East Sikkim/Soreng district: On a cold winter’s day in January 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Sikkim as the first organic farming state in India.

“Sikkim is an example in the sense that when the idea of organic farming was raised here in 2003, it wasn’t like there could not have been any opposition…Despite that, I salute those lakhs of farmers of Sikkim who didn’t give up their path, didn’t give up their desire…And today the whole world would be clapping for Sikkim,” Modi said at the landmark Plenary Session of the National Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in Gangtok.

Seven years since then, and two decades since the then chief minister announced government policy to transform Sikkim to a completely organic farming state, the movement is faltering; low earnings and migration to towns mean farmers are leaving the profession, there is competition from cheaper non-organic produce from neighbouring states, several problems plague the supply chain for organic produce, and there are rumours of farmers in districts that border the neighbouring state of West Bengal moving back to chemical farming, and organic produce alone cannot sustain the state’s population, our reporting on the ground has found.

In the seventh piece in our series on natural farming, we look at what worked well in Sikkim’s transition to organic farming, and the challenges it faces in sustaining the movement. We find that this holds lessons for India, especially as the government--through several initiatives--is pushing natural farming across the country.

Why it was relatively easy for Sikkim to move to organic farming

The hilly, thumb-shaped state of Sikkim is wedged between West Bengal in the south, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China (to the north and northeast), Bhutan (in the east), Nepal (in the west).

There were several reasons that came together to aid Sikkim’s move to organic farming--small land holdings, relatively low fertiliser use and other farming practices that supported organic farming, even before the move to organic.

There are three major ethnic groups in Sikkim: Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali. Since 1642, Sikkim was ruled by the Chogyal (‘Dharma Raja’)--monarchs of the Namgyal dynasty, who owned all land in the kingdom, and leased it to the Bhutia and Lepcha noblemen. The British, who made Sikkim a protectorate in 1861, encouraged Nepalis to migrate to the state for labour.

"Migration of the Nepalese into Sikkim brought a technological change in agricultural practices in Sikkim, because neither the Bhutias nor the Lepchas had any knowhow of settled cultivation," writes researcher Anjan Chakrabarti in his paper, Migration and Marginalisation in the ‘Himalayan Kingdom’ of Sikkim. The noblemen would lease land to the Nepali immigrants for cultivation.

Researcher Debashis Das, in the 1994 book Sikkim: Society, Polity, Economy, Environment, writes about the “unequal distribution of land ownership” in the state. According to the 'State Focus Papers 2023-24', published by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, small and marginal farmers--with an average land holding of 0.62 ha (1.532 acres)--account for 79% of total land holdings.

Kunga Samdup, the joint director in Sikkim government's Department of Agriculture, told IndiaSpend that it was easier to convert a “small state with small land holdings” to organic, when compared to a larger state.

In 2002-03, before former Chief Minister Pawan Chamling declared the government's policy to transform the state into “totally organic”, the state used 9.9 kg of nitrogenous and phosphatic (NPK) fertilisers per hectare of cropped area. This was the lowest in the country, after Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Compare this to states like Punjab, that used 172 kg of fertiliser per hectare, and Haryana that used 150.4 kg per hectare in 2002-03.

“Traditionally our farmers practised organic farming and hence the possibility of reverting back to this age old practice is not difficult," the former chief minister had said in his announcement in the legislative assembly.

“The farmers of Sikkim make conscious efforts to retain high levels of organic matter in their field through continued use of organic manure as compared to other parts of the country to replenish the nutrient losses through crop removal and erosion,” wrote researchers R.K. Avasthe, H. Rahman, Yashoda Pradhan, R. Karuppaiyan and Tasvina Rahman, in their paper, 'Organic Farming in Sikkim – Situation Analysis, Technology Development and Perspective Planning' in January 2007.

The government’s organic Sikkim plan

Sikkim’s organic mission was implemented between 2003 and 2016 over three phases--conceptualisation, preparatory and implementation.

In the conceptualisation phase, the government created an Action Plan and Road Map and the Sikkim State Organic Board. In 2004, as part of the preparatory phase, the government reduced fertiliser subsidies (and later banned it under the Sikkim Agriculture Horticulture and Livestock Feed Regulatory Act 2014), formulated the Sikkim State Policy on Organic Farming, established vermiculture hatcheries and processing units, and started a programme for a new variety of seeds, according to the book, Sikkim: The Organic Leader, published in 2017, on the government of Sikkim's behest. In addition, the Sikkim government adopted 100 bio-villages till 2009 for conducting organic farming demonstrations and trials.

Since most farmers had small land holdings, certification agencies like Gangtok-based Mevedir were engaged by the Sikkim government in 2006 to provide organic certification to groups of farmers rather than to individual farmers, as per the National Programme for Organic Production guidelines.

“The service providers like Mevedir and certification agencies were brought on to help train the farmers and spread awareness. They took all possible details of their land etc,” said Samdup, of the department of agriculture.

Later, in 2015, the Sikkim State Organic Certification Agency was set up.

From 2010, in the implementation phase, the state launched the Sikkim Organic Mission to convert Sikkim to a completely organic state by 2015, as per the book cited above. As a part of the mission, the Sikkim government organised training modules on different facets of organic farming, including manure production, and opened a Sikkim Organic Retail outlet in Delhi. In 2018, the Sikkim government inaugurated the Sikkim Organic Market near Gangtok’s famous Lall Bazaar, which has outlets put up by farmer cooperatives from across the state.

By 2016, the government and contracted agencies had certified more than 75,000 hectares of land as organic.

After the Sikkim Organic Mission fulfilled its objective, it was renamed the Sikkim Organic Farming Development Agency (SOFDA). “SOFDA now renews the certificate and maintains the organic status of the soil,” Samdup said.

Farming doesn’t suffice all farming families, farmers do not trust government seeds

Pushplal Sharma on his farm in Sombaria, Sikkim. Sharma uses his own seeds, saying that he does not know whether the government-provided seeds are hybrid or not as they are not labelled, and he does not want to use hybrid seeds on his farm.

Lying in the western part of Sikkim, Soreng district is known for the cultivation of oranges, large cardamom, ginger, turmeric, cherry pepper, babycorn, buckwheat, pulses etc.

Here, 31-year-old Sanchamaya Lepcha's family owns 1 acre (0.40 hectare) of land, which they farm organically with bio-fertiliser made from cow dung. For every 50 kg of potato sowed, Lepcha harvests 200 kg. "I get about Rs 30 per kg for the potatoes…In all, my family is able to earn Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 a month,” she said. Lepcha also works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the rural jobs programme, and on the fields of another farmer to supplement the family income.

"We use our own seeds, as the seeds from the government cannot be trusted. The seeds they give aren’t good, we don’t want to take it,” she said.

Like Lepcha, 64-year-old Pushpalal Sharma also uses his own seeds, saying that he does not know whether the government-provided seeds are hybrid or not as they are not labelled.

The Sikkim Agricultural, Horticultural Input and Livestock Feed Regulatory Act, 2014, prohibits the use of inorganic agricultural and horticultural inputs. Section 5 of the Act further explains, "organic seed and plant materials shall be used for cultivation but when certified organic seed and plant materials are not available, chemically untreated conventional materials shall be used with the permission of State Government...The use of genetically engineered seeds, pollen, trans-gene plants or plant material is prohibited for cultivation."

The Sikkim government has seed processing units at Majitar and Jorethang.

Samdup said that the government gives hybrid as well as composite seeds (which combine different kinds of varieties), adding that it is not that hybrid varieties cannot sustain in organic environments. "Till date we have not heard that there is increased use of urea. Lot of hybrids have come up, which are highly responsive to the bio-fertiliser," he said, adding that it all depends on the adaptability of the plant.

Sikkim lacks a seed bank which conserves diverse local seeds.

Seed banks are “important for the conservation of the local plants. If we bring all the hybrids from outside, farmers will not end up planting the local plant”, said Laxuman Sharma, head of the Department of Horticulture at Sikkim University. “Secondly, it is important because we can use the seeds from the banks to improve the crop through breeding programmes."

For instance, in Odisha, seed banks are trying to revive India's indigenous seed diversity while encouraging farmers to move away from chemical farming.

Unlike Lepcha, Pushpalal Sharma, the farmer, finds farming profitable. The 64-year-old grew up farming on his family-owned land in Sombaria, in Soreng district. After retiring as the deputy director of the education department in Soreng, he took up farming full time on his 2-acre (0.81 hectare) land.

"Last year, we were able to produce 1,200 kg of ginger, which I sold at Rs 500-Rs 800 for a bori (40 kg). I made Rs 10,000 from oranges. After spending money on labour and transportation, it was still profitable.” But, he is one of the few educated farmers. "Most people here depend on the government but they are not able to earn much,” he said.

Change in policy on transport

Kishor Bhattarai, who owns 2 acres (0.81 hectares) of land, has been employing small farmers since 2013--a few years after he quit his job as a banker and started an NGO, Human Life Reformation & Capacity Building Society.

Bhattarai lauds the previous government for Sikkim’s move to organic. “The previous government was serious and was doing all sorts of things--when it started, there was no awareness about organic farming so they prevented the farmers from using inorganic inputs.”

In addition to transport subsidies for taking organic goods to the market, in April 2018, the government banned the import of produce from outside.

Bhattarai said that initially there were issues with pricing, since sellers from Siliguri would pass off inorganic produce as organic produce, selling it at cheaper rates. But the government soon intervened. Additionally, to help take produce to markets, and make organic goods more competitive, the government provided transportation, set up rural marketing centres and established organic outlets, he explained. Bhattarai said he would drive the trucks the government provided, go to farmers to collect their produce and take it to the markets.

Now the trucks lie mostly unused. Bhattarai explains why. “The new government is not helping us run the trucks anymore. We don’t get the transport subsidies we used to.”

We asked S. Anbalagan, chief executive officer of SOFDA, about the government’s transport policy for organic crops. “We don’t have a policy for transport. Logistics comes as a part of the business,” he said, adding that not every aspect can be subsidised.

In the 2019 Assembly elections, the Prem Singh Golay-led Sikkim Krantikari Morcha formed the government, winning against Pawan Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front. A month after he took office as the Chief Minister, Golay in an interview to the Hindustan Times had said, “The organic farming mission was restricted to only on paper and did not take place at the ground level. We would certainly support the mission but would not force it on the farmers.”

We have reached out to Golay’s press secretary, Bikash Basnet, for comment on Sikkim’s organic mission, and will update the story when we receive a response.

Competition from West Bengal produce

Soreng’s farmers transport their produce to markets like the Soreng market, which IndiaSpend visited. Farmers say they are not able to compete with the goods coming from Siliguri in West Bengal.

At the organic stall outside the market, Sunita Rai and Jiwan Rai, who have run the show for five-six years, were sifting through the vegetables. Sunita Rai said that about 50% of the vegetables sold at this Organic Outlet, run by the agriculture department, are locally sourced, while the rest come from Siliguri in West Bengal. “During the season (winter for most vegetables in Sikkim), there are more local vegetables coming in.”

A shop for organic goods in Soreng market. Sikkim. Organic crops face competition from cheaper inorganic goods coming in from Siliguri.

"We got cauliflower for Rs 50 and are selling it for Rs 60, the cabbage is for Rs 40 and the farmers get Rs 30, similarly we sell the beans for Rs 70-80, the peas for Rs 80 and the ningro (wild edible fern) for Rs 15-20,” she said of the price of organic produce. “Siliguri produce that is not organic is cheaper.”

Ashok Kumar Gupta, another shopkeeper at Soreng Market, said that for 10 months in 2018, when the government had restricted the sale of non-organic produce, the market was flooded with organic produce. When asked if the premium rates meant fewer consumers, he said, "People were still buying it. And farmers also profited. Some of the [inorganic] produce coming in goes to waste by the time it gets here,” especially in the monsoon as it takes 3.5 hours to get to Soreng from Siliguri.

Like other farmers with small land holdings, Nirmala Das Kami farms on a rented 0.40 ha (1 acre) land. She said she earns Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a week, depending on the season, by selling organic vegetables at the nearby market in Ranipool. Her produce is sold alongside cheaper Siliguri produce and is not packaged or marketed as organic, she said.

It is only in the famous Lall Bazaar in Gangtok that a section of the market has been cordoned off for FPOs to sell only organic produce.

“Despite being the pioneer organic state, the branding and recognition that it got has not helped with the marketing. FPOs have been around in the state since 2017, but we are still like middle-men. We are not given the trader’s certificates that would enable us to directly sell the produce,” Mahendra Dahal, president of the Sunrise Cooperative Society in Soreng, said.

Anbalagan said that the government cannot restrict competition or stop goods from outside the state. “There is competition but over a period of time, things will normalise. There has to be a premium price for good quality commodities, it will be expensive for being organic.”

Laxuman Sharma of Sikkim University concurred that it is not possible to stop crops from outside the state from being sold in Sikkim as Sikkim is not self sufficient. “Production is less because of the nature of land holdings. If you stop vegetables of Siliguri, you cannot feed the people.”

Organic certification, rumours of chemical use

In Sikkim, as per the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) guidelines, organic certification or scope certificates are issued to groups of farmers called "grower groups". As per the NPOP, producers are required to “undertake organic farming as per the organic standards”, change their farm facilities and production methods to comply with standards, produce documentation that includes a detailed farm history, current set-up, operational activities, inputs used etc. and submit an annual production plan and keep farm diaries with day-to-day farming and marketing records.

The 191 grower groups in Sikkim are assessed on the basis of an internal quality management system called the Internal Control System or ICS, as per Sikkim’s agricultural department. It is only after the ICS is carried out twice annually by ICS “managers”, that the certification body plans an external inspection. The Sikkim State Organic Certification Agency looks after certification in Sikkim, the agriculture department told IndiaSpend.

The organic market in Lall Bazaar, Gangtok, Sikkim. The government opened the market in 2018.

The NPOP guidelines say that an internal inspector has to conduct at least two inspections of the grower group (one in growing season of each crop) in the presence of the member of the group or a representative. Earlier, agencies like Mevedir would conduct the internal inspections.

Farmers in Soreng, whom IndiaSpend met, claimed that for the last few years there has been no such inspection. “What is happening now is they are using the data from before to renew the certificates,” said Dahal of the Sunrise Cooperative Society. ”SIMFED (Sikkim State Cooperative Supply and Marketing Federation) has now been appointed to do this, but they have only done a little soil testing by random sampling.”

Dahal added that representatives of Farmer Producer Organisations had also suggested that they be tasked with internal audits since they know more about the area and local farmers, and could cover more ground than SIMFED.

The NPOP guidelines also state that members of grower groups should be provided with the “docket in local languages” that contain details of the process flow (from cultivation to harvest and sales of product including a revision of the standards), farm data sheet, farm diary, prevailing farming system and a schedule on training programmes. But, farmers like Lepcha and Sharma, in Soreng, were unaware that annual internal and external audits were required for organic certification.

“As on this date, farmers are deprived of pesticides, biofertilisers and renewal of certification is not happening (or being communicated to the farmers)... Organic farming was a very innovative idea but that was thought of as Chamling’s (the previous government’s) mission and it has become aimless now,” Bhattarai, the Soreng farmer, said.

Samdup of the department of agriculture denied that certification is not happening as per procedure. “Without the audits, no scope certificates can be issued,” he said. Anbalagan of SOFDA added, "We follow process certification, we ensure that farmers follow organic farming principles or practices, and to that extent certificates are issued. Regular soil testing is not a part of certification. It is deemed that if you follow those practices your soil will be healthy.”

A farmer, who was buying cherry blossoms at the Soreng market, overheard this reporter’s conversation with shopkeepers at the market, and interjected, “My neighbour has started using inorganic fertilisers, because there are no sufficient checks and monitoring systems. It has started affecting my farms,” he said, asking not to be identified.

In East Sikkim’s Samlik-Marchak village, Kami was planting ginger with two other farmers. She also said they had heard rumours of farmers using inorganic inputs in Radang, a nearby village.

Food security, reducing farmers

According to the Sikkim State Focus Papers 2023-24, except for barley, production fell in the years between 2017 and 2020 for rice, wheat, maize, buck wheat, millet, barley, pulses and oilseeds. This was mainly because of lower land under cultivation, rather than the yield per hectare.

"We can’t sustain without produce coming in from Siliguri. No state can produce each and every commodity. We don’t have enough produce," said Samdup.

A second official at the Agricultural Department, who did not want to be named, told IndiaSpend that whatever little produce is exported only goes up to Siliguri in the neighbouring state of West Bengal.

"Sikkim is a small state, we can't compare it (production here) to other states. On top of that the farmers here are too lackadaisical with their approach to farming, they lack motivation," the official added. An example of this, the official added, is the fact that of the total cultivable area in the state, only 50-60% is cultivated. The rest lies fallow.

Samdup said that between 2016 and 2022, the number of farmers reduced from over 66,000 to 65,973, and cultivable land decreased from 76,000 hectares to 75,500 hectares.

Dhanpati Sharma, an organic farmer in Sikkim, points to cucumbers he is growing on his farm. He says that farmers have to be more innovative to profit from organic farming.

“Only 11% of total land here is cultivable, this has also decreased because there has been development, road construction and different infrastructure is coming up,” said Laxuman Sharma of the horticulture department at Sikkim University. On the reducing numbers of farmers, he said that many people migrate to towns, and the population’s fertility rate is also low, which means a small rural population.

The fertility rate in Sikkim was 1.1 child per woman, according to the National Family Health Survey 2019-2021. According to the 2011 census, Sikkim has a population of over 610,000 of which about 75%, i.e. over 457,000 live in rural areas.

Then there are also challenges of unseasonal weather conditions and wild animals attacking crops, Bhattarai added.

In order to motivate farmers, the government began a production incentive scheme in 2020 for five cash crops--cardamom, ginger, turmeric, orange and buckwheat--to incentivise farmers on production and marketing through the Farmers Producers Organisations. The government later expanded the scheme, which gives an incentive based on the quantity marketed or sold, to other crops.

In 2021-22, 4,658 farmers received Rs 17.46 crore as incentive, while in 2022-23, 5,998 farmers received Rs 14.27 crore, as per data provided by SIMFED.

In Assam Lingzey village, about 16 km from Gangtok, farmer Dhanpati Sharma said that the farmers have to do more to profit from organic farming. "The government has done everything but for organic growers we have to do it ourselves. For instance, it is not time for cucumbers; it will come (in the market) after 1.2 months but I have started selling it from now. I got Rs 400 per kg in April at the organic stall, which is much more profitable…The farmers have to use their brains and use such strategies,” he said.

The agriculture department official mentioned above, who did not want to be named, conceded that the organic scheme in Sikkim has not significantly helped farmers in terms of their income. "But it has put Sikkim on the global market--that is one thing. Tourists come and buy organic, they come here, for most of them it is an organic state. Village tourism has increased a lot.”

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