Newer Heights For Leh Agriculture!
This writer was at Leh (Ladakh) earlier this week for a conference on micro irrigation and protected cultivation. The deliberations, discussions and the level of awareness and understanding far exceeded the expectations of the organisers for the degree of clarity, understanding, co-ordination and willingness to acknowledge that some interventions have not succeeded was something unparalleled. Usually conferences are occasions where everyone gives positive strokes to each other, and the chief guest rarely departs from the prepared text, which in most government programmes reads like a gazette, rather than a critical appraisal of the issues at hand.
It all started with the chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Development Council, Sh Ringzin Spalbar’s assessment of the ecological and economic sustainability of the current development paradigm in the region. He said that behind the apparent prosperity of Leh were three factors which were good while they lasted, but were not permanent or long-term solutions to Leh: indeed their externalities would be understood after some years. The first of these—hold your breath—was the successful intervention of PDS, which had made rice available at Rs 3 per kg, thereby making the production of barley uneconomic. Farmers were unwilling to undertake the hard labour involved in the sowing, management and harvesting of barley crops in challenging circumstances when PDS shops were selling rice at such high subsidies. When lands were left fallow, it had its own ecological implications. However, the alternative to barley, viz High Value Agriculture—apples, pears, stone fruits and vegetables under protected cultivation required high capital investments, training and an integrated value chain which was not currently available.
The second factor was tourism and in the short run it had created abundant employment opportunities in the services sector: many new hotels, restaurants, guest houses, tour guides, internet cafes, souvenir shops, handicrafts, event managers and transport services. It had also made Leh into a very cosmopolitan place where one could meet people from all over—with a varied set of interests—high-altitude trekkers, bikers, and high end tourists, visitors to the famous monasteries and meditation centres and government employees availing the Leave Travel concession! There was the Alliance Francoise for teaching French, three German bakeries, Israeli food courts and several multi-cuisine restaurants. However, this was also making the local economy critically dependent on food supplies from outside the region. The region needed to produce food locally both for livelihoods and also for ecological sustainability.
Last, but not least, was the overwhelming presence of the Indian army which had assured good roads and critical power supply. However, the presence of such a large number of troops also placed stress on the fragile ecology of the region, and even though the army was trying to become a conscious ecological citizen, established its own high altitude centre of agriculture, and created local employment and network of service providers, it was not adding ‘intrinsic strength’ to the local ecology.
Here was a popularly elected leader breaking several myths about the popular perception of political leaders’ short-term vision. Here was a person looking at alternate models of development.
If Spalbar spelt out his vision of transforming Ladakh by strengthening its ecology and traditional practices by leveraging technology, Vice Chancellor of the SKUAT (Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture and Technology) shared his experiences of mountain agriculture in Lhasa where the establishment of polyhouses had not only created an abundance of fresh vegetables for the local population, but also gainful employment and high economic returns for those who had taken the initiative. The University had set up the Precision Farming Development Centre for Leh with support from the National Mission on Micro Irrigation, and had brought out popular literature in Ladakhi on the cultivation practices of local crops. The response had been quite positive. Dr Tej Pratap is a distinguished scientist, passionate about organic agriculture and mountain farming systems, and above all, a great communicator who can convince people to leverage both traditional and modern knowledge systems along with technology for higher and sustainable production.
The Agriculture Production Commissioner of J&K, Shaleen Kabra, who had served the region earlier as Deputy Commissioner of Kargil, shared the commitment of the state government to the development of micro irrigation and protected cultivation in Leh. The regional economy of Leh could be transformed by interventions in agriculture and allied sectors, for the majority of population was still engaged in the primary sector. Just as Lahaul Spiti in Himachal had developed a name for ‘potato seeds’ in the co-operative sector, there was a possibility for developing Leh as a hub for seeds and high value agriculture.
As mentioned earlier, the ‘failures’ were also discussed. There had not been much action on the ground with regard to micro irrigation because equipment suppliers were looking for ‘volumes’ which would take time to grow. There were issues with regard to design, costs, technical specifications and the reluctance of banks to extend financial support, but all these were in the domain of the ‘possible’. Unlike other parts of the country, younger people, especially women were keen participants and their enthusiasm and willingness to learn was matched by their ability to work together in groups. It must be mentioned here that Ladakh is not a very stratified society, and co-operation is the norm, rather than the exception.
This edition of Agro-watch literally ends on a high note—it better be, for it is the highest plateau in India!
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)