Farmers say they don’t earn enough from farming, there is competition from cheaper non-organic produce from neighbouring states and several problems plague the supply chain for organic produce
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, write 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 india spend 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.