By Dr. Parveen Kumar, Dr. D. Namgyal and Dr Kunzang Lamo, Stawa 10-19
Ladakh has two missions to accomplish. While one is the national-level mission; the other one is Ladakh specific. The national-level mission is to double farmers' income by 2022 and the region specific one is Ladakh's Mission Organic Development Initiative to make the region totally organic by 2025. Ladakh will soon become a Union Territory and must achieve the national mission in three years and its own mission in six years.
Ladakh occupies a geo-strategically important position connecting Central Asia, South Asia, China, Pakistan and West Asia. Historically Ladakh served as an important link to the Silk Route trade and served as a doorway between India, Tibet and Central Asia. Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert located at elevations between 3,100m to 6,000m above mean sea level. The temperatures range from 35 degrees Celsius in the summer to minus 35 degrees Celsius in winter.
The farming season is confined from April-May to September-October as nothing grows in the freezing cold winter. Most farmers practice mono-cropping focusing on wheat and barley. Vegetable production and animal husbandry are major sources of livelihood for people in this region. Due to the topography of the region, the area available for cultivation is very limited. Chemical methods are largely based on mass killing of organisms, which is against local cultural beliefs. As a result, many people prefer organic cultivation practices using bio-fertilisers and organic products like farmyard manure, compost, vermicompost and night-soil.
Ladakh is spread across two districts; Leh and Kargil. Of this, Leh is located over an area of 45,110 sq km and remains one of the largest districts in the country. Recently, LAHDC, Leh released a proposal called Mission Organic Development Initiative, which is popularly called Ladakh's MODI.
Ladakh has recently been declared as a Union Territory, which will come into effect on 31 October, 2019. Since the growing season only lasts for about six months, Ladakh faces the daunting task of accomplishing the mission of doubling farmer income by 2022 and making the region organic by 2025.
LAHDC, Leh has allotted a budget of Rs 200 crores for Mission Organic Development Initiative. The mission will be carried out in three phases across 113 villages. Work has already started in 38 villages in the first phase. The second phase will start in 2022 when it will be extended to 40 more villages and the remaining villages will be covered in the final phase.
There is an urgent need to prepare suitable strategies for both objectives. Government of India has already started many farm and farmer-welfare programmes to increase farmer income. These include revision of Minimum Support Price to 1.5 times the cost of cultivation; facilitated marketing of produce electronically through the e-NAM network (National Agricultural Market). This enables a person to buy or sell produce even when one is not physically present at the place. The e-NAM scheme has given farmers more choices with regard to buying and selling produce. The insurance programme has become more inclusive by reducing the premium to the lowest. Soil Health Card scheme has given farmers opportunities to get their soil tested and understand its nutrient status along with recommendations if required. The government is also promoting indigenous programmes like Parampragat Krishi Vikas Yojana that focuses on use of organic fertilisers like compost, vermicompost, farm yard manure, bio-fertilisers. Through this, the government aims to reduce the cost of cultivation and thereby increase their income.
There is an urgent need to develop new high-yielding and hybrid varieties of wheat, barley, mustard and other crops. Many farmers are still using 15 to 20-year-old wheat (Sonam, Singchen) and barley (Nurboo) varieties that give relatively low yields, which reduces their income. These varieties are also more prone to insect pests and diseases. Therefore, research institutes need to prioritise the development of hybrid and high-yielding location specific varieties for Ladakh.
Vegetable cultivation in recent years has emerged as the backbone of agriculture in Ladakh. People have started shifting from wheat and barley cultivation to growing vegetables. Temperature remains the main limiting factor for vegetable production in Ladakh. Thus, this cultivation is primarily done in green houses. In green houses, the temperature is maintained between four and five degrees Celsius. Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Leh, Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), Leh and the state agricultural departments have promoted the use of protected technologies like green houses, shade nets, trench cultivation, and black plastic mulching to overcome weather constraints. According to DIHAR officials, the production of melons in Leh region is twice the output in the Indian plains. In fact, farmers in Ladakh are earning between Rs 1,000,000 to 1,200,000 per hectare from melon cultivation. Similarly, KVK scientists are reporting a significantly higher production of vegetables like tomato and broccoli in trenches. Due to the improved varieties provided by KVK-Leh, there has been an increase of 97% and 94% production of melons and tomatoes respectively as compared to local varieties that farmers were cultivating earlier.
Due to the harsh climate, farmers in this region usually plant just one crop in the Kharif season. Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Leh revived buckwheat as a second crop in Saspol village. Buckwheat seed was provided to the farming community. A total of 73 demonstrations covering an area of 3.5 ha were laid on farmers' fields. The corresponding yield in these demonstration plots was 12.30 quintals per hectare. Buckwheat is a very remunerative crop and is sold in the market at more than Rs 100 per kilogram. It also does not require any chemical fertilisers as it uses the residual nutrients of the preceding crop. KVK, Leh after reviving this remunerative crop is planning to expand the area under buckwheat cultivation in other villages and explore value addition.
Vermicomposting is one of the cheapest methods of recycling biodegradable waste into useful produce. It is organic, more nutritious, has higher amounts of microorganisms, enzymes and growth hormones that improve the soil and plant health, and reduces the use of harmful plant protection chemicals. Farmers in Ladakh are now adopting vermicomposting as a technology to produce chemical-free fertiliser. Under the Tribal Sub Plan around 130 vermicompost units with good quality earthworms were provided to farmers in different villages. The women farmers have adopted this technology rather seriously. They are producing their own compost and using it as a substitute to costly chemical fertilisers. Vermicomposting can also be a viable cottage industry. There can be at least one community vermicomposting unit operated as a cooperative to support economically weaker, marginal and small farmers.
Mushroom production is another enterprise that has the potential to double farmers' income, ensure nutritional security, and contribute to the shift towards organic farming. This is because the substrate for growing mushroom is made from organic materials. Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Leh has also popularised mushroom production technology in different villages by distributing free spawn to farmers along with necessary training. The first spawn production laboratory has been established at KVK, Leh. This lab also caters to the spawn requirement of line departments. In addition to consuming the mushroom themselves, farmers are also selling their produce in the market. This has improved their nutritional security and increased their income.
Ladakh is a rich repository of medicinal and aromatic plants. It is estimated that the region has around 1,100 species of vascular plants and ferns. As many as 23 species of flowering plants are endemic to Ladakh. The region also has many plants with therapeutic properties that remain unexplored and untapped. Many plants like Pushkarmool, Datura, Seabuckthorn, Cokhwine and Pudina can be cultivated commercially to increase the income of farmers.
Organic products have worth only when they are organically cer¬tified. Organic certification is a daunting task. Concerned agen¬cies need to work out a suitable strategy and plan well in advance to achieve this objective. LAH¬DC, Leh has already done some work in this direction and signed a memorandum with Sikkim, which is India's first organic state. Officials in Ladakh are already on the job. They went on a tour to Sikkim to gain knowledge and insight about different aspects of organic cultivation.
Marketing of farm produce is also important. Farmers will ultimately give up the practice of organic farming if their produce is not marketed. As organic products are relatively costlier, strategies need to be devised to market the produce at local, national, and international level. For instance, there can be a push to supply organic produce to hotels and restaurants in Ladakh.
Since Ladakh remains disconnected from the rest of country for five to six months each year, produce will have to be transported to distant places. It is thus necessary to develop suitable facilities to process the produce to elongate their nutrient value.
In our opinion, the path to achieving mission 2025 goes through mission 2022. Mission 2022 aims to double farmers' income and includes many components that can help make the region organic. This will require more awareness about various programmes being launched by the government. On their part, the implementing agencies must ensure that programmes are being implemented in their letter and spirit.