A drive on the winding hilly road from Mon town in Nagaland to the easternmost village of Longwa greets you with an unusual sight – patches of cardamom cultivation on the roadside, some big and some small, but unfailingly driving home the message that the winds of change are blowing in the border district.
Many young men have begun cultivation of the tropical plant whose aromatic seed capsules have a great demand in the domestic and international market. The variety grown in Mon is black cardamom which is darker and larger than the more commonly found green cardamom. It is also grown in Sikkim, Darjeeling, and in parts of Nepal and Bhutan.
The "craze" for cardamom began more than a decade ago since it was believed to be lucrative, explained Tongyei, village chief of Longwa. "We are motivating more farmers to grow cardamom since the prospects of a steady income are bright. The economy of the village could be transformed."
A kilogram of cardamom is sold at prices ranging between Rs 800–1,200 which is several times more than the existing rates for either rice, maize or vegetables grown in Mon and the neighbouring districts. About 600 kilograms are harvested from one bigha of cultivation every season in September. The lifespan of a plant is usually three years.
Mon has been one of the most disturbed districts in the North East since the mid-1950s when the Naga National Council (NNC) raised the banner of revolt demanding the independence of Nagaland. It came under the control of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) three decades later and eventually under the Khapang faction after the outfit split in 1988.
Inhabited by the Konyak and Chang tribes, Mon is a backward district in Nagaland with a low literacy rate which leaves the youth with a dim chance of being employed in the government departments. So for many of them, joining the rebel ranks had been a compulsion for the past several decades. But not any longer with the unfolding new options that promise a better life far-off from the hazardous jungles and mountains of the Indo-Myanmar border.
Extraction of cardamom is a labour intensive process. After it is plucked from the plant, cardamom has to be dried for several days through heating by firewood. The entire process consumes at least two weeks which could also require the engagement of daily wagers. The high returns from cardamom prompted the government to distribute saplings worth Rs 6 lakhs to farmers last year in Longwa. But some among them are of the view that the government ought to have provided better marketing facilities since the selling price has fluctuated in the past several years. They said that the profit would be higher if the role of middlemen from the neighbouring town of Sonari in Assam could be eliminated.
Sub-divisional officer Ilika Zhimomi said, "The government has a greater role to play in improving transportation and giving the cultivators better access to the market. But funds have not been earmarked for this purpose."
The government’s negligible role notwithstanding, more farmers are shifting to cardamom cultivation every year with the hope that the transportation bottlenecks would soon draw to a close. They are inspired by families that had embarked upon the new path years ago and the gradual change in their lifestyles including sending the children to school which was unthinkable a decade ago.
Longwa is an apt illustration of the changed aspirations of the people in the remote regions of the North East that have been reeling under insurgency for the past several decades. The yearning for change is also evident from the growing number of young men and women venturing out to the metropolises in search of jobs. Those that have stayed back are looking for avenues of gainful employment and without government support in most cases.
But in this border village, the inhabitants have firmed up more ambitious plans. Some families have even enrolled their children in a Myanmarese school in the village (falling in Myanmar) with the hope of jobs in the neighbouring country. The younger generation is determined to put an end to opium smoking which has been a bane in this region for the past couple of centuries. This was quite evident when some boys stopped this correspondent’s vehicle between Longwa and Mon with prying eyes on the overloaded bags which were opened and searched. They have been confiscating opium sent from the village and the neighbouring areas in Myanmar for sell to the markets in Nagaland and other destinations.
The writer is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.
Published Date: May 06, 2017 10:00 AM | Updated Date: May 06, 2017 10:00 AM