Organic Sikkim: a brand secured, now for the farms to prosper


It is now seven years since Sikkim became the first fully organic state of India. The initial years were euphoric, buoyed by lavish state support for the Organic mission. The recent years have, however, been more sobering. While the Organic Sikkim brand sustains, this major makeover has not delivered on its promise. But it still has potential.

Paddy below Gangtok
Teaser Image Caption
Paddy fields in Sikkim's capital, Gangtok

Until the year 2016, Sikkim was romanticized as a Himalayan idyll; a former kingdom tucked away in the Eastern Himalayas which merged with India in 1975 and was now the least populous state of the country with barely 650,000 people living on a lavish spread of postcard-pretty real estate. Apart from this, every introduction to Sikkim invariably referred to it as a biodiversity “hotspot,” the only state of India with five climatic zones, occupying merely 0.2% of the country’s total landmass but also home to 26% of the country’s flowering plants.

From 18 January 2016 onwards, Google searches on Sikkim started throwing up one more identifier for Sikkim; on that day, it officially became India’s First Organic State. Today, Sikkim continues to remain India’s only fully Organic State, a feat which can be ascribed as much to its small size which presents fewer logistical challenges, as to the State Government’s continuing commitment to the Organic Mission despite a change of guard in the party in office here.

Organic Sikkim as a Brand

While one could argue about the success of organic farming in Sikkim, what remains undeniable is that the brand sustains. Organic Sikkim is how the state is now recognized around the world.

The latest iteration of this brand recognition was on 26 January 2023, on India’s Republic Day, when 98-year-old Tula Ram Upreti, a farmer from Assam-Lingzey village in Pakyong district of Sikkim, was conferred the Padma Shri award, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, in the field of agriculture. The official announcement of Mr Upreti’s name for the Padma Shri informed that he was being felicitated for the 80 years he dedicated to using only organic methods on his 12 hectare farm where he grew rice, wheat, buckwheat and seasonal vegetables.

The Padma Shri award is conferred in recognition of distinguished contributions in various spheres of activity including the arts, education, industry, literature, science, acting, medicine, social service, public affairs, and now, also agriculture.

Sikkim’s brand as an Organic State is well established now, and has paid richer dividends than perhaps the earnings of farmers, an aspect which has still not been officially studied or documented. Government officials, when approached for details on production, exports and earnings, can provide, at best, estimates on production,

What is also true, however, is that no one is really complaining about the lack of data on the Organic mission’s performance because agriculture was already been losing farmers in Sikkim as is the case in the rest of the country.

Paddy fields below Gangtok
A decade back, these paddy fields in the shadow of Sikkim's capital, Gangtok, used to see frenetic activity with the arrival of monsoons. Dhan Ropai [Nepali for paddy sowing], is a festive occasion with much singing and feasting to go with the back-breaking work of planting paddy saplings by hand. Too many fields in Sikkim, including this 2 acre farm, have not seen any Dhan Ropai in recent years. Paddy is too labour-intensive for the dwindling ranks of farmers to sustain, and the earnings too meagre to interest the young.

Moving out of Agriculture

The exact number of people moving away from agriculture is not available, but statistics on land being left fallow is an indicator of how the sector is faring. As per the Handbook on Agriculture 2018-2019 published by the Agriculture Department, the total area available for farming in Sikkim is 90,865 hectares, of which 10,455.95 hectare is lying fallow. The same data reveals that 5,468.95 hectares of the fallow land was being cultivated until five years earlier. The same Handbook also informs that 79% of farmers come under the small and marginal category, possessing only 39% of the area, with average land holdings of 0.62 hectare. A comparative analysis of Annual Reports tabled by the Agriculture Department in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly reveals for instance that the area under paddy cultivation in Sikkim dropped from 10,480 hectare in 2016, the year that Sikkim became an Organic State, to 8,700 hectare in 2020-2021. The drop has been only marginal for maize which has traditionally been grown on 35-40% of the cultivable land in Sikkim. From 38,500 hectares under maize cultivation in 2016, the number is now down to 38,390 hectares.

So, while organic farming might not have attracted, or even retained, more people to the sector, it has burnished Sikkim’s appeal as a healthy, environment-friendly destination. Rural Sikkim has clearly benefited from this because Organic Sikkim, it could be argued, attracts more tourists to village homestays and their “organic” hospitality appeal, than even the casinos in Sikkim’s capital Gangtok. “Organic” was never solely about agriculture. In a hill state like Sikkim, the mission was nuanced as a lifestyle change to serve a more inspirational message than merely to deliver economic rewards.

Going Organic

Pawan Chamling, who now sits in the Opposition bench of the State Legislative Assembly, has served Sikkim as its Chief Minister for five consecutive terms from 1994 to 2019. He had set Sikkim on the organic path towards the end of his second term in office in the year 2003 when he broached the idea in a public meeting, and then followed it up in his Budget Speech [he also held the finance portfolio] a few days later, on 24 January 2003, in which he proposed that Sikkim [should] start working towards becoming a “Total Organic State.”

Speaking in an interview on the eve of the seventh anniversary of Organic Sikkim, Chamling shared that he had been toying with the idea of organic farming for Sikkim from the day he assumed office as Chief Minister in 1994.

“We were new to the office at the time [1994], and Sikkim had many other pressing concerns which needed to be prioritized, so that kept us busy. At that time, we were frankly also overwhelmed by the concept ourselves and unsure of how to proceed with it,” he recalls.

In the initial years, he focused on recommending organic farming to the central government, even including it in his submissions made at meetings of the National Development Council. He did not find any takers though.

“No one took the idea seriously, and eventually, in 2003, we decided to take the initiative ourselves,” he stated, referring to the Budget Speech of January 2003.

Very quickly he realized how attached people, especially bureaucrats, are to status quo. Not only was their resistance to the idea from his own Department of Agriculture, there was actual push back. “So opposed were some officers of the Agriculture Department that the Head of the Department at the time resigned from office convinced that this shift would be disastrous for the State,” Mr Chamling shared.

While there is no denying that organic farming is good for the land and for the kitchens, and Mr Chamling is eloquent about all the reasons why organic is the way to go, his anecdotal reference explains the genesis of the idea best. The former Chief Minister hails from rural South Sikkim and his parents continued to remain farmers even after he rose in politics, and it was a comment by his father that returned to him when he was in a position to direct policy in Sikkim.

“After a poor harvest, my father commented that the fields were dying because of chemical fertilizers. He was speaking from his heart, but his observation clearly had scientific evidence as well because the chemicals were killing the micro-organisms, and in some cases even birds and rodents, and from there I realized that produce grown with chemical fertilizers were slow poison,” he remarked.

Traditional Low Fertilizer Use

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were a recent introduction to farming in Sikkim, having arrived here on scale only after it merged with India in 1975 and was included in the fertilizer-heavy agricultural policy of the Central Government. However, what helped the organic push was the fact that the use of chemical fertilizers, despite the government policies subsidising the cost to farmers, was substantially lower than the national average. The Sikkim Agriculture Department, in its Annual Report for the year 2016-2017 informs that chemical fertilizer use in Sikkim was around 12 kg per hectare as compared India’s national average of 90 kg per hectare. Since farms in Sikkim had been under chemical fertilizers for barely three decades, and also because most of the arable land was under large cardamom plantations, which have never used chemical fertilizers, returning to organic farming should have been reasonably smooth. But it wasn’t.

Apart from the resistance from officers who would have to implement the policy, there was a dearth of subject experts and knowledge of traditional alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pesticides was either lost or not tested for efficacy for higher yielding hybrids, primarily rice in Sikkim’s case, which had replaced most of the indigenous varieties in Sikkim.

Sikkim took things forward one step at a time. The idea, as mentioned earlier, was announced as a policy commitment in 2003. A year later, Sikkim stopped lifting its quota of chemical fertilizers from the Central Government and banned its import even as the Sikkim Organic Policy was being formalized. By 2006, the Government of Sikkim had established eight vermi-culture hatcheries at government-run model farms and organic certification initiated for the first tranche of a little over 1,000 hectares of farmland covering a little over 900 families. Simultaneously, awareness programmes and training was being offered across rural Sikkim. In the year 2008, soil-testing was made mandatory and six soil-testing laboratories, including two mobile soil testing labs, were set up. In 2009, Switzerland-based Research Institute of Organic Farming was signed on to provide technical assistance. Only a year later, in 2010, Sikkim Organic Mission was formally launched and in 2011, a chapter on organic farming was included in Grade 5 curriculum in government schools, in the hope that the young would inspire the older generation to embrace organic farming more willingly.

In 2003, the hope was to achieve organic status in seven years, but Sikkim did not take to organic farming as spontaneously as expected, the issue even making it into campaign claims and condemnations in elections held in 2009. With Mr Chamling getting voted back to office as Chief Minister in 2009, the organic mission received fresh impetus. This term in office, from 2009 to 2014 were dedicated to building stronger institutional capacity, culminating in 2014 with the legislative assembly passing the Organic Inputs and Livestock Feed Regulatory Act, clearing the path to Sikkim becoming completely “chemical” free. In December 2015, Sikkim announced that the entire cultivated land of around 75,000 hectares in the State had received organic certification.

National Recognition

Through a series of fits and starts, adapting, enforcing and training, eventually, 14 years since the course was set, Sikkim hosted the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, for the National Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare held in the capital city, Gangtok, on 18 January 2016. "Sikkim has paved its way into history and has set an example for the entire world that nature needs care and protection," Modi said while declaring Sikkim India’s First Organic State and handing over the Organic Certificate to Mr Chamling who was the Chief Minister at the time.

Interestingly, for all the concerns raised about organic farming not being able to match productivity delivered by chemical fertilizers, data from the State’s Agriculture Department suggests otherwise, indicating a moderate across the board increase in productivity in the decade from 2001 to 2011. For instance, as per data tabulated by the Agriculture Department, Government of Sikkim, the total area under rice cultivation in Sikkim nearly halved from 14,740 hectares in 2003-2004 to 8,700 hectares in 2020-2022. And this is obviously not because the land was not productive anymore as the same data set reveals that rice productivity, which was measured at 1,437 kg/ha in 2003-2004, had risen to 1,861 kg/ha in 2020-2021.

Farming Troubles

Productivity, even if officers made a noise about it initially, was not the big worry for agriculture in Sikkim; the trend of people moving away from agriculture presented a bigger concern. Apart from farming being back-breaking work for very low returns, government employment has also been aplenty in Sikkim, and as literacy levels grew, more and more Sikkimese moved away from agriculture. Debashis Das, in his book, Sikkim: Society, Polity, Economy, Environment, remarks that “agriculture in Sikkim is affected by the influence created due to tremendous unequal distribution of land ownership.” The book was published in 1994. Practicing farmers work on substantially small plots, with 80% of the farmers owning land-holdings of barely 0.62 hectares, and even these plots are shrinking as the land gets divided generation after generation. It is common to see the more enterprising farmers take land on lease in Sikkim to expand the area being cultivated by them. But this “expansion” is outstripped by farm lands being left fallow, as reflected in the Handbook on Agriculture in Sikkim 2018-2019 which recorded 5,468.95 hectares as having fallen fallow within five years of the survey.

As per the provisional Agriculture Census released by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, average size of farmlands in Sikkim fell by 20.4% between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016. This data further revealed that the maximum decrease in the size of operational holdings was found in farmers with medium-sized land pieces, the average size of which has reduced by 57.69% in five years. This trend has been played for much longer than the five years covered in the Agriculture Census referenced here, and was one of the reasons why organic farming was introduced. The hope was that the global appeal of organic farming and the premium enjoyed by organic produce would attract the youth to this sector. Clearly, this has not happened.

Expanding Markets

Meanwhile, Sikkim is already in its next phase of the Organic Mission, this phase looking at expanding market outreach and supporting value-addition by way of promoting food processing units here. The shelves at stores in Sikkim are overflowing with smartly packaged local produce, all flaunting their organic credentials. Organic Sikkim, given Sikkim’s limited arable land was never expected to grow enough to even meet local demand. Sikkim has always imported food grains, and continues to do so. Rice, the staple cereal for Sikkim from which the historical name of the State, Denzong, derives its name - ‘de’ meaning rice in Bhutia language - continues to be imported. As per the Annual Report of the Agriculture Department for the year 2020-2021, Sikkim produced 16,190 tonnes of rice. In the same year, as per the Annual Report of the Food and Civil Supplies Department, the State lifted nearly 26,000 tonnes of rice to supply at subsidized rates through the public distribution system to economically backward families in the State. And this number covers only part of the provisions these families require.

This being the situation, Organic Sikkim was never about self-sufficiency and was always promoted as a “low volume, high value” undertaking riding on the promise of the State’s organic produce fetching handsome returns for growers from markets which valued organic produce. In the initial years, organic produce was exported to Europe, but that channel could not be sustained because farmers and their networks here were not professional enough at the time to meet the exacting standards of western markets, and then, with a change in government here, interest waned. By the time the new government came around to leveraging the Organic Sikkim brand, the pandemic hit and paused things.

Aiti Maya and Gang
Produce from Sikkim has potential to fetch premium prices in markets which value organic farming. But that requires professional marketing, packaging and value addition. Since that has not happened yet, there has been no change in the daily routine and earnings of growers like Aiti Maya from villages near Gangtok who continue to rely on local markets for their organic harvest.

Pandemic Disruption

The political uncertainty surrounding the organic model after the government changed in 2019 was bad enough for the farmers, and they had a difficult time with the pandemic and its lockdowns. The containment regime was excessive at one time and entire villages were “contained” during harvest time if even a single Covid case was reported. Apart from this leading to people deciding not to get tested despite having developed symptoms, it also saw fewer people at hand to work the fields. Another aspect was the setback suffered by floriculturists. Since Sikkim became organic, many farmers have diversified or expanded to growing flowers and fruits. Covid lockdowns, however, did not recognize cut flowers as essential enough and many flower growers posted videos and photos of feeding their bright and bountiful harvest of flowers to livestock in the villages.

The Covid disruption also upset the linkages to local markets as well, a system in which government agencies used to pick up produce from the farms for supplying to the cities. This stopped with the pandemic nearly three years back and has still not been resumed, leading many farmers to leave their farms fallow last year because the economics of ferrying produce themselves does not make sense given their low volumes. The political switch has also seen a noticeable reduction in the number of workshops, trainings and marketing assistance available to farmers, although this is getting back into gear now.

Even though the party in government in Sikkim at present was not completely convinced with the idea or the claims around Organic Sikkim when it was in the Opposition, has now grown fond of the concept and has begun promoting it enthusiastically. The brand, as argued earlier, has sustained. What Sikkim now needs is for its Organic image to be leveraged more effectively to deliver the prosperity that farmers who supported and made Organic Sikkim possible, deserve.

Organic Sikkim: Ongoing Efforts

In conclusion, while the Organic Sikkim brand has weathered through the uncertainties of changing political priorities, inadequate promotion, inconsistent marketing and the pandemic, agriculture, as a sector, however, has not fared too well. And this is a shame because organic farming has the potential to not only burnish agriculture’s appeal as a vocation among the young, but provide farmers with respectable incomes and not just supplemental earnings that most of them currently earn from agriculture. The premium which Sikkim’s organic produce should command has still not been secured. Over the past year, several announcements to take Organic Sikkim to the next level through improved market linkages, value-addition, modern packaging facilities and cold storage facilities have been announced. Should these announcements get implemented, agriculture will have something to cheer about. Until that happens, one hopes the farmers network among themselves better and take more initiative to explore markets which recognise the value of organic produce. Apart from government support for such efforts, assistance should also be extended by stakeholders in the tourism sector and the many industries which benefit from being based in Sikkim, since they have also benefited from the Organic Sikkim brand which the farmers have acquired for Sikkim.

"Dalle Khorsani," Sikkim's famed red hot cherry pepper
"Dalle Khorsani," Sikkim's famed red hot cherry pepper, has received geographical indication (GI) tag from the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), Government of India. This tag, along with its organic credentials, make Dalle a good candidate for export. It, however, continues to be sold primarily in local markets although some entrepreneurs have begun small scale packaging and value-added products to reach wider markets.