India Interior

Turning a darker shade of green

Azera Parveen Rahman | Updated on July 27, 2018 Published on July 27, 2018

Cup winner Tea has emerged a profitable substitute for rice Pics: Ritu Raj Konwar, Azera Parveen Rahman   -  Ritu_Raj_Konwar;Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

Tea has emerged a clear winner in replacing rice

Assam’s paddy fields make way for tea gardens as farmers try to survive climate change

A darker shade of green is slowly taking over from the lighter shade in the hills of the eastern Himalayan range of Assam. Rice, the most important crop of the State, partly grown in the foothill plains and the rest on the slopes through jhum (shifting) cultivation in the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, is facing a multitude of challenges related to climate change, thereby making way for other crops, particularly tea.

Singhrongthar, a farmer near Diphu in Karbi Anglong, does not know what climate change means. But when you talk about the changing weather pattern over the years, he suddenly has a lot to say. “In the first week of June, when we should have been preparing the seed bed for paddy and then begin the transplantation of kothiya (sapling) amid rain, we were staring at the cloudless skies. When the rain finally came, it came in such big showers that it resulted in floods.”

His words underline the increasingly erratic rainfall pattern over the last few years — a manifestation of climate change. Like most other paddy farmers here, Singhrongthar cultivates paddy partly in the plains of the foothills, and the rest through jhum in the hilly landscape. Both have their own set of challenges.

According to the Assam State Action Plan for Climate Change (2015-2020), data analysed by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) between 1951 and 2010 shows that the State’s mean temperature has increased by 0.01 degree C per year, and annual rainfall has decreased by 2.96 mm per year.

This has affected the yield of rice. T. Ahmed, Chief Scientist of the Regional Agricultural Research Station in Jorhat (Assam), pointed out in a research paper, “temperature and solar radiation affect rice yield directly by affecting physiological processes involved in grain production.” To add to this, erratic rainfall and weather extremes like flash floods and then long, dry spells have become common here since 2003.

Jhum, or slash and burn form of cultivation, has its own set of problems. Believed to be one of the most ancient forms of farming, it involves burning the leftover parcel of land after harvesting and then moving to another piece of land for cultivation. As the burnt land regenerates in some years, the community comes back to use it for cultivation.

Dip in rice production

In Karbi Anglong, where rice is mostly grown through jhum, the scenario is changing. Since the hills fall in the rain-shadow area, the indigenous rice varieties grown here require less water. But there are other issues. A study in Shodhganga (a reservoir of Indian theses) says that increase in population and the consequent increase in demand for food has resulted in a drastic reduction in the jhum cycle — “from 25-30 years to 4-5 years”. The jhum area in the district increased from 22,000 hectares in 1978 to 64,000 in 2006. This has led to soil degradation.

Not just that. As a result of massive forest clearing for jhum, “it has led to extensive climatic changes”. The resultant weather aberrations further add climate-related stress on agriculture, both in uplands and the plains, making it a vicious cycle. Soil erosion during rainfall, for example, is common.

“Paddy or rice cultivation through jhum has increasingly become non-productive and therefore most farmers are moving away from it,” said Dr Numal Momin, member of the Legislative Assembly from Bokajan in Karbi Anglong. The ratio of rice farming through jhum and on the plains was typically 60:40, but with the loss of jhum, rice cultivation has also seen a dip.

S. Thangngew, District Agricultural Officer of Dima Hasao, concurred with this view. “There has been a 20-30 per cent drop in rice production in the last 10 years,” he said. A gradual lowering of the groundwater level because of deforestation, among other reasons, is a contributing factor towards loss of soil moisture and vitality that has, in turn, impacted agriculture. As an adaptive measure, farmers are turning to alternative crops. Rubber, in Karbi Anglong, for example, is a much more lucrative option than rice. According to Momin, a farmer can earn up to ₹40,000 from rubber planted on one bigha of land. “With rice he will probably earn a quarter profit.”

Tea, however, has emerged the clear winner in replacing rice. Farmer Ranjib Barman has converted a portion of his family’s field on the highland into a tea garden because it generates “ready profits”. The 30-year-old said, “My father is a paddy farmer but I find that laborious and at the end the yield is unpredictable. Tea, on the other hand, is a perennial crop and I get regular earnings from it.”

There has been a massive growth in the number of small tea growers (STG) like Barman in Assam, with their share in the industry at 44 per cent, according to the Tea Board of India. To encourage farmers in the region to grow tea, the Centre has worked out a special assistance package that offers financial aid to raise new plantations and set up mini tea factories. In a recent move, the State initiated a move to give land rights to small tea growers — those with plantation areas up to 10.12 hectares.

In Deithor in Karbi Anglong, most farmers have turned to tea cultivation in lieu of other crops. “Tea can give a profit of ₹30,000-40,000 from one bigha of land annually,” said Nelson, a farmer and resident of the village.

The article is part of the writer’s IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Programme

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on July 27, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor