Farmers in Mizoram sceptical of 'empty promises' made by parties, but hope for reforms after Vidhan Sabha elections
As Mizoram goes to polls in a few days — on 28 November — all political parties, in their manifestos, have promised to improve the situation for farmers. But Mizo farmers are sceptical of these 'empty promises'.
Aizawl: 70 percent of Mizoram's population of over 11 lakh may be engaged in the farming sector, but their story is grim. With no regulated market around for the state's highly fertile land, many farmers get involved with middlemen from Assam without sustainable profit, while the others sell their produce locally.
Dr Tridip Kumar Hazarika, associate professor of MSc (Agriculture) in Horticulture at the Mizoram University, acknowledges the problem. He believes that streamlining the marketing channels in Mizoram will abolish the middlemen system and bring in a farmers' cooperative marketing system in its place, allowing them to sell their produce at the right prices.
Take the example of Sesawng village a few kilometres east of the capital, Aizawl. The village is famous for cultivating banana and other seasonal crops. Every Friday evening, farmers of the Sesawng Field Veng locality hire around a dozen vehicles to transport their crops to various bazaars in Aizawl as Saturday is the main market day in Mizoram. They sit there till Saturday evening after paying the local market council, which allots the farmers seats, around Rs 10 per feet of space they use. If they fail to secure a space at a market, they have to set up shop in makeshift markets on footpaths and roadsides, which is inconvenient.
The vendors report early — around 4-4.30 am — as they prefer to sell the produce before sunset and travel back to their homes. As Sunday is important for churchgoers, it is essential for them to return to their villages on time.
A farmer and the vice president of the Sesawng Field Veng Bazaar Association, Vanlalzauva, said: "A majority of the farmers from Sesawng don't get government subsidies to buy seeds, manure or pesticides. Whatever manure we use we organically prepare ourselves."
Vanlalzauva, who also complained of heavy rain and strong winds destroying their crops, pointed out that neither the government nor the All Mizoram Farmers' Union (AMFU) give them aid. Villagers claimed that this was because a few AMFU members are active members of the Congress, and only party members reap the benefits provided by the current government.
Erratic patterns of rainfall have also become a common phenomenon in Mizoram, but their complaints seeking help mostly go unheard. They write to the village council, but don't know how to approach higher officials. Their complaints usually end at the office of the district Block Division Officer.
Congress spokesperson professor Lallianchhunga said there are no provisions for crop insurance as the procedure is highly complicated. He said many departments are involved in assessing crop damage, and officers believe there isn't enough manpower or funds.
'Government keeping farmers impoverished for vote bank'
In response to these complaints, Zion Lalremruata, AMFU general secretary, said: "The farmers' complaints from the last 10 years are all true. The AMFU, as an NGO, is tasked with assisting the government to uplift these farmers. The union is not associated with any political party, and we can only help farmers in our project area. The current Mizoram government's flagship programme — New Land Use Policy (NLUP) — benefits very few, despite Rs 400 crore being allocated for promotions."
Various farmers' union leaders believe that the current government in Mizoram wants farmers and common men to remain impoverished so they can buy their votes easily. They believe that though the NLUP manual sounds good on paper, it is just a policy to fatten up party members and workers. In practice, it does not reach the people who can benefit the most from it.
Responding to this, Lallianchhunga said, "Ever since the Congress started the NLUP, farmers have been one of its targets. Many farmers have left jhum cultivation for commercial cropping, which, in a way, has affected the production of food grains. Therefore, policymakers have been trying to woo these farmers to concentrate on food grain production. A balance should be maintained between food grain production and plantation of commercial crops for our small economy. The NEDP (New Economic Development Policy) is trying to achieve this objective," he said.
AMFU is the only farmers' union in Mizoram that is mainly involved in organising rallies, like the one held on 28 September to push the state government to establish a regulated marketing system and introduce land reforms. In an interview, the AMFU general secretary spoke about the need to establish a proper marketing channel and revise land reforms, also strongly criticising the current Mizoram government for not continuing the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act of 2008 passed by the Mizo National Front. Lalremruata believes this is the first, strong step to market agricultural produce from Mizoram. He also accused the Congress of discontinuing the Act solely for the purpose of promoting the NLUP.
Lallianchhunga opposed these statements, saying the only reason the Act was discontinued was because it neither safeguarded the interests of farmers, nor got them any profits. However, the APMC Act was aimed at establishing private market yards and direct purchase of produce from farmers, promoting and permitting e-trading details and direct sale by the producer, among other provisions, for the benefit of farmers.
Dr Hazarika said the implementation of the NLUP in Mizoram in 2011 discouraged jhum cultivation, which adversely affects soil health. He said though the policy had changed the socio-economic life of the farmers, it can still be improved.
"The number of activities under the NLUP can be increased across sectors. For example, under horticulture, spices can be included; under pisciculture, ornamental fish can be included, and so on. The aims and objectives of NLUP should be broadcast so that all the beneficiaries are well aware about the scheme," he said.
AMFU's vision is to have a regulated market scheme inside Mizoram without depending on the Bagha, Silchar and Karimganj syndicates in Assam, and the Department of Law has vetted the Agricultural Produce and Livestock Marketing (APLM) Act, 2017.
Lalremruata said traders from Bagha resort to unethical acts while dealing with farmers from Mizoram. An example of this that when they want to buy ginger from Mizo farmers, they wait for them to reach a state of desperation, which makes them sell their produce at a much lower rate. These syndicates then export the ginger to other Indian merchants at high rates. Lalremruata feels that once the APLM Act is passed, they will be able to carry out their trade within Mizoram, where the prices set by the farmers can be protected.
Lalremruata further said that they will be pushing for the Act to be passed during the Budget Session next year, and that they hope this legislation will check inflation and help establish a wholesale marketing yard in Mizoram.
"As long as the APLM Act's focus is on the welfare of farmers, the Congress will support it. It is the Congress, both at the Centre and state, which gives lands to landless farmers, while the BJP takes away their precious land for crony capitalists," the Congress spokesperson said.
The bulk of farmers' produce in Mizoram — orange, betel nut, and ginger — are exported. While attending the Indo-Dhaka Expo of 2015, Lalremruata had learned that Bangladesh wants to directly import produce, particularly spices like ginger and turmeric, without going through middlemen from Karimganj, Silchar and Bagha. When the produce from Mizoram is sold through middlemen from Assam, they suffer a loss of nearly 70 percent. Once the APLM Act is passed, the farmers will have a good market for just these two spices alone.
Saithuama, the general secretary of the Zoram Nationalist Party's (ZNP) media wing, said their party plans to sell ginger at Rs 50 per kilogramme when they import directly without going through middlemen. He added that the party also plans to have special processing units for spices like ginger, chilli, cilantro and turmeric.
Moreover, the AMFU general secretary condemned the Congress government in Mizoram for failing to implement an Act to export ginger despite holding a meeting on the subject at the Chief Minister's Office on 16 April, 2017. At the meeting, they concluded that the Commissioner of Commerce and Industries would implement an Act within two months, but that has yet to happen. This resulted in a protest rally on 28 September, where AMFU president Joseph H Thanzuala had strongly criticised the Congress for refusing to uplift farmers, accusing the government of using the NLUP for political gains.
Farmers say parties made empty promises
Lalremruata also asked the Mizoram government to launch land reforms. The land holding system under the Mizo District Council was revised, and the Mizoram Land Revenue Act of 2013 was passed. The main defect of this Act is that it does not give much emphasis to agricultural land.
He said Mizoram has vast tillable lands, but a majority of it is owned by a wealthy few. Whenever developmental projects are taken up, the government spends a fortune on compensation money. The union wants these privately-owned lands to be converted into agricultural lands and to promote afforestation. They also want the Land Ceiling Act to be introduced so that each family is allotted property according to capacity. Lalremruata praised the success of this Act in Gujarat, saying that when farmers grow crops within their capacity, the produce is of better quality and quantity.
The ZNP general secretary said that if their party forms the government in Miziram, they plan on communitisation — where development committees will be formed at village/block/district levels, with members comprising church elders, farmers, businessmen, etc. Whatever is required at the block level will be discussed with the members, similar to what is practiced in Nagaland.
Saithuama also said that each committee will be monitored by the MLAs of the respective constituencies. He also made mention of the ZNP's plans to engage with Bangladesh, Europe and Israel in agricultural export, also promising tenders at both national and international levels.
As Mizoram goes to polls in a few days — on 28 November — all political parties, in their manifestos, have promised to improve the situation for farmers. But Mizo farmers are sceptical of these "empty promises", as they feel no party holds true to their manifestos. Regardless, the farmers want to vote for the party they believe can help them the most, while hoping for the best.
The author is an Aizawl-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
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