8 Plantation crops in North Eastern India: Constraints and Strategies

S Baruah, G K Saikia and A Deka
Department of Tea Science, Assam Agricultural University
Jorhat, Assam

Plantation crops are high-value crops of great economic importance and provide huge employment opportunity, specially to the women throughout the year. The sub-tropical climate of Northeastern India is extremely favourable to the cultivation of many plantation crops. Among the three important crops viz, tea, coffee and rubber, tea was introduced in Assam and Tripura as an industrial crop during the middle of nineteenth century, which has spread to other non-traditional states in the region in recent years. Suitable land and climatic conditions provide favourable environment for tea, coffee and rubber plantation in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, but it is not fully exploited. At present 3.33 lakh ha area are under these crops in the region, which is a major source of revenue to the economy of the states. The data reveal that out of 14.6 per cent total geographical area under cultivation in the region, the plantation crops cover only 8.97 per cent, of which tea alone covers 7.5 per cent (2.79 lakh ha), rubber 1.20 per cent (4419 ha) and coffee only 0.27 per cent (10.1 thousand ha). The share of tea is the largest, covering 85 per cent of area under plantation crops. Historically, the cultivation of tea being a corporate activity, the involvement of common farmers was totally absent in the past, but in the changing environment, a marginal presence is seen with a total area of 40.0 thousand ha in the small-scale sector. The development of this emerging phenomenon of small-scale tea cultivation in Assam attracted the non-traditional states to introduce it as cash crop among the small farmers.

Assam is the largest producer of tea in India (about 53 per cent of total production). Its share in the region is about 96.8 per cent of area and 98 per cent of production. The productivity of tea is about 1850 kilograms per ha.

Coffee was introduced in NE states during 1960s. The implementation of the scheme of expansion of subsidy of Coffee Board Of India in 1979-80 has helped in increasing its area. The Assam Plantation Crops Development Corporation took initiatives to establish coffee and rubber plantation in the

North Cachar and Karbi Anglong districts. Presently, the NE states have a modest coverage of about 10.1 thousand ha of coffee plantation and 44.7 thousand ha of rubber plantation. The cultivation of coffee and rubber helps checking soil degradation in the hill slopes.

Rubber occupies 44.72 thousand ha in NE India, which is about 8 per cent of the total area at the all India level and produces 2.28 per cent of total rubber production in the country. Though the entry of this crop started on experimental basis during 1950s, but gained momentum only after 1985 through the project "Accelerated Development of Rubber Plantation". Presently Tripura alone grows 25.38 thousand ha of rubber, which is 56.7 per cent of the total rubber area in the region.

Plantation Crop Based Farming System

The monoculture in small holdings is a nightmare during the year of slump and epidemic of pest and diseases. Raising more than one crops alongwith a particular plantation crop not only reduce the gestation period but also ensure steady and higher farm income even in the period of slump. Seasonal crops like vegetables in the formative years of the plantation crops and permanent crops like orange, arecanut, agar, tree beans, black pepper, gooseberry etc. could be grown in the matured plantation to augment productivity and profitability. Intercropping also stands as insurance against crop failure and price slump.

Premium Organic Farming

The organically, grown products have been gaining popularity worldwide and fetching premium price both at the domestic as well as international market. Since the virgin soil in the hill areas is favourable for tea cultivation, the natural production condition in the NE India could be highly gainful in the production of user-friendly tea. On account of high amount of organic matter and other plant nutrients in these soils, the plantation crops can be grown organically with minimum of agro-chemicals. The strategy to produce organic tea and popularize among the consumers would pay high dividend. Such innovation in value-addition of tea is potentially economically remunerative and helps conserve the precious soil and water resource.

Constraints

The cultivation of these plantation crops in the region has been traditionally a corporate activity. The production system is also highly knowledge intensive and scale biased. Therefore, the expansion of small-scale tea in the recent period confronts number of constraints including lack of information and extension services, timely supply of processing facilities and lack of required knowledge of agronomic practices. Inadequate training infrastructure to prepare the required skills among the farmers is also a reason for slow growth. Thus, the early stage of transition in the plantation economy requires effective planning strategies.

The post-harvest management in plantation crops is very crucial. The green leaves require quick processing facility and then necessary market facilities must follow, or else there could be total loss of production due to quality deterioration.

Perfect knowledge is essential in every stage of the production of tea; viz, production, harvesting, processing and marketing. Hence information technology becomes crucial. Capital requirement is particularly very high in the initial period. The common farmers find it difficult to invest the high amount without adequate institutional financial assistance, which is essential for the promotion of small-scale tea cultivation. In recent years, Tea, Coffee and Rubber Boards have introduced a number of schemes to promote the crops under small sector. NABARD also assists the tea growers. But in-depth studies on the subject is severely lacking. It makes the information system on the knowledge on financial requirement, availability of credit and other constraints extremely scarce.

There is vast scope for expansion of tea, coffee and rubber in the region. Adequate policy support is needed to intensify small-scale cultivation of these crops in suitable areas. The production of tea could be enhanced if certain management practices are improved. The commodity boards such as Tea, Coffee and Rubber Boards have already taken various schemes to popularize respective crops in the region. More promotional schemes are essential as majority of the existing large tea gardens in Assam have crossed the economic age and some are over 70-80 years old. As a result, this has caused steep shortfall in production of tea. Thus scheme of replacing the older trees and replanting or expansion planting should be implemented. If the system is modernized and adequate technological changes are brought about, the sector could enhance the export earnings substantially.

Cluster Village Plantation: Emergence of Small-scale Tea Cultivation

With the emergence of small-scale tea cultivation, the nature of technological requirement has changed tremendously. The demand for efficient plant type, improved crop management practices and post-harvest technology would grow substantially in due course of time. This would require concerted effort in terms of private-public interface on R&D including the promotion of delivery system. The prestigious corporate bodies should invest more on effective demand-driven R&D on these crops. The limitation of the plantation crops is that processing is time-demanding and urgent. The harvest must be processed into marketable forms within a specified time to preserve the quality. Thus growth of plantation sector must be tagged with the establishment of processing facilities including marketing network and infrastructure. These units have to be centrally located around the large number of small plantation units and managed by the stakeholder groups. Since the processing units are capital as well as skill intensive, it is inaccessible to the small farmers. The cluster village approach and the farmersí cooperative management system could be a viable proposition.

Studies show that only 2.5 per cent small farmers received institutional financial support, which needs to be enhanced for the betterment of the sector. This requires appropriate intervention and public sector support. Marketing is the most critical deficiency in the region particularly for the consumer products like tea. The existing private participation in marketing is exploitative and public interventions weak. As the access to processing facilities is limited within the producerís proximity, the small producers have to transport the green leaves at least 6-8 hours by road, which causes quality deterioration. The public sector marketing infrastructure is almost non-existent in case of coffee encouraging the middlemen to snatch the lionís share of the produce. In case of rubber, the Rubber Board is now trying to establish the market network. The long gestation period of the plantation crops locks up the initial investment till the commencement of the economic yield. Shorter gestation varieties are required to help quick recovery of returns to investment and attract more producers. In addition, the scarcity of plantation material even for the existing technology is also severe. The adequate supply of suitable planting material for the diverse agro-climatic is a major challenge. Transportation facility is a hurdle to plantation crops in the region. Perhaps properly, managed transport subsidy for these products could be planned.

The strategy of Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) of the processing facility and other infrastructure for plantation crops is needed in the public sector particularly to help the small-scale sector. Hilly areas need special consideration in the regard.

Research Needs

The identification of proper cropping system for plantation crops requires more research initiatives. The companion crops along with plantation crops as base crop, must have varying morphological frame and rooting habit for minimum competition for space, light, moisture and nutrients. Further, the selection of host crops is crucial or else it attracts pests and diseases. The promotional activity in the sector should take cognizance of local needs, knowledge network, agroclimatic condition and market facilities in a multi-pronged manner.

Conclusion

Plantation crops are highly income generating if managed properly. The cultivation of these crops was traditionally limited to corporate sector. The corporate revenue however, did not percolate down to the benefit of the society. Although, the region occupies a strategic position as the highest producer of tea in the country, the social gains due to the corporate agriculture is negligible. The changes are taking place in the recent years, resulting in the emergence of small-scale cultivation of tea. The implication of this development on the farm income has been significant. There are, of course, several inherent problems of small-scale cultivation of plantation crops like capital lock up due to long gestation period, capital intensive nature of production system, processing and marketing problems. The solution to these multi-dimensional problems requires effective state intervention. The farmers also face the problems such as quality deterioration of green leaves due to delay in processing and locational disadvantage of tea processing units. The capital infrastructure facilities such as processing units need to be located in the site around the cluster of smaller plantations and the production management by the cooperatives of the user groups. A cluster of village model may be encouraged to grow particular type of plantation crops, viz, tea, coffee or rubber so that processing can be done in the central processing units. The location of the central unit should accompanied by the infrastructure facilities like electricity, water, road and marketing network. The ancillary infrastructure such as regular supply of raw materials, inputs, agro-chemicals and other requirements must be available. In view of existence of customary laws and property ownership rights prevailing in the tribal societies, such a socially acceptable arrangement could substantially benefit the hill states.