Transforming USP of organic production in the North-East Organic By Design
This writer was present as a Guest of Honour on the occasion of the official launch of Naga organic pineapples to the NCR region on the occasion of the North-East Organic Festival organised by the Central Institute of Horticulture, Kohima, Nagaland, in association with the national Skills Foundation of India, Department of Horticulture, Nagaland, and the National Horticulture Board. The event saw farmers from all the eight states—Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya Manipur, Assam, Tripura, Sikkim and Arunachal—exhibiting the best of their produce, and interacting in a buyer-seller meet with some of the leading corporates, including Metro Cash and Carry, Big Bazaar, ITC, Bharti Walmart and Reliance Fresh, among others. Whether or not these interactions lead to specific business opportunities will be known only after some time: the important point to note is that a dialogue has started, and this has the potential of replicating the story of Sikkim orchids and the kiwi of Arunachal, both of which have made a significant mark in the retail outlets of Delhi.
The North-East Organic Festival is significant in more ways than one. It marks the transition from the NE being the production centre for some niche products for a ‘boutique market’ to ‘commercially viable propositions ‘for retail markets in the major metros. Thanks to the success of the HMNEH (Horticulture Mission for North East and Himalaya), the range, volume and quality of products have shown a marked improvement. Every state in the North-East now has horticulture commodities which show a distinct competitive advantage. So whether it is orchids and flowers from Sikkim to kiwis in Arunachal, oranges from Manipur to pineapples in Nagaland, turmeric in Mizoram to ginger in Assam, strawberries in Meghalaya to bamboo in Tripura: the produce is now ready to be aggregated for markets beyond the borders of the state. These states have also shown that it is important to make the transition from dedicating the entire land to production of basic cereals to growing high value agriculture produce. It is precisely for this reason that in most of these states the contribution of horticulture to the agriculture GDP is at par, if not higher than that from conventional agriculture. It is also important to place on record that the success of horticulture in the North-East through the Technology Mission spawned a similar demand from the North-West Himalayan states of Himachal, Uttarakhand and J&K and it morphed into what is now called the HMNEH. The rest of the country did not wish to lag behind, and this is how the National Horticulture Mission came into existence for the remaining states and the UTs. Of course, in the Twelfth Plan, both HMNEH and NHM, along with the Bamboo Board are being integrated into the NHM which will continue to have a higher set of support norms for investments in the Himalayan and NE states.
To facilitate this transition, the role of skill development at all levels in the value chain becomes a categorical imperative. When farmers produce for themselves, or for their village and vicinity, grading, sorting, weighing, packaging, waxing, primary level storage and outward logistics are not critical to the horticulture operation. However, if kiwis have to be sent from Arunachal for sale in the NCR, then many skill sets are required, and these have to be provided by a resource institution which may be based outside the region. Likewise the establishment of physical infrastructure for cold chain, or a refrigerated transport is not enough. Without the requisite skills it would not be possible to optimise the investments made in the sector. The national Skills Foundation of India is playing a stellar role in identifying the skill gap for horticulture sector in the North-East, and more importantly, addressing the issues by making the required interventions. NSFI has also helped organise the interaction between the farmers and the corporates.
The Central Institute of Horticulture and the Horticulture Department of Nagaland’s efforts at developing the NAGA brand and logo for organic pineapples also needs to be placed on record. Pineapple from Nagaland is not only sweet and juicy, it is grown organically, and helps sustain the livelihoods and economies of several farming families in Kohima, Dimpaur and the neighbouring districts. The problem was not of production but of reaching it at economic costs to the markets of Kolkata and Delhi. NHB has to make an intervention on the lines of the banana train from the banana clusters in Maharashtra to the Azadpur Mandi of Delhi. However as the Maharashtra experience has shown, getting the technology is easy: it is far more difficult to organise the aggregation of produce, and get a working arrangement on sharing the costs as well as potential profits and possible losses.
Finally, different competencies and skill sets have to be brought together to ensure that the USP of organic production in the NE is transformed from organic by default to organic by design. This calls for the establishment of protocols, standardisation of training, identification of resource persons, explaining the benefits of group certification, adoption of practices and finally the certification itself, which will ensure a steady and stable market for the organic produce, not just for India, but also for the ASEAN markets as the road to Myanmar opens up, and India looks to the East for stronger cultural, commercial, political and diplomatic engagement.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)