Profiting from disaster

Zoramthanga , the chief minister of Mizoram, has many reasons to reminisce the birth of his party, the Mizo National Front, an insurgent group till 1986. About fifty years back, the famine that ensued the bamboo flowering led to its orgin as Mizo Famine Front. With the next bamboo flowering around the corner, Zoramthanga is determined to turn this dreadful event into a blessing. He talks to Lian Chawii and Richard Mahapatra about the development plans for the ecologically fragile state

Published: Saturday 15 September 2001

What are your development plans for Mizoram, which has one of the richest natural resources in India?
Mizoram has plenty of cultivable land and the government is thinking of developing the region with more and more cash crops. It also plans for a project that would improve bamboo cultivation, which is highly profitable. This will improve the economy of the region and also will help in reducing insurgency in the region.

What commercial options are you eyeing as far as bamboo is concerned?
As you know, there is an impending disaster once bamboo flowers in 2006 or 2007. The entire lot of bamboo groves in the state will vanish following this. But we are determined to turn this dreadful event into a blessing and harvest all the bamboo before flowering. We are setting up a bamboo processing plant in Mizoram where the bamboo will be quickly processed. Once the indigenous small bamboo is harvested, they will be replaced by other varieties of bamboo, which are more commercially viable.

We are introducing different types of bamboo developed through tissue culture with the help of experts. A new variety, originally imported from Burma, is now grown in Dehra Dun. Since they have different cycles, they might not flower at the same time as indigenous varieties. The plantation drive will be carried out in the degraded lands of Mizoram.

Is the local climate suitable for the new variety of bamboo?
Certainly. This bamboo can thrive as high up as 1829 metres and even at the sea level. There are plenty of varieties and all have an economic value.

How does the new bamboo project contribute to the state economy?
Bamboo is very economical and more profitable than any other crops and will totally revolutionise the state's economy. At the same time it is very eco-friendly. It is fast growing and matures in two to three years. Once a bamboo is planted, there is no need for fresh plantation as the shoots multiply every year. Once they mature, a single bamboo will fetch at least Rs 1000. When processed, it is much better than timber and can totally substitute timber. The potential of bamboo plant is enormous and it is an ideal raw material for an earthquake-prone area like Mizoram

To what extent are the local people involved and how will they gain from the project?
The project will not be a government's plantation, but people's plantation. We have more than enough land in Mizoram that can feed two to three times the current population, so anyone can use as much land as possible, particularly in the uninhabited areas that are away from the city.

The government will hand over the project to a private company that sets up a processing plant. The people can sell the bamboo to the company and in the process the government will get a part of the revenue. So it will be profitable for everybody.

Do you mean that government should be limited to governance only?
The government has to do the regulation and promote the business through advertising. We need to protect the security of business. Along the lines of European government where it does not involve itself in the business side, but protect and promote. They help to mediate between the people and the business bodies.

How are these projects going to affect the environment?
Mizoram has forests that are already managed by the private and forest departments and we will preserve these forests as much as possible. The remaining area, which is mostly degraded, will be cultivated with bamboo plants so that Mizoram remains as green as possible.

How has the Supreme Court ban on felling affected Mizoram?
The ban has definitely affected Mizoram to a great extent and the loss will run into crores of rupees. Since the Supreme Court does not ban the felling of bamboo plants, we are optimistic. Bamboo plantation is a practical alternative since its growth period is very short compared to other trees.

So the coming five to six years will have bamboo as the main instrument of economic prosperity, though there are many other kinds of crops as well that could contribute to the economy. We will also try to be self-sufficient in food -- rice, vegetables and fruits. There will be a domestic consumption and export.

How are cash crops helping the state's economy and how do you plan to improve it?
As a first step to improve this sector, we have identified crops like the passion fruit, oranges, ginger, grapes and many other fruits as market-oriented crops.

We have received Rs 2 crore for the development of a passion fruit processing plant from the central government. Regarded as jungle crops, passion fruit grows in large quantities and thrives well at elevations above 900 metres. The market price of passion fruit is higher than that of grapes and will greatly benefit the people of Mizoram.

Ginger cultivation is not suitable for fragile lands as it causes soil erosion, but is common in Mizoram. How do you plan to handle this situation?
We need to encourage ginger plantation for two to three years but not for long. Our foothold is slipping, and need some good steps to start with. For this, ginger cultivation is good. If we have to continue ginger cultivation later on, it will be on a terracing system so that there will not be any soil erosion.

There was a controversy about the government not being able to buy ginger from the farmers:
If the government does business, it can never be successful. Now the private agencies are buying the ginger and the prices are rising. When the government buys it, it is only around Rs 2-3 per kg, but when the government tenders it and agencies carry out the contract, the price shoots up to Rs 17 due to the competition. In the same way, if the central government were to buy the fruits, 75 per cent will go to the corrupted hands.

What was the reason for abandoning the New Land Use Policy (nlup) that was introduced by the previous government?
The nlup is good for plains where there is full land utilisation, but is not suitable to areas like Mizoram where the land is fragile and the transportation of products are difficult. According to the nlup , the land is identified first and then the types of crops to be grown. But the marketing possibilities of these corps are totally ignored. Even if a crop grows in plenty it is difficult to market it. So it makes no sense to grow crops in remote areas where market accessibility is difficult. This is why the nlup failed. So communication like the agricultural and horticultural link roads are vital. Cultivation should be carried out along those main roads and link roads, so the product can be carried to the market at a good price.

To what extent does under development contribute to insurgency in the north east?
Unemployment often leads to insurgency because for the unemployed the easiest way is to go underground and get some arms and involve in kidnapping and extortion. So there has to be employment generation in the field of development so that this kind of unwanted practice can be avoided. A local based economy can generate employment and this can also lead to peaceful atmosphere in the north east region.

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