Shreekant Sambrani: Northeast India - A bridge too far?

In spite of its potential, the northeast suffers because no government has moved to reduce its remoteness Shreekant Sambrani Subrata Bhowmik went to Manipur as its director of agriculture in 1972. A middle-level officer in the vast West Bengal bureaucracy, Mr Bhowmik thought he was selected for the deputation because others did not want to go to a remote state with a population barely exceeding that of an average district. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Manipur then faced an acute shortage of its staple crop, rice. Mr Bhowmik discovered that the Manipuri farmers rejected the recommended high-yielding varieties because the rice cooked from them was not sticky enough for their liking. His search for more glutinous varieties in India yielded no results. Next stop: the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, a premier organisation. He found the wonder variety he was looking for and filled his suitcases with its seeds. After smuggling this precious cargo into Manipur, Mr Bhowmik grew its crop on a state farm. He then went from village to village cooking the new rice and giving mouthfuls of it to leading farmers. The leftover crop was sold as seed in no time flat. By 1976, Manipur grew a surplus of rice, and Subratada enjoyed a well-earned reputation as its saviour. I met Mr Bhowmik in 1977. As the agriculture advisor to the Northeastern Council (NEC), he had invited a team from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, to advise the NEC on agriculture development for the entire region. I was unanimously elected to look into the most intractable problem of the region, shifting cultivation — not because of any expertise in the subject (I had none), but because, being the youngest in the team, I was considered fit for undertaking the long, backbreaking journeys into the interior, mostly on nothing more than dirt tracks often difficult for even a jeep to negotiate.

Over the next year or so, I travelled to every corner of the seven states and acquired a smattering of knowledge and a truckload of appreciation of the enormous potential of the region and its daunting problems. Thirty-five years on, both these remain almost where they were, including shifting cultivation.
In most areas with partial or non-existent permanent rural settlements, farmers clear hill slopes of natural growth by burning it. They broadcast the crop seed, mostly rice or maize, and let it grow under nature’s mercy. Harvesting involves slashing through the crop with a scythe (hence the other name of this practice, slash-and-burn cultivation). They move on, leaving the land fallow to regain its productive vigour, returning when they have finished using other such lands available to them.
Rising population has reduced the “jhoom” (local name for this practice) cycle considerably, from seven or eight years down to as little as two years. In some areas, even permanent jhoom is practised. The resulting soil degradation and falling productivity put greater pressure on an already depleting resource. A classic vicious cycle of deprivation is set in motion.
Northeast India - A bridge too far?Most of the northeast is poverty-stricken due to this situation. But it does not have to be so at all. Most states have fertile plains to grow enough food to feed their relatively small populations and did not need to farm the vast hill slopes. I can never forget the first glimpse of the Manipur valley from the window of a descending airplane: nearly circular in shape and ringed by hills all around, lush green with paddy, looking like an emerald encased in platinum. The crescent-shaped terraces of paddy lands on lower hill slopes elsewhere are evidence of both the fertility of the area and enterprise of its farmers, producing bountiful harvests. Yet the unsettled population resorts to jhoom because it has no means, nor opportunities, for other gainful occupations, as is the case of surplus rural population almost everywhere else in the country.

In the northeast, I enjoyed a veritable feast of local fruit. Pineapple and pears were available in plenty and practically grew wild everywhere. The local variety of pears was as delicious as any found in the cooler regions of the world. Ripe fruit fell off the trees to rot, because there were no takers then even at 10 paise a kilo! Pineapples in plains were sent to the Siliguri market, but the local price was seldom enough to meet the cost of harvesting.

A viable alternative to jhoom required considering the totality of activities possible on land. Organised orchards practically suggested themselves. Dr K L Chaddha, the eminent scientist of the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, confirmed my gut feeling. A strategic plan envisaged the northeast becoming the fruit basket of the country with jhoomiyas earning attractive incomes from horticulture. What could not be sold as fresh fruit could be processed. New plants would become showpieces for the region. They would also provide additional employment. Trees instead of shifting crops would help undo a part of the ecological damage. With Mr Bhowmik’s firm backing, the NEC accepted the plan.

But like the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, that did not happen. Even now, as imported stone fruit grace supermarket shelves at sky-high prices, pears are probably still rotting in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. The pineapple barely manages to reach Kolkata. The NEC’s once-gleaming processing plant at Siliguri never really functioned and now rusts away. A private plant, too, is shut down as it turned out to be a ruse to bilk the state government.
The reason for these grand plans not materialising, and for most of the myriad problems of the northeast, is – in one word – remoteness. And that is no oversimplification. For horticulture to become the growth-engine of the northeast, what was required was easy, rapid and economic access to markets. The nearest large urban market, Kolkata, was at best a half day’s journey – more like three days in the case of Arunachal Pradesh – over tortuous roads and the chicken’s neck in North Bengal. These poor excuses of roads are often blocked by landslides or insurgencies.
We knew of these constraints while proposing the plan, believed the grand assurances of state and central governments and the NEC according infrastructure the top priority and the northeast soon having seamless connectivity with the rest of the country. That did not happen. The northeast remains a distant outpost full of promise and poverty.

The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand