Climate Change Could Dent Sikkim's Organic Mission

Climate Change Could Dent Sikkims Organic Mission

Bookman's BnB is a popular bed and breakfast in Gangtok, the capital of northeastern state of Sikkim, located 1,650 metres above sea level in the eastern Himalayas. The BnB is favoured by a large number of tourists who apart from a comfortable stay also enjoy the time spent at Cafe Fiction and Rachna Books, a famous bookstore run by the Bookman's owner, Raman Shresta. "Tourists enjoy staying at my bed and breakfast. But, in the last few years, they have been complaining of rising heat and discomfort in the hill station," said Shresta.

Because of high elevation of Gangtok, there is no concept of ceiling fans in the hill capital, as the weather remains pleasantly cool even during the peak summer months. "But, of late, tourists have started to demand ceiling fans, hence I am renovating my BnB and fixing fans in all the rooms," informed Shresta.

Disappeared Variety

The rising heat isn't affecting people in the state capital alone. About 75 kms away, in Kholagari village of Namchi (about 1,100 metres above sea level), South Sikkim, Kamal Rai, a ginger farmer, has been noticing similar climatic changes and making a mental note of their impacts on the local agriculture. "During my grandfather and father's time, we used to have mandarin orange [Citrus reticulata, a native orange variety of Sikkim] and large cardamom plantations in our area. Now, both have disappeared and climbed up higher [altitude] in the state," said Rai.

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Another 60 kms from Namchi is 92-year-old Til Bahadur Chhetri's Hee Patal village in West Sikkim at an altitude of 2,000 metres above sea level. "Even at this altitude, it has become hot. Crops like mandarin orange that used to grow at 1,200 metres elevation are now being cultivated here. Ginger and passion fruit is also being grown in Hee Patal, which was unheard of a decade or two ago," said Til Bahadur. He blamed the rising temperature and

missing winter rains for the changing cropping pattern and decline in agricultural yield in the state.

Farmers in the state are a worried lot as they fear climate change may force them to completely give up farming. "The chief minister's ambitious mission of fully organic Sikkim, which we support wholeheartedly, is also under a threat," warned Kamal Rai. Since farming is not enough to make both ends meet, he drives around tourists in Gangtok during the summer months for an additional income.

It isn't that the state authorities are unaware of impacts of climate change on the state's agriculture. During a recent state-level workshop on 'Understanding mountain people's approach and practices in combating climate change', held on June 27 in Gangtok, P D Rai, member of Parliament (Sikkim) and convenor of the Integrated Mountain Initiative said the state had 16,000 hectare (ha) fallow land and 60 percent of the land was fallow as farmers had moved away from farming. "We need to find ways to integrate organic farming with traditional farming and also adapt to the climate change," said P D Rai.


Sikkim's organic mission

In 2003, the state chief minister, Pawan Chamling, declared in the State Legislative Assembly his policy initiative of declaring Sikkim a 'total organic state'. As against a national average fertilisers use of 90 kilogram per hectare (kg/ha), the maximum fertiliser consumption in Sikkim then was 12 kg/ha only. Thus, doing away with chemical fertilisers was seen as an achievable goal by Chamling.

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In May 2003, the state government withdrew its subsidy on fertilisers. Few months later, Sikkim State Organic Board was set up "to address the basic requirement of organic crop production, wild crop harvesting, organic livestock management and processing and handling of organicagricultural products".From 2006-07 onwards transport and handling subsidy and commission to retailers were also withdrawn. Simultaneously, the state government adopted a seven-year plan to wipe out use of chemical fertilisers and to gradually replace them with organic manure.

Finally, in January 2016, the Himalayan state was declared fully organic state, the first such state in the country. Over a period of time, about 76,000 ha agricultural land in the state has been brought under organic farming, claims the state government. But, question mark remains over its self-reliance and food security. For instance, a large chunk of its food products — over 70 tonnes of fruits and vegetables per day — was supplied from Siliguri in West Bengal.

But, from March 31 this year, the state government banned sale of non-organic food products in the state. Apart from crops that aren't cultivated in huge quantities within the state, such as potato, onion, garlic, tomato, chilli, carrot, etc, sale of all other non-organic fruits and vegetables is banned in Sikkim.



The government order was met with stiff resistance from the traders, who warned of food shortage in the state. But, in mid-April, undeterred state authorities seized huge quantities of banned non-organic fruits and vegetables from Gangtok (worth Rs 2.5 lakh) and destroyed them. Sale of outside meat and poultry is also expected to be banned in the state from next year.

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"Organic mission is good and we support it. But, there is a huge demand for fruits and vegetables from the state's own population [more than 6 lakh] and also the floating population of tourists [over 14 lakh a year]," said Ganesh Chhetri, a farmer from Hee Martam village in West Sikkim. "Because of the changing climate, erratic rainfall, rising temperature, increase in human-wildlife conflict, a large numbers of farmers have switched over to other sources of livelihood, such as tourism," he added.

It must be noted that only 12 percent of Sikkim's total land is cultivable, whereas 65 percent of its population is dependent on farming for a living. Rain-fed agriculture is a predominant feature and only over15 percent area is under irrigation. Both West Sikkim and South Sikkim districts fall under rain-shadow zone and are drought-prone. The draft 'State of Environment Report Sikkim 2016' notes: "The contribution to Sikkim's economy from agriculture and allied sectors has been on the decline… There has been a decline in the total cultivator's population". Primary sector includes agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and quarrying.Secondary sector include manufacturing, industry, building and construction work etc.Tertiary sector include transport, communication, commerce, administration and other services (see graphs)


As the hills heat up and winters get drier

Several studies in the Himalayas show that between 1975 and 2006, the mean temperatures in the Himalayan alpine zones has increased by 0.6°C to 1.3°C. The state government's 2012 report, 'Climate Change in Sikkim: Patterns, Impacts and Initiatives', notes the rate of increase in the mean minimum temperaturebetween the decade 1991-2000 and 2001-10, as recorded at the Tadong meteorological station,is 0.81°C per decade, or 0.08°Cincrease per year. The same report points out that in the last two decades (1991-2000 to 2001-2010), the number of rainy days and annual rainfall at Tadong meteorological station have decreased at the rate of 0.72 days per year and 17.77 mm per year, respectively.

Another five year climate variability assessment (2006-2010),shows a marked decrease in rainfall in almost all the seasons, warmer nights andcooler days with an increase in minimum temperature and decrease in maximum temperature in Gangtok. The author, K Seetharam, notes "there is a small decrease in maximum temperature (<1°C) but more marked increase in the minimum temperature (around 2°C). The warming is more pronounced in winter…". Winter precipitation has reduced as well (see table).

According to Ghanashyam Sharma, programme manager and head of Gangtok-based The Mountain Institute of India, Sikkim used to have its own unique patterns of rainfall that used to change as per the seasons. "The jhari, which was continuous rains for five to seven days, is gone missing. Now, we have long dry spells followed by heavy rainfall for one or two days," lamented Sharma. In his 2012 research paper, he has documented the jharis that were crucial to rainfed agriculture in the state and have disappeared

These changes in the climate have a direct impact on the state's agriculture and livelihood of its farmers. During the June 27 workshop in Gangtok, Ashish Yadav, senior scientist (horticulture) with ICAR-NOFRI (Indian Council of Agricultural Research-National Organic Farming Research Institute) located in Tadong (Gangtok) pointed out that decrease in winter rainfall has a direct impact on the state's rabi (winter) crops, such as rice and maize. "Pests attacks, such as fruitfly infestation, have increased, too. We need climate resilient farming," said Yadav.

Dinesh Pradhan, block development officer of Sumbuk in South Sikkim informed that earlier mandarin oranges used to grow in his block, but all those orchards had moved to higher altitude in the state. "Now, the main crop of our farmers is maize and that too is getting impacted due to the lack of timely rains," he added.

The changing climate is also linked to a decrease in population of pollinators like bumble bee and honey bee in the state, which has a direct impact on crop productivity, said Kailash S Gaira, scientist with GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environmental & Sustainable Development, Gangtok. He also pointed out that climate change is increasing the incidence of human-wildlife conflict in the state, which is forcing farmers to give up farming.

"In order to be a self-reliant organic state, we need to produce more food and a wide-variety of crops. For that we need irrigation facilities, as winter rains have reduced drastically. This is a big challenge," said R P Gurung, chief executive officer of Gangtok-based non-profit ECOSS (Ecotourism Conservation Society of Sikkim).

Price wars

Meanwhile, the state's organic mission is also facing teething problems due to the price factor. On the one hand, state's consumers allege prices of organic vegetables to be far higher than the non-organic vegetables; on the other hand, farmers are demanding better price for their produce so that they can meet the growing demand for organic fruits and vegetables.

In April, when the ban on non-organic vegetables and fruits came into effect, several consumers complained the price of locally grown vegetables had increased manifold. There were concerns around mixing of non-organic and organic produce, as consumers could not differentiate between both.

In June, the Sikkim State Co-operative Supply and Marketing Federation Ltd (SIMFED) stepped in to control the prices of organic vegetables and fruits sold in the state. For instance, the maximum selling retail price per kg of cauliflower was fixed at Rs 40. SIMFED warned that 'appropriate action shall be initiated against anyone found selling at rates higher then the maximum retail selling rates'. These rates were widely publicised across the state capital by way of huge banners and posters.

But, farmers were upset. "In order to keep the city consumers happy, the government has capped the selling price and kept it low. What is the incentive for me to practice organic farming with so many odds stacked against it?" asked Kamal Rai.

But, two months down the price list issued by SIMFED, consumers claim the government-approved price had remained only on paper. "As against maximum price of Rs 40 per kg for cauliflower and bitter gourd each, I bought these vegetables [on August 18] for Rs 100 a kg and Rs 120 a kg, respectively. My entire monthly budget has gone for a toss," complained a resident of Gangtok. "We need government-monitored price control mechanism," he added.

Can the Sikkim government find a middle ground to keep both consumers and farmers happy while marching towards a self-reliant 'organic' state?

(Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist. The story is being published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Program.)

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