Sikkim is 100% organic! Take a second look

The state's transition to organic farming is yet to become a true success

By Sonam Taneja
Published: Saturday 15 April 2017
A man operates a power tiller at a government farm in North Sikkim. A CSE survey shows that unlike privately owned farms, government farms are well-stocked with bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides (Photographs: Sonam Taneja)

In January 2016, Sikkim became India’s first “100 per cent organic” state. Today, all farming in Sikkim is carried out without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, providing access to safer food choices and making agriculture a more environment-friendly activity. But when Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) visited 16 farms spread over the four districts of the state—North Sikkim, South Sikkim, West Sikkim and East Sikkim—in November 2016, it found that the farmers’ experience of organic farming was far from satisfactory. The findings of this survey hold lessons for the rest of the country.

In Poklok-Denchung gram panchayat near Namchi, the headquarters of South Sikkim district, 85-year-old Nar Bahadur Rai is a disappointed farmer. With his son, Rai grows maize, ginger and cardamom on their two-hectare (ha) farm. Since 2011-12, when they stopped using synthetic chemicals, their ginger production has plunged to only a third of the amount they used to grow when chemical use was permitted in farming. A fungal disease called sheath blight has affected their ginger crop and Rai has received no assistance from the government. “Why are we not given any medicines for our crops? The government gave us only some manure for a short while. What is the point of the officers going for trainings if the farmers do not learn anything?” he asks.

Around six kilometres away, farmer Revathy Sharma faces other challenges. He grows pulses and maize on his small farm of about 0.6 ha. His pulse yield has fallen drastically since he switched to organic farming. “When chemicals were allowed, I could grow 280 to 300 kg of pulses and now, after 4 years, I barely manage to grow 80 to 85 kg. This year, I am expecting a slight improvement with a yield of around 100 kg,” he says. Sharma cites low productivity and the susceptibility of crops to pest attacks as the reasons for this fall in yield. The experience of farmers like Sharma and Rai shows that despite earning the “100 per cent organic” tag, Sikkim’s transition to organic farming is yet to become successful.

Shortfalls in execution

Sikkim decided to turn to organic farming in 2003 to protect its fragile ecosystem (see ‘Across the finish line’, p40). At the time, officials reasoned that the per hectare consumption of fertilisers in Sikkim was already among the lowest in the country (at 5.8 kg per hectare). Farmers had also traditionally never used chemicals in the cultivation of cardamom, one of Sikkim’s main cash crops. “We were close to being organic by default. We have enough bio-mass as well,” says Khorlo Bhutia, principal director-cum-secretary of Sikkim’s Horticulture and Cash Crops Development Department (H&CCD). The government saw huge potential for the trade of high-value crops such as cardamom and ginger and, hence, a resolution to the effect was passed in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly.

From 2003, the state began reducing the subsidy on chemical pesticides and fertilisers by 10 per cent every year and banned them completely in 2014. Their sale and use was made punishable by law with an imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh or both. “Initially, there was apprehension among farmers and, in some villages, they refused to take up organic farming. But with continuous training and education, there was a shift in their mindset,” says M K Pradhan, additional director of the Sikkim Organic Mission (SOM), the nodal agency established to fast-track Sikkim’s transition in 2010.

A farmer in South Sikkim shows ginger affected by blight disease. Many farmers have reported an
increase in pest attacks since they stopped using synthetic pesticides

SOM’s Perspective Five Year Plan (2013-18) states that 6,526 rural compost pits and 3,877 vermi compost pits have been constructed so far. S Anbalangan, executive director of SOM, explains that these pits have been constructed on people’s farms and the manure is to be shared by them. “SOM provides them with inputs and training for these pits and farmers maintain and use them. Additionally, to whatever extent possible, SOM distributes bio-inputs to farmers and they are expected to produce the rest themselves,” he says. The state’s organic farming policy also prioritises the training of farmers in composting methods and non-pesticide management of pests. Anbalangan says training sessions have been conducted by several agencies such as SOM, the state’s horticulture department, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, the Agriculture Technology Management Agency and the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR).

But the phasing out of chemicals has not been complemented by a simultaneous increase in the availability of and access to organic manure. The CSE survey shows that while government-owned farms are well-stocked with bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides, seven of the 14 private farmers interviewed have received neither of these inputs from the government. The government has also spent too little on enabling farmers to make their own organic inputs. The Mission’s Comprehensive Progress Report, 2014, shows that between 2010 and 2014, it spent only 5 per cent of the total expenditure of Rs 54 crore on training farmers.

In West Sikkim district, Dawa Cssering Lepcha, a farmer who lives near the town of Rinchenpong, confirms that his ginger yield has halved since he stopped using chemicals. “Pest attacks are common and we have not received sufficient training on how to deal with them. The department taught us how to make some medicine for pest attacks in ginger, but that was not effective,” he says. Sharma from South Sikkim says he has reverted to the traditional practice of using cow dung and cow urine to fight pest attacks, but they are not as effective as chemicals.

It seems that the government has no official data on the extent of pest attacks in the state as neither SOM nor the newly constituted National Organic Farming Research Institute (NOFRI), formerly known as the Sikkim centre of the ICAR Research Complex for North Eastern Hill Region, maintains such data. But NOFRI acknowledges that pest attacks are one of the major problems reported by farmers. “The problem of pest attacks has increased after the conversion to organic farming,” says Ashish Yadav, senior scientist at NOFRI. “If holistic management practices are followed, pest attacks or diseases can be avoided. NOFRI has been conducting at least four trainings per month for the past four years in each district. The training includes disease management.”

Food self-sufficiency

Sikkim relies largely on West Bengal for food to feed its resident population and tourists. Government data shows that apart from Sikkim mandarins (a native orange variety of Sikkim), the productivity of every crop has either remained stable or improved slightly from 2010-11 to 2015-16 (see ‘Mixed bag’). But CSE found that only two of 14 private farmers reported an increase in yield and one said that his ginger yield had stabilised after an initial decline. Seven farmers who grew rice, maize, ginger, cardamom, pulses and vegetables said that their yield has worsened since they stopped using chemicals.

Source: Annual Progress Report (2010-11) of the Horticulture & Cash Crops Development Department (H&CCD), Sikkim, and
data received from secretary of H&CCD

In response to this feedback, the state horticulture department said that though its mandate was to increase production and productivity, the state must adopt a holistic approach in its transition to organic farming. “We can never become self-sufficient in food. Since Sikkim became a 100 per cent organic state, the inflow of tourists has increased by 25 per cent and we will now also focus on wellness tourism,” says Bhutia. With its focus on cash crops and the rise in population and inflow of tourists, how the state plans to feed people is still doubtful. It is clear that the state will continue to depend heavily on conventional produce, which is food grown with chemicals, from West Bengal.

Marketing neglect

Sikkim’s organic tag has not delivered on the promise it made to the state’s farmers some 14 years ago. To make the organic plan a success, the state had brought all farmers on board by assuring them that organic produce would fetch higher prices. But eight of the 14 private farmers interviewed by CSE said they were not able to charge a premium price. For example, one of the farmers told CSE that ginger used to sell for Rs 1,500 per maund (1 maund equals 37 kg), but now fetches only Rs 1,000-1,200 per maund. The reasons for this drop in price are varied: some cite a general decline in market prices, while others say organic produce commands a lower price than conventional produce as it tends to spoil faster. Farmers also complain that they still depend on middlemen for the sale of produce and these middlemen often pay low prices.

Chumsang Lepcha, a farmer in North Sikkim, owns 7 ha of land and grows maize, cardamom, millets, buckwheat, squash and some vegetables. He also has a vermi-composting pit. Lepcha says that though his crop yield has stabilised since he shifted to organic farming in 2010, it still does not earn him a higher price. The middlemen he sells his produce to claim that they do not care whether the food is organic or not.

The state’s policy says that all organic produce is to be sold under the brand name “Sikkim Organic” in niche sections of the domestic or international markets. But most of Sikkim’s organic food is not marketed and sold as organic produce. “Since there is no regulation on food that comes from outside the state, organic food grown in Sikkim competes with the cheaper conventional food that comes from West Bengal. Therefore, farmers in Sikkim suffer a major disadvantage,” says G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, Telangana. He works with more than 2,000 farmers in Sikkim.

The state government admits that marketing initiatives are lagging behind due to the paucity of funds. It has now zeroed in on four high-value crops—large cardamom, ginger, turmeric and buck-wheat—for profitable domestic sale and export. “Under the Mission for Value Chain Development for North East Region (MOVCDNER), the plan is to process these four crops, package them, brand them and send them to other parts of the country or export them. Our objective is that after 2018, only processed products will be sent out of Sikkim,” says Bhutia. However, not every crop can be processed and marketing of fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables remains a challenge. Ramanjaneyulu says that the government must support collection, transportation and storage of food.

Skimming the surface

Of all steps taken by the Sikkim government towards becoming an organic farming state, the largest effort was devoted to getting all its agricultural land (78,000 ha) certified as organic. From the beginning of the state’s organic plan in 2003 until 2010, the state had got only 8,000 ha certified. But with the launch of SOM in 2010, the proportion of certified land in Sikkim saw a steady increase. Farms spread over 18,234 ha were certified in 2010-11, 19,216 ha in 2011-12, and 19,188 ha in 2012-13. Finally, by December 2015, the entire agriculture land in Sikkim had been converted into “certified organic”.

There are two types of organic certification systems in India: Third Party Certification, which is essential for exports, and Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), meant only for domestic sales. While Third Party Certification is an expensive affair, especially for an individual farmer, PGS involves almost no cost. Sikkim has spent an average of Rs 8,400 per ha for three years for third party certification and is now expected to pay about Rs 1,425 per ha per annum for renewal of certification.

An Azolla (a kind of green manure) pond at a Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Mangan, North Sikkim

This means that the three-year cost of renewal will be a little more than half the cost of conversion. “Between 2010 and March 2016, SOM has spent about Rs 77 crore, of which about Rs 60 crore has been spent on certification and the processes connected with it,” says Anbalangan. This means SOM has spent about 78 per cent of its expenditure so far on certification and related processes.

The focus on certification appears to have diverted attention from helping farmers with organic inputs and crucial training. It is also uncertain whether the government will continue to bear the high cost of such third party certification as the state policy and five-year plan have suggested switching to PGS in areas that do not supply for export. The government, however, has no such plans. “No decision has been taken yet to shift to PGS and we are more likely to continue with third party certification unless we have a serious budgetary concern,” says Anbalangan. Chief Minister Pawan Chamling adds, “The government has paid for certification till 2018 and to minimise the cost of certification, the state has established its own certification agency called Sikkim State Organic Certification Agency.”

Lessons for India?

In India, nine other states—Karnataka, Mizoram, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat—have an organic farming policy or law. Of these, Kerala has announced its intention to become 100 per cent organic. These states have a lot to learn from the Sikkim model. “Sikkim is a wonderful example as it has managed to change mindsets and that is something the state of Kerala could learn from Sikkim,” says Sridhar Radhakrishnan from Thanal, an environmental organisation in Kerala. Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture in Karnataka agrees. “While the agroecological zones are different (in different states), policy measures are applicable everywhere. Each state can learn from Sikkim how to roll out an ambitious plan and execute it,” she says.

On the other hand, K K Chandra, consultant to the Kerala state government on organic farming, says that since farmers in Kerala have historically used more chemicals in farming, Sikkim is not the right model for them to follow. The sentiment is echoed by experts in other states. Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab, says the model cannot be replicated in states such as Punjab and Haryana where the size of landholdings varies drastically.

Kapil Shah, founder of Jatan Trust in Gujarat, says the Sikkim government has exhibited commendable political will in banning synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, but it is not enough. He rues that the problem lies in the mindset of the bureaucracy as most people in the agriculture department come from a conventional agriculture background and do not understand organic farming.

Course correction

CSE says Sikkim must aim for an improvement in its organic farming policy and implementation. According to CSE’s recommendations, instead of spending a large chunk of its budget on third party certification, Sikkim must demarcate areas which are not expected to contribute to export and switch to PGS certification.

It must ensure greater focus on training farmers to help them sustain organic farming. The state can achieve this by increasing its budget allocations to incorporate more training sessions for farmers and ensuring availability of bio-inputs. It must support farmers till the time each farmer is able to manage her farm with inputs produced on the farm itself. Sikkim must also assess the performance of the policy so far to ascertain which areas need work. It is important for the state to get data on the frequency and nature of pest attacks and organise research in those areas.

The state must ensure that farmers get the price organic food deserves, even for fresh produce. Marketing of produce must be streamlined to enable the average consumer in Sikkim to access locally grown organic food. It is not enough to state that organic farming has proved beneficial to the environment in Sikkim. The state must commission an impact study to evaluate whether the shift to organic farming has had the desired effect.

(With inputs from Shreeshan Venkatesh)

Across the finish line
The process of converting Sikkim into a 100 per cent organic state was fast-tracked in 2010 with the launch of the Sikkim Organic Mission
  • 2003 - Sikkim begins discouraging use of chemical fertilisers, reduces fertiliser subsidy by 10 per cent. The Sikkim Organic Board is constituted.
  • 2003-2009 - State adopts 396 villages as bio-villages to test organic inputs.
  • 2006-2009 - About 8,000 ha of land is certified as organic. Eight units of vermi-culture hatcheries are established in five state farms and three Krishi Vigyan Kendras.
  • 2008-09 - Ginger processing unit is established at Birdang Farm, West Sikkim. Ginger is one of the four high-value crops selected by Sikkim for its trade potential.
  • 2010 - Sikkim Organic Mission is launched to fast-track conversion of Sikkim into a 100 per cent organic state
  • 2010-11 - More than 18,234 ha of land is certified. Automated greenhouses are established for production of disease-free quality planting material.
  • 2011-12 - 19,216 ha land is certified.
  • 2012-13 - 19,188 ha land is certified. `Organic farming' is included in school curriculum
  • 2015 - Entire agricultural area in the state is converted to `certified organic'.
  • 2016 - Sikkim is formally declared a `100 per cent organic' state.

The story was published under the headline Organic trial in the 1-15 April, 2017 edition of Down To Earth magazine 

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