Less Water in Soil Takes The Zing Out of Ginger

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By Ratna Bharali Talukdar,Womens Feature Service

Abdul Aziz, 50, sits back in his large flat in Dubai, sipping tea. He is just back from a busy day at his Sheikh Zayed Road office where he works as a manager and his daily after-work cuppa – with a dash of powdered ginger – helps him reconnect with himself. Unknown to Aziz, the spiced tea also connects him to the Karbi tribals of northeastern India, who grow the ginger that now spices his tea. However, with climate change and the vagaries of the monsoon, Aziz may eventually find it difficult to source his favourite brand of powdered ginger. Depleting rainfall has adversely affected ginger yields in this region.

As Aziz reflects on his day over his steaming beverage, miles away in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, ginger growers Rima Tisopi, 25, and husband, Mintu Pator, 32, consider what appears to be a bleak future. Rima and Mintu, who belong to the Karbi tribe of Tiso village adjacent to Diphu, the district headquarter town of the Karbi Anglong district, have already had to contend with the failure of the ginger crop that they had planted with such care.

Recently, the couple planted ginger over 10 bighas (1 hectare = 6.5 bighas approx.) of jhum land but got to harvest only 30 quintals. This is a drastic decline from last year’s 40 quintals, and less than half of the 67 quintals of prime ginger they had harvested from this very same plot of land in 2007.

In fact Rima and Mintu are not alone in their suffering. The decline in ginger production has pushed thousands of traditional ginger-growers of Karbi Anglong – most of them tribals – into distress. This, despite the region being well known for producing the largest stock of pure, organic ginger in India, with an annual production of 22,000 metric tonnes (MT).

In fact, the Ginger Growers Co-Operative Marketing Federation Ltd (GIN-FED) has estimated the total worth of Karbi Anglong ginger in Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi (the largest fruit and vegetable market in Asia) to be Rs 20 crore (US$1=Rs 45).

Raw ginger produced in the district is supplied to different states of India including cities such as Delhi, Siliguri, Kolkata, Punjab and Haryana. From these pockets, ginger in dried and powdered forms reach the Middle East and the West. Sadly, the tribal ginger growers living in the difficult hilly terrain of Karbi Anglong have benefited little from this lucrative export trade. They are also ignorant about the realities of global warming, which is affecting their crop so decisively.

Many of the ginger cultivators here are women and very few among them have gone to school. They have always used their traditional knowledge to grow their ginger and attribute shrinking yields to the fact that there is “less water in the soils of our hills”. In fact, water – even for domestic consumption – has become a scarce commodity. These women have to fetch it from earthen wells that have been manually dug in the low-slopes of the hills, since there are some villages that are yet to be covered by the government’s safe drinking water scheme.

Jiten Saranfangsa, Managing Director, GIN-FED, explains that even farmers of the Khnobamon area of the neighbouring Singhasan hills – the core zone of raw ginger production that produces 80 per cent of the total ginger production in the district and which is considered the finest quality in the country – have reported a decline in production.

Until the establishment of GIN-FED in April 2007, the first ever commodity-based cooperative marketing federation in the Northeast that was set up through the initiative of Dr M. Angamuthu, the then deputy commissioner of the district, poor tribal farmers were exploited both by an oppressive trading customs like the crop-mortgage system, and by individual money-lenders and ginger buyers. Women growers got the worst deal.

Immediately after its establishment, GIN-FED first fixed the minimum rate per kilo at Rs 8 and simultaneously worked towards mass credit linkages for farmers by introducing the Ginger Card or G-Card. GIN-FED also started procuring ginger directly from the growers.

“Prior to the GIN-FED initiative, we were exploited by the middlemen, who gave us only Rs 2 or Rs 3 per kg. This year, while GIN-FED has come forward to procure ginger at a minimum rate per kg of Rs 15, the traders immediately raised their procurement rate to Rs 18,” say Rima and Mintu, who are members of GIN-FED Farmers Club.

Furthermore, within a period of three years, the GIN-FED credit linkage scheme has reached out to 7,015 ginger cultivators, 50 per cent of whom are women, says Saranfangsa.

Although growers do organic farming, the practice of shifting cultivation has come in the way of their availing of the organic certificates from agencies since the slash and burn technique produces more carbon in the soil. “We have driven a massive campaign among the farmers to do cultivation in defined areas instead of adopting shifting practices. These efforts have yielded good results,” he says.

GIN-FED officials are hopeful that with the organic certification it would only be a matter of time before Karbi Anglong ginger emerges as a distinct brand, along the lines of Assam Tea.

Growers produce mainly two varieties of ginger: Nadia, with high fibre; and Aizol with less or no fibre. Aizol is more in demand and has negotiating value in Delhi and the international market – but growers are often reluctant to cultivate this variety as it is prone to different kinds of disease. Nadia is resistant to bad weather and other adverse conditions. This year the price for Nadia stood at Rs 18 per kg as against Rs 21.50 for Aizol.

Women play a major role in all the stages of ginger production, from preparing the fields for cultivation to harvesting the crop. They also make sure to plant the Eri (silkworm food plant), chillies and arum-roots, simultaneously with the ginger, to make some extra money for their families.

The effect of the drought that has affected the whole of Assam spells trouble for this year’s crop of ginger too. Santosh Sandhan, a senior official of the Department of Agriculture, is not optimistic about the harvest, “Last year’s drought means that this year’s ginger yield will be affected.”

It takes about ten months for the ginger root to mature and the harvest season is spread out from October to April, depending on climatic zones. Apart from the “adverse climate”, the poor ginger growers have also been victims of an unstable social climate over the years. Unsurprisingly, women are the worst sufferers of the endless conflict in this region between insurgent groups representing different hill tribes. Control of the lucrative ginger trade was, in fact, one of reasons for the violent armed conflict that broke out in 2004 between the Karbi and Kuki insurgent outfits here.

Tribal women growers also speak of other problems: The hill areas do not have a permanent land patta system, and the entire land belongs to the forest department. Ginger growers there use the forest land but are not entitled to land documents or bank loans – barring those facilitated by GIN-FED.

Says Rebika Inghipi, 25, and Rabinson Ingti, 30, of the Kania Ingti village, coming to the root of her problems, “Even if we have a bumper crop, we cannot claim that ginger gives us our livelihood as the land does not belong to us. We always have to depend on the mercy of the forest department – and this is an uncertain proposition at all times.”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.