By Bhogtoram Mawroh
During the recently concluded assembly session, UDP MLA Mayralborn Syiem from the constituency of Nongpoh drew the attention of the House to the need for a state agricultural policy. During the discussion, he also mentioned the 2023 Meghalaya State Organic and Natural Farming Policy, which has an allocation of Rs 25 crore. With Agriculture Minister Ampareen Lyngdoh stating that farming in the state is still natural and organic in nature, the Meghalaya State Organic and Natural Farming policy is by default the agricultural policy of the state. However, if that is the case, the amount allocated for the policy is too low. How can 25 crore be enough for a sector that, according to the State Department of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare engages 81% of the population of the state? The policy itself, though, is quite progressive. However, there are a few assumptions in the document that, if rectified, will help in case a general agricultural policy is formulated in the future.
The 2023 Policy enumerates certain challenges plaguing natural and organic farming in the state. These are limited knowledge of the potential and benefits of organic and natural farming; a lack of knowledge amongst farmers on the process of transitioning from conventional to organic and natural farming; limited access to quality organic input materials such as organic seeds and fertilisers; and a high cost of certification and low number of certifying agencies makes certification of organic produce challenging for small and marginal farmers. There are a few problems with these statements.
Since the 1960’s, the emphasis among policymakers has been on increasing the productivity of cereal crops in the country by introducing Green Revolution technology consisting of the triad of HYV seeds, irrigation, and synthetic chemicals. According to the Agriculture Minister, it has been a blessing in disguise that the Green Revolution skipped the North East. However this is not entirely true. Meghalaya has a highly rugged topography, which limits irrigation projects. HYV seeds and chemical fertilisers, though, have been used by farmers for a long time. These are in the form of seeds provided by government agencies and subsidies for chemicals, which were available until such support was discontinued by the Mukul Sangma government in 2014. However, on the eve of the last assembly election, the MDA government lifted the ban on chemical fertilizers. In order to accommodate this contradiction (use of chemicals with the need to promote organic farming), section 5.3 titled ‘Harmonizing usage of chemical fertilisers with organic farming’ the 2023 Policy document, talks about the prioritisation of “organic cultivation while recognizing the time and effort needed to change long standing agricultural practices which have involved use of chemical fertilizers in farming habits of farmers”. This is connected to the second challenge listed in the 2023 Policy, viz., lack of knowledge amongst farmers on the process of transitioning from conventional to organic and natural farming.
In order to support the transition, Section 5.3.4, states that the government will provide “necessary support… that balances the imperative for environmental protection as well as for improved incomes for farmers”. The statement itself is very vague and doesn’t enumerate any concrete steps to support the farmers in transition. For that, one has to refer to Section 5.2, titled ‘Conversion from Inorganic to Organic Farming’ which mentions “training and capacity building of farmers to enable production of plant nutrient, Jiva Amrit, biofertilizers, interventions, or projects pertaining to… be taken up under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) … (and) convergence of the state’s Mission Organic, MGNREGA, Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP), Mission Organic Value Chain Development for Northeastern Regions (MOVCDNER) and any other relevant schemes, to enable farmers to leverage on multiple resources simultaneously for conversion and operation”.
Conversion from inorganic to organic means a loss of productivity and income for the intervening period. There is no mention among the measures listed of income support for the financial loss that such farmers will face during the transition. In this, it is disappointing that PM-PRANAM (Pradhan Mantri—Promotion of Alternate Nutrients for Agriculture Management) is not mentioned that actually incentivize states to use lesser amounts of chemical fertilisers by providing incentive grants at the rate of 50 percent of the total amount of subsidy saved by using less fertilizer. The government should stop, in fact, giving subsidies for fertilisers and use the incentive under the scheme to provide support to the farmers during the transition. Unless that happens, the interregnum period of transition will be a painful one for the farmers, which will prevent some from making the transition.
The third challenge talks about “limited access to quality organic input material such as organic seeds and fertilizers”. This is not completely accurate. Though farmers in Meghalaya never completely accepted the Green Revolution, some did adopt some part of it, like seeds and fertilisers, on a very limited scale. Despite this, the state is by and large organic, which itself is a testament to the farsightedness of the farmers who chose to hold on to their traditional farming methods. This includes numerous traditional seeds (for example, a single village may still be cultivating at least more than 20 rice varieties or more than 10 potato varieties), many of which have high potential for resilience to climate change, and the various soil improvement measures, which include local methods of making compost, mulching, crop rotation, and the use of leguminous plants in association with other crops to improve soil fertility. The problem is therefore not of ‘limited access’ but that traditional knowledge has been marginalised over the years.
Section 5.5.3, in fact, does talk about the creation of platforms “in collaboration with research institutions to enable scientific validation of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and innovations made by farmers pertaining to Agri(cultural) inputs, plant protection, disease and climate resilient organic seeds, and organic seed production and propagation, including and standardization of the bio products” and Section 5.8.1 also talks about “a participatory and collaborative approach to organic farming to strengthen awareness, collaboration, production, value, and benefits”. However, it appears this will take place in parallel with the development of ‘Package of Practices’ rather than being the preparatory step in the process. How much participation from the local community and inclusion of local natural farming practices are actually going to take place? Or is it again a top-down approach with methodologies developed outside the state introduced without making an attempt to leverage local strengths?
Sections 5.5.3 and 5.8.1 are highly empowering and could be instrumental in giving due recognition and affirming dignity to the farmers who have fed our indigenous communities for generations. But the fact that it is not being looked at as strength is a continuation of the narrative that has been persisted from the past, i.e., indigenous communities cannot feed themselves despite having done so for the last 10,000 years.
Finally, the last challenge talks about the “high cost of certification and low number of certifying agencies make certification of organic produce challenging for small and marginal farmers” which is actually quite true. Under Section 5.9, titled ‘Certification and product testing’ three types of certification processes are mentioned: the Participatory Guarantee System of India (PGD-India), the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP-Third Party Certification), and Trust Organic. The problem, however, is that such certification will have to follow the 2022 Guidelines of the National Mission on Natural Farming, which, under Section 10.2(d), state that “States in consultation with local Gram Panchayat (Dorbar Shnong) shall identify natural farming practitioners which are full time successful natural farmers with their entire land holding under natural farming since the last 2-3 years”. The assessment of whether a system is following natural farming principles will involve soil testing and tracking of soil health for a period of over three to four years. However, two of the most important traditional farming systems practiced in the state are Jhum and Bun, which are rotational in nature and involve moving plots after a certain period. This means that under the current policy, such farmers will be excluded and lose the benefits of the certification system.
The Agriculture Minister also talked about enabling “settled and sustainable farming,” which gives the impression that the government will try to get people to leave Jhum and Bun and transition to a more settled system. The financial and social implications (especially on the land tenure system) of this are going to be huge. Also, the fact that despite government efforts in the past to eradicate, especially Jhum, the farming system still exists should inform the government that instead of being antagonistic to a farming system that has a higher degree of biodiversity, the hallmark of a resilient system crucial for combating climate change, they should look to include it in their programs. The same goes for Bun as well.
In general, the 2023 policy is very progressive, and we must congratulate the MDA government for introducing the policy. The emphasis on ‘Linking organic produce to Health and Nutrition Schemes’ (section 5.12) has the potential to be a game-changing perspective that will allow the state to think not just in terms of food security but work towards achieving food sovereignty, a much more pertinent goal for the indigenous communities of the state. It is quite fortuitous that it is the MLA from Ri Bhoi, a district which has tremendous potential to be a torchbearer in terms of sustainable agriculture in the state, who raised the issue of the need to have a state agricultural policy. It is, therefore, hoped that Mayralborn Syiem will follow up with his demand and ensure that it comes to fruition. That will be a great gift not just to his district but to the entire state as well.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)