It is an overcast morning, and Ram Khatiwoda is watering his succulent tomatoes in one of the six greenhouses he owns in the picturesque village of Sakyong, about 8 km from this main town in West Sikkim also known as Gyalshing. The 36-year-old is among the 66,000-odd farmers in the Himalayan north-eastern state to have embraced organic farming, eschewing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
Launched as an ambitious programme through a resolution passed by the Sikkim Legislative Assembly in 2003, organic farming seems to be floundering on the ground, though, in terms of delivering the expected rewards to farmers. “We aren’t obtaining any fair price for our produce. Nor are the bio-pesticides now being used helping to contain recurrent pest and disease attacks,” complains Khatiwoda. He identifies whiteflies, cutworms and stinkbugs, along with powdery mildew fungal disease, as causing major damage to his tomato crop.
Echoing similar concerns is Roshan Chettri, another farmer from the same village who grows tomatoes and cauliflowers. “The state government is not doing enough to boost marketing of organic produce. As a result, the price we are getting is not much different from what non-organic fetches,” he says.
Sikkim was formally declared as India’s first fully organic state last year, the result of an Action Plan unveiled originally in 2003 by Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. Among other things, it sought to gradually substitute chemical fertilisers by organic manures and control insect pests and diseases through biological plant protection measures.
By 2015, Sikkim had attained organic certification for 74,313 hectares of agricultural land in the state. The move to go back to traditional farming even received praise from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who urged other states to emulate Sikkim’s organic agriculture model.
The experience of farmers like Khatiwoda and Chettri, however, reveals a picture that’s not as rosy as the official claims. Achieving fully-organic status may have earned plaudits for the Sikkim government, but not translated into substantial rewards for the state’s farmers.
Khatiwoda points out that the same open field plot which gave about 40 quintals of tomato before he switched to organic farming eight years ago, now yields just 18-20 quintals. And the realisations aren’t significantly higher to compensate for the lower yields.
“Not only are the realisations inadequate, we are also suffering due to the influx of cheaper non-organic vegetable produce from Siliguri (in neighbouring West Bengal). Our organic produce should fetch far higher price, as it is good for health and the environment. But that’s not happening. And why is the Sikkim government not stopping vegetables from outside entering the state?” asks Chettri.
Non-organic tomatoes from Siliguri are currently being sold at the market in Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital, at 45-50 per kg. This is as against Rs 60 for local organic produce. The rate that Khatiwoda and Chettri are receiving in Geyzing is even lower at Rs 30 per kg.
Padma Shankar, chairperson of Sikkim Agriculture and Horticulture Board, is, however, more optimistic. “We had reached nearly 90 per cent organic level much before the Prime Minister officially declared Sikkim as the country’s first organic state,” she notes. States like Kerala, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Gujarat have already taken a leaf out of Sikkim model of organic farming.
The state has, moreover, turned self-sufficient in vegetable production. This was proved during the recent agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state in the next-door northern West Bengal districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, Shankar claims. “The arterial National Highway 10 (connecting Siliguri to Gangtok) was blocked, cutting supplies to the landlocked state. But Sikkim could manage with its own vegetable production,” she adds.
Shankar, nevertheless, acknowledges the challenges bothering the state’s organic farmers, including non-remunerative price realisations and dumping of vegetables from Siliguri. “Organic farming, no doubt, requires putting in extra work, especially since use of chemicals is prohibited across the state. The state government is seeking to address these problems, by initiating a scheme to provide minimum support prices and also allocating a large portion of its budget towards agriculture and horticulture,” she claims.