facility, now the trade of turmeric by common farmers is based only on trust.  The Government needs to do an awful lot more if it really wants to strike gold for its people from the golden powder.  It needs to make the best use of the crop, which it has not been able to do till date.

Not only turmeric but the other tuber crop popular in the state is ginger. In Jañtia hills there are two varieties of ginger. The popular ginger available in abundance in the market and the indigenous ginger which is smaller in size but much more pungent than the one available in the market. Locals call the ginger endemic to the area ‘u syiñ khian’ and it is commonly used by traditional medicine practitioners because it is believed to have medicinal properties. The government is yet to study the commercial potential of this variety of ginger too.

Tribute to AKN

This is an unusual closing to a weekly column because for the first time the column ends with a tribute to what this scribe considers to be a very important person. It is a tribute to AK Nongkynrih who has influenced many lives (particularly young people) in the state. A chance meeting with Kyrham was in Kolkata in the early nineties (at the Meghalaya House, Russell Street), when he was on his way to Singapor and Hong Kong with a group of young Don Bosco past pupils. Later he visited this scribe in Jowai and from then on the bond strengthened as the two of us shared a common goal of using our time and energy to work for the welfare of the underprivileged section of the population.

Along with many others we were part of the journey of North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). He was vice chairman of the organisation till he breathed his last. In fact it was from NESFAS Chairman, Phrang Roy that I came to know about his illness and the condition of his poor health. He is one scholar who during his younger days had visited and stayed in many villages in Jañtia hills.

Of all the meetings we had, the visit to his office at the North Eastern Hill University was the most memorable one. He was informed that the team of visitors from abroad under the banner of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Committee would pay him a visit and he graciously welcomed the team with open arms. When he was introduced to one particular gentleman, he could not help but ask the professor again to ensure if he is what he had in his mind. Bah Kyrham rose from his chair and shook hands again saying, “I never expected that a person of your eminence would visit my office.“ Dr Richard Ford of Clark University who had worked in 25 African countries was the first person to adopt the concept of Rapid Rural Appraisal which in fact was the beginning of the participatory rural appraisal (PRA). Dr Ford spent four decades working in Africa and it is from Africa that PRA spread to other developing countries. That was a beautiful moment and I consider it to be the meeting of minds. Bam kwai ha duar U Blei Bah Kyrham!

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