Tsenchamo Mozhui, a resident of Ruchan village in Nagaland’s Wokha district bordering Assam, has had oil palm trees growing in his backyard for the last eight years. The local agricultural department had promised all farmers a hefty payout once the trees matured, Mozhui recalled. Eight years later, these trees have been bearing fruit throughout the year, but there are no buyers for their produce. So, farmers are throwing away the kernels, or worse, they have become fodder for rodents.
Palm oil market
Nagaland recently became a destination of sorts for the major players in the Indian palm oil market. Godrej Agrovet, a food and agricultural conglomerate, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government of Nagaland in January. According to the State’s Agriculture Department, Godrej Agrovet will soon start a nursery in Dimapur district. The yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali followed Godrej and signed an MoU in February. In Mizoram, Godrej Agrovet is running north-eastern India’s sole oil palm-processing unit.
Under the National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), a Central government scheme launched in 2021 with a special focus on the north-eastern region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Nagaland has been divided into two clusters. The first zone has been assigned to Godrej Agrovet and comprises Peren, Chumukedima, Dimapur, Niuland, and Wokha districts. The second zone has been assigned to Patanjali and comprises Mokokchung, Longleng, and Mon districts.
From 140 hectares in 2015, Nagaland now has 5,423 ha of land under oil palm. Earlier, under the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm, the Nagaland government planned to cover 1,200 ha under oil palm in three clusters. It even signed an MoU with Shivasais Oil Palm Private Limited, a company based out of Eluru in Andhra Pradesh, for procurement of palm kernel from Mokukchung and Wokha districts. The company distributed saplings under the district agricultural department’s “Mini Mission”. However, the MoU was terminated in 2022 after the company failed to develop a processing unit. Yibemo Khenchung from Ruchan said: “They even told us that a factory would come to Wokha district when they gave us the saplings in 2015. No factory came.”
The government maintains that in the next few years, 15,000 ha of “wasteland” in the foothills will be brought under oil palm. To attract farmers to take up palm oil cultivation, it is promising them better prices for their produce. As per the NMEO-OP scheme, the cost of cultivation will be split between the Centre and the State in a 90:10 ratio and viability gap funding will protect farmers from fluctuations in the price of crude palm oil in the international markets.
At Ruchan village, farmers are more worried about water shortage, extreme weather, and pest attack than international price fluctuations. The village is located on undulating terrain drained by several streams that meet the Doyang, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Mozhui used a portion of his farm to grow mustard under the palm trees. “I planted about 100 saplings of oil palms. We were given Rs.10 per sapling by the agricultural department. They told us that if a factory comes up in the region, we might earn Rs.100 for a kilogram of oil palm. But we have been throwing palm kernels away,” Mozhui told Frontline. “When we planted them in the low-lying places where there is more water available, most of the saplings were washed away by floods in the next monsoon. The rest were attacked by rats,” he added.
Khenchung, who also planted about 100 saplings, almost chopped down his plantation. “What is the point of raising these trees if the fruits are of no use?” he asked. “These trees need a lot of water. If I plant these close to the water, they give more fruit. If we plant them along the slopes, they hardly produce any fruit. If they are close to waterbodies, they might be washed away by floods,” Khenchung said.
“Under the National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm, Nagaland has been divided into two clusters. The first zone has been assigned to Godrej Agrovet and the second to Patanjali.”
Oil palm requires evenly distributed minimum rainfall of 150 mm a month or 2,500-4,000 mm in a year. According to a guideline prepared by the National Mission for Food Security, one oil palm tree requires 200-300 litres of water a day.
Nagaland, however, has not seen evenly distributed rainfall in a while. Ruchan bears the brunt of extreme rainfall and unregulated releases from the Doyang dam. In 2018, according to Thungdemo Tungoe, the Ruchan village council chairperson, the Doyang river washed away 300 acres of agricultural land, causing damage to about 400 ha of crops, including oil palm plantations. The local meteorological office recorded 21 heavy rainfall events north of Ruchan that year. In other words, on 21 days the crops received their monthly requirement of water in one day. “Some of the trees were under water for days. We could not save those,” Mozhui said.
After September, however, the water table starts dropping drastically. In the absence of irrigation networks, Ruchan residents rely on local ponds for their daily needs. Increasingly, farmers in these parts are thinking twice before planting the winter paddy.
Khenchung said: “Growing paddy in the winter is a gamble. For the last three years or more, there has not been any winter rainfall. Then, if you have a plantation that does not bear any fruit, you will want to get rid of it.” In 2021, according to the Agricultural Department, there was a 70 per cent reduction in rice production because of a drought-like condition prevailing in 12 out of the 16 districts of the State. The monsoon that year recorded a 24 per cent deficit. Last year, the Central government approved more than Rs.39 crore as additional assistance under the National Disaster Response Fund because of the drought-like condition.
Viability gap funding
In the absence of any procurement of oil palm, farmers in Wokha are wary of any new scheme to boost its production. Ronchamo Kikon, the Programme Officer for NMEO-OP, Nagaland, told Frontline that COVID-19 delayed the implementation of the scheme. “With the component of viability gap funding in the scheme, we are confident that we will cover a big area under oil palm plantations. As per the new MoU, both the companies have to procure from the standing as well as new plantations in their respective clusters,” he said.
Agricultural experts in the State have mixed feelings about oil palm cultivation. Professor Tongpang Longkumer of Nagaland University’s School of Agricultural Science and Rural Development, maintains that oil palm cultivations can spread quickly and consume arable land, leading to land scarcity. “Oil palm might work on land that is not used for growing any other crop. However, land is scarce in a hilly State like Nagaland. If people are converting their land into oil palm plantations, that will have a negative impact on the economy,” said Longkumer.
Ruchan’s farmers, however, say that even with floods or droughts, they cannot call their land wasteland. Khenchung said: “We are aware that the government has said that it will only introduce oil palm on ‘wasteland’. But here farmers opted for oil palm in the hope of some returns. We did not plant these crops because we live on wasteland.”
Anupam Chakravartty is an Assam-based independent journalist specialising in ecological and developmental politics. Jyotirmoy Saharia is an independent researcher.
- In 2015, Nagaland had 140 hectares under oil palm. Under the then National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm, that increased to 5,423 ha.
- In 2021, the Central government launched a new scheme for oil palms, the National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP).
- Under the scheme, Nagaland has been divided into two clusters. The first zone has been assigned to Godrej Agrovet and the second zone to Patanjali.
- Farmers who have been growing oil palm for eight years are not happy because they have not got the promised returns. However, to attract farmers to take up palm oil cultivation, the government is promising them better prices for their produce.
- But farmers have more to worry about than the price of the crop. Nagaland has been experiencing extreme and uncertain weather for some time, which has led to water shortages, a falling water table, and floods.