Manipur's Sirarakhong village is unlikely to celebrate Hathei festival this year as the livelihood of over 250 ‘hathei’ (Chili pepper) farmers of the village located in west of Ukhrul district has been severely affected with crop failure, in what could be termed as an impact of climate change.
Sharing her plight, a worrisome Apem Z, 45, a local of Sirarakhong village, lamented that after several weeks of intense labor, capital and time all she got in return was rotten chili peppers falling on the ground. Apem has been into chili farming for a decade.
“How I wished it was just a nightmare and not a reality. For a poor farmer like me, crop failure means disaster as the work is the backbone of my family,” she said.
“I harvested about more than 100 tins of dry chili last year. The yield was good in the preceding years as well. With my farm area expanded, I was expecting more yield this year,” she added.
Other chili farmers of my village have also expanded their field area, setting the target to have a surplus yield. However, all did not go well this time with long spells of drought, shrinking of rivers and streams, creating undue pressure on the standing crops and vegetation,” she mentioned.
Large quantities of crops are getting rotten and infested by worms and insects before they are ripe for harvest, she said.
“Earlier, I generated not less than Rs 1,80,000 each year from its sale. This year, I harvested a mere 10 percent of the 100 percent. Several Hathei cultivators of my village too experienced a similar decline in yield this year,” she said.
“I have been managing to run my family needs so far through the income I generated from it. As a farmer I work hard and I love what I am doing. But this year, since the dawn of New Year, I could feel the change in the level of temperature. In the months that followed, the temperature kept rising and there was no respite. All that I could tell from my limited knowledge is that the heat wave was much higher this time,” she shared.
“But against all odds like any other farmers I still hope that the rain will come and save my crops. However, much to my dismay, the rain never came in time and there was nothing I could do,” she mentioned.
Incessant rain in July further aggravated the already affected standing crops as the rot spread in quick succession, she said.
Sirarakhong village is known in Northeast India for its large-scale chili plantation (chili is locally known as ‘hathei’). Given its huge potential and high returns, the majority of the local populace mainly engage in chili farming for their livelihood. The village also has been observing the ‘Hathei festival with the intent to promote and leverage the crop.
As per the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), this year's monsoon rain (June-September) is recorded at mere 745.4mm against the normal rain of 851.3mm (64 years mean value).
Likewise in 2022, the state recorded 628.8 mm of monsoon (June-September) rainfall.
Anah Zimik, 48, another chili farmer from the local area, said that 95 percent of the chili crops in her farm became spoiled before the harvest. “In the previous year, I harvested a handsome 80 tins which I sold in Ukhrul and Imphal without much difficulty as demand was high.
“I do not know what is in store for my family with my farm getting no yields. Earlier from the little extra income that I managed to save from selling my produce (after deducting my wards educational expenses and family needs), I opened a small shop to tide over any unforeseen situations. But with my family’s main source of income coming to a grinding halt, let alone supporting my children's education, feeding them has become a challenge,” she said.
“I only pray that the authorities step in promptly so that poor farmers like me could at least take up alternative farming. All that I need during this difficult period is an expert view, especially, what vegetation will be best suited to grow in my farm this winter season. Because I genuinely do not want to face double crop failure. If the same situation returns again then only God knows what's in store for my family,” he said.
“Earlier, my customers used to book my chili products well in advance so that they would not have trouble finding it. With the demand showing an upward trend, I have expanded my farm area. Income was good and my family’s sustenance was assured but everything has been turned upside down this year. In the lives of poor farmers like me, the failure of one season crop is an unbearable burden, a harsh reality no one would want to go through again,” Anah expressed with deep sadness, and prayed that what has unfolded is not repeated in future.
When the Imphal Free Press enquired the grim situation facing the chili farmers of Sirarakhong village, and in particular, if the concerned department could provide any alternative arrangement for the affected farmers, project director, Manipur Organic Mission Agency (MOMA) Dev Dutta stated that the Agency has not received any such reports of crop failures from the farmers’ end. However, he confirmed that 250 farmers of Sirarakhong village will be included for organic cultivation for three years effective 2023-26 under Mission Organic Value Chain Development for North Eastern Region.
A complete value chain shall be set up by forming a Farmer Producer Company (FPC) through assistance in production, processing, marketing and branding, he said, adding that this will immensely help the farmers to get maximum benefits.
Under the scheme varieties of crops will be introduced and the area of cultivation will also be increased. This will be a game changer for the village as climate resilient intervention will be kept ready by introducing drip irrigation, etc, among other measures, to cope with scarcity of water supply needed to watered the field, he said.
On Sirarakhong Hathei Geographical Indication (GI) tag, Dev Dutta said that for time being the ownership shall be MOMA. But after all the necessary requirements are being put in place, the ownership will be transferred back to the farmers of the village. Once this is done, they will start getting maximum benefits out of it, he said.
Nimyui Zimik , vice president, Sirarakhong Hathei Promotional Committee (SHPC) said that the village is home to around 300 plus households and 98 percent of the locals are engaged in chili farming.
“The village harvested 9,000 kilos in 2022 and this season we are expecting not less than 15,000 kilos as cultivators have expanded their farm area. Hathei farmers of the village have approximately expanded around 15 hectares in various field sites. But unfortunately, prolonged erratic rain has destroyed the crop,” he said.
In the meantime, a scientist who is familiar with Sirarakhong chili for nearly eight years said chilis are sensitive to moisture, and wilting occurs when there is imbalance and biotic stress. Therefore, soil and water conservation measures must be adopted, he said. Water harvesting should be initiated for life saving irrigation during dry spells, he added.
He continued that yield loss may occur due to biotic stress (meaning insect-pests and diseases). To mitigate this, remedial measures like adequate organic manure along with biofertilizers should be applied. He stressed that the change in rainfall pattern and erratic rainfall could be a factor.
It may be mentioned that in a place like Ukhrul, Chili is an indispensable ingredient and it is required in every meal and a must have in every household. It is highly in demand and taking a cue from the high consumption rate, the majority of the farmers in Sirarakhong village use huge plots of land for chilly plantation purposes.
Ukhrul is also known for high consumption of meat. Meat curry, particularly pork curry without chili powder would be an incomplete menu. The right amount of chili powder provides better aroma, taste and makes it look more tempting in addition to making the dish more sumptuous. It is also one of the specialties of Manipur's Tangkhul community. Festive time would be the best treat to explore and experience the cuisine of the community.
Like the plight of other farmers being reported in different regions of India amid drastic change in climate pattern, crop failures have made the lives of more 250 plus chili farmers of the village miserable as these families depend solely on the income generated from its sale for their survival.
Chilli is normally planted in the month of May and harvested in September.