Prices are rising, vegetables are being seized and dumped, and traders are planning to move the High Court as Sikkim goes ahead with the second phase of its plan to become the first fully organic state in the country by banning the entry and sale of 26-odd non-organic horticultural and agricultural products.
The notification on banning the products came on March 10. On March 31, the government said it had set up a mechanism to check markets and seize non-organic products, as well as a committee to check price rise. On April 3, around 10 metric tonnes of vegetables were seized from Lal Bazar Market in Gangtok by officials, put in four trucks and dumped at a landfill near Rangpo, East Sikkim.
However, accusations have followed of the government being ill-prepared, especially with prices seeing a spike and triggering public anger. For instance, organic cauliflower is being sold for Rs 100-120 per kg, against Rs 15 for the non-organic variety at the nearby Siliguri market; the respective rates for cabbage are Rs 30 and Rs 5-10 per kg.
While the banned list initially included 26 agricultural and horticultural products, the market crisis has since forced the government to take carrot, green chillies, onions and tomatoes off the list.
On April 17, the government announced it was fixing prices of organic vegetables. Price lists were put up at major markets, including Lal Bazar, and the government announced it would procure directly from farmers to transport goods to retailers.
Prem Das Rai, Sikkim MP and a leader of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), calls the price rise a “temporary disruption”. “There is no shortage. But prices are high and it is a factor. We have formed a committee to look at this… The move is like a big surgery, but the temporary pain will only make the people of Sikkim happier. It is like demonetisation — after some trouble, some period, there are assured benefits,” he says.
The move is part of the ‘Organic Mission’ envisioned by Sikkim in 2003. The implementation started in 2010, and in 2016, the Central government declared Sikkim the country’s ‘first organic state’. The same year, Sikkim was also declared as the country’s cleanest state.
The ban on non-organic products is a continuation of this, with Sikkim claiming that the mission would ultimately lead to “self-sustainability”, more profit to farmers and better health for its residents.
About the dumping of vegetables, Rai says: “I have no knowledge of it… But I can say that, even before the notification, since three months, the traders have known this was coming. They should have understood the importance.”
On April 13, Sikkim State Co-operative Supply and Marketing Federation Ltd (SIMFED) MD Pawan Awasthi admitted that the state has cultivable land of about 76,000 hectares in which organic farming takes place and out of which only 15,000 is being used for vegetable farming. However, he stressed, the state government is encouraging farmers and big landowners to put into use their unused land.
Vimal Khawas, Head of Department, Peace and Conflict Studies and Management, Sikkim University, says, “The initiative is laudable, but the exercise is unscientific. At this moment, 85 per cent of land in Sikkim is forest land. A little over 11 per cent land is agricultural. Sikkim’s population is 6.9 lakh, with migratory population of another two to three lakh, including tourists and labourers. It is doubtful that the state will be able to produce organic agricultural products to cater to so many people so soon.”
Khawas adds, “Moreover, rice, potatoes and some other agricultural products are still off the list of ban. They cannot ban them because Sikkim cannot produce enough of these right now. So ultimately non-organic products are still being allowed.”
SIMFED has been pressed in to procure 28 organic agricultural and horticultural commodities, mainly vegetables, directly from farmers and to sell them to consumers through wholesale dealers and retailers to tide over the crisis. The government is also trying to directly send the goods to dealers and retailers in markets like Rangpo, Singtam and Gangtok.
Khorlo Bhutiya, secretary, Horticulture and Cash Crop Development Department of Sikkim, points this out, while blaming the crisis on “misinformation”. “We have stocks of organic vegetables, and we can amend the banned list whenever the need arises to relax restrictions on a particular item. So why should we allow non-organic ones from outside? This will also help our farmers get the right price for their produce,” he says.
Bhutiya claims that once the mission was conceptualised in 2003, farmers were trained and awareness campaigns undertaken. And that around 2010, they started converting normal agricultural fields to organic fields. “By December 2015, we had 76,169 hectares of agricultural land certified for organic produce. This is third-party certification according to Government of India norms, under the National Programme for Organic Production,” he says.
The government also hopes that the move will help it tackle the problem of unemployment. In the Central government’s Labour Bureau report published in 2016, Sikkim ranks second in the country, with 18.1 per cent unemployment rate (just behind Tripura’s 19.7 per cent).
The traders, who say their business has fallen by 80 per cent since the ban, plan to appeal in the Sikkim High Court. “Generally, 10 trucks of vegetables would come to Lal Bazar market every day from Siliguri. Now it has stopped,” says All Sikkim Traders’ Association (ASTA) vice-president Lakpa Sherpa.