3 Performance of Agricultural Economy of the NorthEastern
India: Constraints and Priorities

Anuva Saikia
Department of Agricultural Economics
Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat, Assam

The seven states of Northeastern India, comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura cover 255.09 lakh hectares, which is 7.76 per cent of total land area of the country. The region has unique distinction of having diverse hill ecosystems covering more than two-third of total geographical area. The hill areas have wide range of altitude upto 5,000 metres. The riverine plains, swamps, tilla land and char areas are the other agro-ecological situations. The region receives abundant rainfall with the world’s highest rainfall of 12,000 mm at Mawsynram in Meghalaya, in one hand and the rain shadow belt in Nagaon district of Assam with ± 1,200 mm rainfall, on the other hand.

The N.E. hills cover Karbi Anglong and N.C. Hills of Assam, entire territories of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya with per humid to humid climate receiving 3,528 mm rainfall annually. Nearly 94 per cent of land in Arunachal Pradesh and about half in Nagaland and Meghalaya are under forests. The hill regions of Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram receive 2,052 mm rains and the climate is to humid. The soil is acidic. Most of the land in Manipur is barren and considered unculturable. The plains of Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys of Assam receive 2,800 mm average rainfall with uneven distribution. The climate is per humid to humid.

Agriculture is the dominant economic activity providing employment to 64.28 per cent of total workers. The region has 3.73 per cent of the total population of the country and contributes 2.6 per cent to the Net Domestic Product.

Land Holding Pattern

Total operational land in the N.E. India is 53.4 lakh ha. The highest operated area is 31.6 lakh ha in Assam and the lowest (0.8 lakh ha) is in Mizoram. Nagaland has the unique characteristic of highest size of operational holdings at 6.8 ha, which is higher than the Northeast regional average (1.59 ha) and also of the all-India level (1.6 ha).

Land Utilization Pattern

Out of total geographical area of 255.09 lakh ha in the NE India, area under forest is 164.3 lakh ha (64 per cent). Arunachal Pradesh has the highest area (93.79 per cent) under forests followed by Mizoram (61.98 per cent). In Manipur forest area is sharply declining. Net sown area (NSA) in the region has increased from 31.61 lakh ha in 1977 to 38.05 lakh ha in 1995-96. The proportion of net sown area to total area is as low as 15 per cent as against 46.6 per cent for all-India average. Although the monocropped area dominates the region, the gross cropped area has increased from 39.41 lakh ha to 54.3 lakh ha due to newer area under cultivation and introduction of newer crops. There are a few exceptions like Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, where only 2.68 per cent and 3.09 per cent of the total reporting area are respectively cultivated, primarily on account of adverse conditions, difficult terrains and barren land. The cropped area in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland is 8.32, 9.02 and 12.40 per cent respectively.

Shifting Cultivation

In the Northeastern India more than two-third of total geographical area is covered by hills. Shifting cultivation (Jhum cultivation) is the common practice in the hills. About 4.43 lakh families solely depend on shifting cultivation. The practice of jhum has been undergoing rapid changes particularly in the recent times. Jhum cycle declined from 3 to 10 years to 2-3 years. Since the jhum system has a number of merits, declining jhum cycle would have serious adverse implication to the poor. The strategy for Jhum improvisation in tune with socio-cultural milieu would benefit the society. Among the alternative methods of improvement include adoption of improved cultural practice, planting perennial crops, control of soil erosion, encouraging allied agricultural activities. Few on-going programmes for promoting and improvisation of jhum are listed below.

  1. Permanent settlement of Jhumia cultivators through development of plantation crops in Karbi Anglong and N.C.Hills of Assam,
  2. Providing 2.0 ha of terrace land to Jhumia family along with inputs and financial help for permanent cultivation in Meghalaya
  3. Pilot project on land reclamation, minor irrigation, land improvement, provision of seeds, fertilizers and development of horticulture and cash crops in Mizoram
  4. Pilot projects in Nagaland induced farmers to give up Jhum cultivation and adopt terrace cultivation.

These schemes however, require economic impact evaluation and improvisation where necessary.

Changes in Cropping Pattern

Rice is the main crop in the N.E. states covering around 61 per cent of gross cropped area. Manipur has the highest proportionate rice area (76.38 per cent) while Meghalaya (43.09 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (45.73 per cent) have comparatively lower area under rice. Jute is grown mainly in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. The cultivation of maize is concentrated in the hill states. The total area under oilseeds covers around 8 per cent of gross cropped area. Wheat is relatively a new crop in Assam and Meghalaya. Sugarcane is another cash crop grown in all the N.E. states except Arunachal Pradesh.

The salient features of cropping pattern are as follows:

  1. The area under rice has declined from 73.97 per cent in 1977 to 62.63 per cent in 1991 in Assam, 74.44 per cent to 53.91 per cent in Tripura, remained stagnant at around 80 per cent in Manipur but increased from 6.41 per cent to 60.71 per cent in Mizoram and 17.08 per cent to 43.09 per cent in Meghalaya.
  2. Oilseeds covers 6-8 per cent of gross cropped area except in Manipur (2.42 per cent), Meghalaya (3.76 per cent) and Tripura (3.26 per cent).
  3. Area under wheat increased tremendously since later part of the seventies in Assam, on account of spillover benefit of green revolution but started declining after 1985-86
  4. Pulse area is stagnant in Assam around 1.10 lakh ha and subjected to constraints of soil moisture stress in the sowing season, poor management, problems of disease and pests and lower yield. However, the cultivation of pulses is spreading in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura since the eighties.
  5. Jute and sugarcane are mainly grown in Assam and in minor proportion in Meghalaya and Tripura. Jute area is declining in all these states due to problems of retting, processing and marketing. Cotton is another crop grown in the region particularly in Meghalaya. Potato is gaining popularity in the cropping patterns of all the N.E. states except Mizoram.
  6. Horticultural crops, particularly banana, arecanut, coconut, papaya, tapioca, sweet potato, orange, mango, guava, litchi, jack fruit and a number of vegetables are grown in all states while apple is grown in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Spices of various types like onion, chillies, ginger, and turmeric are found throughout the region.

Growth of Production and Productivity

During 1970-1995, the annual average growth of production and productivity were 2.95 per cent and 1.68 per cent respectively in the N.E. states against the corresponding all-India rate of 3.6 per cent and 2.68 per cent. Total food grain production increased from 27.19 lakh tonnes to 47.24 lakh tonnes while yield increased from 1,002 kg/ha to 1,424 kg/ha during the period. Yield of rice is the highest in Manipur (2,552 kg /ha) followed by Tripura (1840 kg/ha). Adoption of improved cultivation practices like use of HYV and plant nutrients have contributed to yield improvement in these states. But in other states like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, the yield of paddy is 1,062 kg/ha, 958 kg/ha and 868 kg/ha respectively. In Assam, oilseeds have shown positive growth with improvement in yield from 417 kg/ha to 549 kg/ha. Wheat showed tremendous growth particularly in Assam during 1970-71 to 1980-81 primarily due to the influence of the national strategies of wheat development under green revolution. But its momentum got dampened after mid-eighties and showed negative growth since 1990-91. Maize showed positive growth in the hill districts of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. Small millets are showing rising trend in yield in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, while it is declining in Meghalaya and Nagaland. The scenario for the pulses is not encouraging and its area remains stagnant. Poor crop management mainly in rainfed situation is one of the reasons for slow growth. Severe scarcity of agricultural labour affected jute and sugarcane thus showing negative growth despite satisfactory yield performance (say 1,721 kg/ha in Assam, 1,629 kg/ha in Tripura). Poor marketing infrastructure and dominance of middlemen, problems of processing of sugarcane, closure of sugar mills in Assam, affected farm income. Potato is an important cash crop in the hill districts. Potato shows positive growth throughout the period and the yield has improved from 4,653 kg/ha in 1970-71 to 7,948 kg/ha in 1995-96.

Horticultural Crops

The plain and valley land of Assam, Tripura, Manipur are suitable for most of the tropical and subtropical fruit crops like banana, pineapple, citrus, coconut, mango, jackfruit, papaya, litchi, guava etc. However, banana, pineapple, citrus, papaya, peas, plum, peach apple, etc are also widely grown in hills of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Arecanut, betelvine and several spice crops are grown throughout the region. Enormous variations of crops as well as practice of growing vegetables both in kharif and rabi are seen in the region. As per estimates of North Eastern Council, the region produces 23.44 lakh tonnes of fruits in 4.87 lakh ha area and 1.22 lakh tonnes of spices like turmeric, ginger, onion and chillies. In addition, about 25.36 lakh tonnes of vegetables are grown in about 2.0 lakh ha area. Among the fruit crops, banana is the most popular crop and grown in all N.E. states producing 714.3 thousand tonnes in 60.24 thousand ha area. In Arunachal Pradesh, wild and seedy banana are found in forest areas. The cultivation of pineapple is concentrated in Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur covering 37.87 thousand ha producing a total of 307.68 thousand tonnes.

Among the citrus crops, mandarin orange and lemon are of commercial types grown in all N.E. states, which cover an area of 71.88 thousand ha. But the area under mandarin orange is declining due to the problem of dieback and poor management. Regular and commercial cultivation of temperate fruits like plum, peach and peas are found in the higher elevation of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam (N.C. Hills). Arunachal Pradesh has 5.1 thousand ha under apple cultivation mainly in the Kameng District where rainfall is around 900 mm. Other promising temperate fruits like walnut, almond, cashewnut is grown in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. Coconut and arecanut are the crops with high commercial value and these are grown mainly in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura in an area of 1.10 lakh ha. There is enough scope for increasing farm returns through value-addition by use of efficient post-harvest management practices. The horticultural crops generate substantial marketable surplus for which adequate processing facility is necessary for value-addition and commercial trading. There is also need for storage, processing and marketing facilities, which are largely absent in the whole region.

Constraints to Agricultural Development

Uneconomic and fragmented holdings:    The marginalisation of farmers is a dominant factor adversely affecting household income. Over 60.27 per cent of the operational holdings are below 1.0 ha and 22.18 per cent of the holdings are in the farm size group 1-2 ha. Except Nagaland, in other N.E.states, the size of operational holding is very small. Such small holdings are uneconomic and results in under-investment in agriculture leading to low input use and low production.

Low adoption of improved technology:    The adoption of high-yielding varieties of rice varies between 42 to 50 per cent in Meghalaya, Manipur and Assam and 23 to 34 per cent in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. Highest adoption of HYV is observed in Tripura at 96.77 per cent. Although more than 85 per cent area of wheat is under HYV but covers only around 2 per cent of gross cropped area. The main causes of slow growth of HYV area are the non-availability of suitable seeds, predominance of traditional seeds in hill areas under Jhum cultivation, short supply of recommended seeds and defective distribution system.

Fertilizer consumption is extremely low and variable. Fertilizer use is the lowest at 2.29 kg/ha in Arunachal Pradesh and the highest in Manipur at 72.46 kg/ha. In Meghalaya, the fertilizer use is declining from 15.55 kg per ha in 1986-87 to 13.39 kg in 1997-98, the same is stagnant at around 3 kg in Nagaland. There are number of factors limiting the expansion of fertilizer use such as defective distribution system, poor transport and communication system and inadequate institutional credit.

Irrigation is another crucial constraint to agricultural production, which, at present covers less than 10 per cent of the gross cropped area. Ineffective O&M system is responsible for poor performance. It is ironical that the region with annual average rainfall as high as 3,400 mm, also faces water problems. It implies that development of water resource is extremely poor and the state support is weak. For example, on account of inefficient management system, about 109 state-owned watershed projects in Assam are currently unused, making the investment infractuous. Under the circumstance, people’s initiative is required in proper rainwater harvesting and redistribution in the dry season crops. The introduction of state sponsored scheme of installing 1.0 lakh shallow tubewells is a wellcome deviation, which has received encouraging response from farmers in the cultivation of early Ahu and Boro rice. This also indicates the need for assured water supply.

Flood problem :    Flood is a major natural disaster regularly causing inundation and damage of standing crops, delay transplanting of main rice crop (Sali), which results in low yield. About 3.0 lakh ha of cropped area are annually affected by flood in Assam. The large-scale soil erosion also takes place. About 0.49 lakh ha were eroded in 1997. The worst soil erosion affected districts are North Lakhimpur (to the extent of 0.31 lakh ha of soil erosion) and Darrang (9,877 ha).

Technological Constraints

  1. Lack of suitable high-yielding rice varieties for diverse upland situations, flood affected areas, moisture stress conditions, and hill areas
  2. Alternative crops for escaping pre-monsoon showers to avoid the problem of pre-harvest sprouting of crop in flood, free period
  3. Develop improved crop management practices for shifting cultivation
  4. Improvement and standardization of production techniques of fruits and vegetable crops
  5. Use of improved post harvest management including pest and disease management and processing techniques for the major cash crops and horticultural crops
  6. Land and water management technique specifically for acid soils
  7. Economic packages for integrated farming systems combining crop cultivation with livestock, fishery, etc.
  8. Integrated livestock management system for increased livestock products as well as draught power. The facilities of storage, processing and marketing are particularly deficient for perishable commodities. The access to institutional credit facility to the farmers must be improved substantially.

Rural Transport and Communication Network

The transport and communication facilities also need marked improvement in the difficult terrains of hills, dense forest, rivers, etc. At present, availability of road per 100 sq. km is low at 45 km against 62.8 km at all-India average. Baring Assam, the Railway network is practically non-existent in the region. Most of the rural areas remain inaccessible during rainy season for non-availability of all-weather roads.

Attitude Towards Agriculture

Agriculture is the most preferred activity of a large section of the population in the region, yet the method of cultivation is indigenous. In view of the rapid technology turn over, appropriate strategy for HRD is required to maximize farm income through adoption of cutting-edge modern technology. The farmers usually stick to old practices and the younger generation distracts, which makes agriculture an occupation of elderly people living in rural areas. To attract enterprising youths to take up farming as profitable occupation and to reverse the out-migration, innovative strategy such as commercialization of agriculture and adoption of improved methods must be promoted.

Socio-economic Constraints

The N.E. India has diverse ethnic groups and social systems bound with customs and traditions. These factors clearly differentiate the type of economic activities and the economic status of the population, which inhibit the adoption of modern methods. Carefully prioritized strategies for agricultural development of the region may become instrumental to break the deadlock.

Prioritization and Policy Perspectives

  1. Development of irrigation facilities and promotion of water-harvesting methods for assured water supply particularly in the rabi season.

There are high prospects of increasing crop productivity under irrigation

  1. Creation of "single window" input delivery system in the rural areas to ensure timely supply
  2. Surveillance of major pests and diseases and adoption of timely control measures
  3. User-friendly information system through improved method such as on-farm trials, demonstration, training, farmer-participatory interaction programme along with programmes for updating knowledge and skill of field level officers
  4. To identify need-based programmes for overcoming technology gaps through extensive field surveys under diverse agro ecological and socio-economic situations
  5. Programmes to promote the development of cash crops like jute, sugarcane, maize, horticultural crops, etc.
  6. Creating storage facilities particularly cold storage for perishable commodities
  7. Introduction of value-addition to agricultural produce through research and development activities
  8. Agricultural development programmes must take care of cropping pattern in the pre-and post-flood situations particularly in flood-affected areas including development of allied agricultural activities
  9. Improved crop cultivation practices for Jhumming in hill areas
  10. Financial support for creation of agricultural infrastructure such as strengthening irrigation facilities, farm machineries, processing and storage facilities, rural roads and communication
  11. Marketing infrastructure to be created at the primary markets in rural areas and regulated markets in district level. The dominance of traders and middlemen to be reduced so that farmers is a powerful force for distress sale


The rich resource base in the region such as mega bio-diversity, fertile soil, varied agro-ecological situations of plains as well as valleys, hills, tilla land, immense water resources, human resources of ethnic diversity and cultural groups, could be potential sources of agricultural as well as economic development of the N.E. India. However, due to lack of appropriate strategies for development of natural resources, absence of coordination in programme implementation, weak geographical links and poor infrastructure facilities, the region is handicapped in catching up with the agricultural developmental pathways in tune with the national ethos. Slow agricultural development widens the disparities across the states. In this circumstance, agricultural sector needs prioritization of development perspectives for enhancing the adoption of recommended technologies through extension programmes, input supply, support of financial institutions and marketing functionaries. More crucially, the research and development programmes must address the problem of generation of need-based location-specific technologies for the specific agro-ecological situations (Detailed background tables are available with the authors)