Squatting on the kitchen floor at her home in Sikkim’s Assam Lingzey village, 90-year-old Benu Maya Upreti does not quite understand what the recent fuss over organic farming is all about. The heat from a simmering oven is keeping her warm; sunlight streams in through the kitchen door, which opens out to the family’s farm, pure and unblemished.

In the seven decades that she helped her husband, Tula Ram, cultivate the land and ruled over the family kitchen, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were not allowed on their 100-acre land, and by extension, the food they eat. The Upreti family has been self-sufficient, needing only to buy salt, kerosene, sugar and spices from the market. Their 15 children have grown up healthy, and when Upreti was diagnosed two decades back as diabetic, she brought it under control within a few years and stopped the medication.

Standing close to a crop of peas, Tula Ram proudly announces that he has done even better. “I have never even needed an Aspirin," says the nonagenarian. He is tall, still strong, a workaholic who still occasionally works in the fields, now divided among their children. “There was a time when chemical fertilizers were being used by neighbouring farmers. They initially saw an increase in production, but soon their land became dry and fallow. We took that as a lesson," says Tula Ram. “We have only known of natural agents like cattle waste and biomass to nourish our land. Without knowing, our methods have traditionally been organic."

Tula Ram Upreti and his wife Benu Maya have never used chemical fertilizers and rely on indigenous and traditional farming techniques.
Tula Ram Upreti and his wife Benu Maya have never used chemical fertilizers and rely on indigenous and traditional farming techniques.

At the time, even though Sikkim was using a mere 8-12kg per hectare of chemical fertilizers and pesticides compared to the national average of 90kg per hectare, it wasn’t an easy task to wean away farmers from their dependence on the agrochemical industry, says S. Anbalagan, executive director of the Sikkim Organic Mission, formed in 2010 to push the government’s organic agenda. Even as awareness campaigns, workshops, capacity-building and training programmes on organic farming were started, the Sikkim government began phasing out chemical fertilizers and pesticides, not utilizing its Central government quota and reducing subsidies on these products by 10% every year after 2005. By 2009, all outlets retailing agrochemical products had been closed down. Even as recently as 5 February, local newspapers reported the arrest of a woman trying to smuggle in chemical fertilizers through the strictly manned Rangpo border with West Bengal.

An organic farm
An organic farm

Though farmers had to be convinced about the benefits of going organic, there were no instances reported of large-scale resistance to the change. “Unlike in other parts of India, people here are law-abiding and voluntarily follow instructions," explains Anbalagan. This is more than apparent in the way Sikkim largely follows the ban on plastic bags, enforced way back in 1998; promotes ecotourism and sustainable tourism models; and adheres rigidly to a ban on public smoking, in force since 2010. “In the case of organic farming, it became somewhat easy for us to implement since many of the farmers followed the traditional system of agriculture, which did not include the use of chemical fertilizers," says Anbalagan, sitting at his office in Krishi Bhawan in Gangtok.

The final batch of certificates were issued in December. The state’s 74,190 hectares of agricultural land now officially practise an ecologically curative process of farming—India’s second smallest state has just taken a giant leap as the country’s first state to go fully organic. On his two-day visit to the state in January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held it up as a role model.

A flower show in Gangtok
A flower show in Gangtok

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A few kilometres away from Ranipool town in the East Sikkim district, the 2-acre farm of D.N. Sapkota, chairman of the government’s agriculture and horticulture board, is waiting to burst into a lush, organic green. As the dry and misty winter wraps Sikkim in a final spell of cold, natural agents are at work on the farm.

Second, Sapkota’s collection of cattle, the indigenous Siri cows among them yielding as much as 12 litres of milk every day. But this is not the only reason they are there. Cow dung is an important and traditional natural manure, and the urine, post-fermentation, is an effective pesticide—Sapkota explains the role of Madhyam, a brand of organic composter supplied free by the Sikkim government, in facilitating the creation of compost. Cow urine is collected through a circuit of drains and pipes which empty into a large tank. There, it goes through a fermentation process before being used on crops as a pesticide.

There isn’t a speck of urea in sight.

Four years ago, the reputation of the ex-serviceman and then convener, farmer cell, as an organic farmer brought actor Aamir Khan—who was shooting an episode on Sikkim’s then fledgling organic farming effort for his socially conscious television series, Satyamev Jayate—to his doorstep. These days, Sapkota, having “trained and initiated hundreds of Sikkimese farmers and self-help groups in organic cultivation science without charging a penny", is content in the knowledge that he has contributed to a healthier and ecologically sustainable life in his state.

Born into a family of farmers, Sapkota dwells on how cultivation practices have changed from his grandfather’s time—mainly, he says, processes like vermicomposting and the use of composters like Madhyam. “If you ignore the period from 1976, when chemical fertilizers and pesticides slowly started making it to Sikkim, our cultivation methods have more or less remained the same," he adds.

A monarchy till the mid-1970s, Sikkim became part of India in 1975. The early aboriginal Lepcha and Limboo inhabitants, followed by the Bhutia, were hunter-gatherers who went on to practise shifting cultivation using the slash-and-burn method, says agricultural expert Jash Raj Subba in his book, The Evolution Of Man And The Modern Society In Mountainous Sikkim. It was only from the 1890s, when the British administration in India started settling Nepalese people from the neighbouring region in Sikkim, that settled agriculture systems made an entry. Since then, though large-scale resettlement has meant that people of Nepalese origin are dominant in society, Sikkim continues to be the least populous state in India and one almost entirely untouched by the Green Revolution of the 1950s-1960s, when agricultural output increased substantially, piggybacking on the agrochemical industry.

This may well have been to Sikkim’s advantage, if one goes by what Khorlo Bhutia, principal director and secretary, horticulture and cash crop development department of the Sikkim government, has to say. “For the negative effect of chemical fertilizers, you have to look at Kasaragod district in Kerala and Bathinda in Punjab. There are a lot of instances of cancer, deformities at childbirth and groundwater is polluted," he says. While not conclusively proven, it is widely claimed that the rampant use of chemical pesticides is one of the main reasons for the high number of cancer patients in Bathinda, many of whom travel for treatment to Bikaner’s regional cancer research centre in what is informally and tragically referred to as the “cancer train".

Critics of the agrochemical industry list the pitfalls: groundwater contamination, agricultural land going dry in a few years, the killing of all beneficial micro-organisms in the soil, and the shrinking of genetic diversity. “Virtually, Mother Earth is being killed," says Khorlo. “But in the case of organic and traditional farming, there will be multiplication of organisms in the soil and improvement in soil health. When soil health improves, everything will improve. The vision behind Sikkim going organic is far-sighted." Behind Khorlo, a framed picture of the chief minister hangs on the wall—the man, Khorlo says, who was “behind the organic vision".

While criticism of the organic food movement largely centres around the issues of food security, premium pricing, elitism, and even its inability to control diseases, the organic farming initiative in Sikkim, a biodiversity hot spot, revives the memory of Sir Albert Howard.

In 1905, the Britain-born botanist and agricultural expert arrived in India as the imperial economic botanist to the colonial government, his primary brief being to implement Western agricultural practices. Working at different institutes, Howard was impressed by traditional Indian farming methods. The Wikipedia page dedicated to him notes that “one important aspect he took notice of was the connection between healthy soil and the villages’ healthy populations, livestock and crop". The page indirectly quotes Howard’s observation on Indian traditional agriculture through the director of the UK Soil Association, “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible."

“Sir Albert Howard, who was sent to India in 1905 to introduce chemicals in farming, saw how fertile the soils were with no pests in the fields. He decided to make the Indian peasants his professors and wrote An Agricultural Testament, which spread organic farming worldwide on the basis of India’s ecological farming, today recognized as agroecology-ecology as applied to agriculture," wrote environmental activist Vandana Shiva in an article titled “Nothing Green In The Green Revolution", published in the India Today magazine in August.

Today, along with Rudolf Steiner and Eve Balfour, Howard is widely recognized as one of the founders of organic agriculture in the world. And in India, states like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Uttarakhand too have embraced organic cultivation.

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It’s still early days, however. The government, says Khorlo, has to put in place an effective supply chain management system so that the green produce finds a market outside the state.

But the movement is finding more takers, with many youngsters now returning to their inherited lands.

Take, for instance, 29-year-old Binita Chamling. Brought up in the world of organic tea, since her father is a senior employee at Sikkim’s only tea garden, Temi, Binita studied biotechnology in Bengaluru and later moved to the UK to complete her master’s in biotechnology and business enterprise. In the UK, she would gift acquaintances packets of organic Temi tea; people were surprised by the quality of the product as well as its place of origin in the Himalayas. “I would love to talk about Sikkim. I’m passionate about the place and its people. The organic farming initiative going on here perfectly fits into my plans," says Binita.

Having helped the Sikkim government market some of the state’s organic products in the UK, and wanting to do more, Binita shifted back to Sikkim in 2014 to start Organic Sikkim, a company she helms with one of the sons of the chief minister. Today, Organic Sikkim has an outlet in south Delhi for the state’s products (at present under renovation) but is grappling with logistical issues: infrastructure for the transportation of perishable commodities; supply; branding. “There has to be a lot of hard work involved. With only around 75,000 hectares, Sikkim cannot feed the world, but we can certainly maximize our output. Our company is strong on marketing, but lacking in production so far," says Binita.

The next day, we are in the office of Echostream, a multidisciplinary design studio in Gangtok made up largely of former students of the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design. As Binita discusses an Organic Sikkim poster for a forthcoming exhibition in Delhi with the creative team, I talk to Tenzing Nyentsey, who handles the Sikkim Organic Mission creative account for the government.

Nyentsey is disappointed that despite Echostream’s willingness to engage strongly with the brand, they haven’t got much actual work. “Good things are happening but it is happening only in isolation. There seems to be no holistic approach," says Nyentsey. “Now that it is well known that Sikkim is India’s first organic state, the brand itself is strong. But marketing of the product will be an issue if the systems are not in place. We have to ask who the organic products aim for. Is it the Siliguri market? Or is it Delhi? If it is Delhi, do we have the retailers and suppliers there? I think the government quickly needs to identify its market if the organic initiative has to move forward."

Production and cost will both be critical. Sikkim may have begun to produce a wide variety of organic vegetables and edible items but it is not enough to cater to even the local market, which seems to have an overwhelming bulk of non-organic edible imports coming in from Siliguri in West Bengal. It has cardamom and ginger in surplus, as well as some vegetables and fruits, including the Sikkim Mandarin oranges. But nothing more.

An organic food and wine festival.
An organic food and wine festival.

There are more problems. “It has also been noticed that whenever the organic produce of Sikkim travels to the Siliguri market, it gets mixed up with the non-organic commodities and loses its identity," says Siddhi Karnani, a former student of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) who, along with partner and fellow IIM-A mate Anurag Agarwal, set up the Kolkata-based Parvata Foods Pvt. Ltd, primarily to market Sikkim’s organic produce in Delhi before expanding to other cities.

Days after the Prime Minister mentioned the IIM duo’s work in the January edition of his radio address, Mann Ki Baat, Karnani sounds buoyant over the phone. Their joint venture with the state government, a food processing plant in Sikkim, has just started production; Parvata Foods has tied up with Mother Dairy’s 372-strong Safal chain of stores in Delhi to market organic products, primarily ginger; and the company is all set to launch its own organic brand, making sure to mention “Himalayan Origin from Sikkim" as part of the packaging. “In India, there are now many organic products available but customers doubt their veracity. Unlike in the West, where the place of origin is clearly mentioned, here it is not the case. We have to play up the distinctive identity of Sikkim’s organic produce," says Karnani.

The sense of cautious optimism percolates down the ranks of the Farmer Producer Organization (FPO), a cooperative of farmers, formed in 2013. With 1,069 farmer-members from the East Sikkim district, the FPO sources produce from farmers and sells it directly, sometimes in guerrilla style, even parking its goods-laden vehicles directly opposite the main market in Gangtok when stalls weren’t available, says secretary Shishir Kharka.

FPO president Karma Dechen Bhutia at the newly opened organic market in Gangtok’s Lal Bazar.
FPO president Karma Dechen Bhutia at the newly opened organic market in Gangtok’s Lal Bazar.

We meet in Samlik, a village at a height of around 8,000ft, about 40-odd km from Gangtok, on a crispy, cool winter morning. Kharka, who takes us to some of the private farms where the organic production culture is now entrenched, is optimistic about sales now that the Sikkim government has started constructing a Kisan Market in the capital city exclusively for organic produce.

He has also managed to inspire young people to return to their farms—unlike other parts of the country, farming is not looked down upon as a menial profession in the state.

Twenty-eight-year-old Jigdal Bhutia is one of them. The arts graduate drives a new Alto car, one that he bought after he started making healthy profits from organically grown peas, potatoes, beans and radish on the 4 acres owned by his family. “I never looked for a job," says Jigdal, when we visit his home.

Standing nearby is Kishan Tamang. The 36-year-old’s weather-beaten face reflects the hardship of the 10 years he spent as a driver of a commercial vehicle working the Gangtok-Siliguri route. A native of Namin village, Tamang remembers the experience of days filled with soot, grime, pollution and raucous passengers. Three months back, inspired by Jigdal, Tamang returned to his father’s 1-acre land. He is yet to see profits from the crops of mustard, coriander, fenugreek and onion. But the green shoots of a better life are clearly visible to him.

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