Sikkim, a 300-year-old kingdom and trading entrepôt for Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, became the youngest state of the Indian Union in 1975. By then, the Green Revolution had taken firm roots in the national agrarian landscape. High-yielding seed varieties and chemical fertilisers were the flavour of the season. This went against age-old farm practices in Sikkim and the rest of the region, which were organic by default. In February 2003, Pawan Kumar Chamling, farmer-turned-chief minister, made an audacious resolve in the state legislature: to transform Sikkim into a fully organic state. His statement went beyond a politician’s rhetoric and became a personal article of faith.

Driven by deep conviction, Chamling invested his political capital in chasing this goal, dismissing sceptics and critics along the way. The state embarked upon what turned out to be a 13-year-long epic journey of persistence, persuasion, and perseverance. On December 31, 2015, Sikkim became India’s first fully organic state. Prime Minister Modi applauded the efforts of the farmers of Sikkim, terming it as an “example of resolve”, expressing hope that this would be a harbinger of nationwide change.

Organic transition experiments in other countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America proceeded incrementally – one farm at a time. Sikkim chose to make a giant leap, covering 50,000 families tilling 75,000 hectare of farmland, all in one go. Chamling the poet-politician mused, “We have not inherited this earth from our forefathers but have borrowed it from future generations, it is our duty to protect it by living in complete harmony with nature and environment.”

With a growing global preference for healthy food, it also made sound economic sense. Chamling was the chief minister of the state for 25 years. He had the political heft to lead Sikkim’s organic movement from the front. A bold withdrawal of subsidy on chemical fertilisers was a starting point. In its place, construction of rural composting pits was incentivised. In 2014, sterner measures ensued. Use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides was banned by law. The Sikkim Organic Policy set in motion establishment of “bio-villages”, following the “one village, one crop” norm.

The launch of the Sikkim Organic Mission in 2010 was a turning point. It co-opted officers from agriculture and horticulture departments, creating a parallel structure, devoted to a single cause. Self-sufficiency in food and youth employment became central goals of the mission.

A fully funded programme for training and creating rural infrastructure including bio-fertiliser units was rolled out. Farmers were cajoled to go organic, though there were teething troubles. Six agencies were deployed for guiding the process of organic certification at the farm level. Five high value crops and spices were given special attention: ginger, large cardamom, turmeric, buckwheat, and cymbidium orchids.

Sikkim is the second largest producer of large cardamom in the world, next only to Nepal. The spice is an essential ingredient of the rich cuisine of South Asia and the Middle East. Ravikant Avasthe, formerly a principal scientist with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), associated with the Organic Mission since its inception, recalls the shift from grain cultivation to more remunerative spices and vegetables: “Farmers shifted from rice cultivation to large cardamom and acreage under vegetable cultivation grew fifteenfold. Strong political will helped in the alignment of objectives of various wings of government.” A huge administrative effort created a buy-in amongst farmers and consumers alike. “Local residents, being conscious about the health benefits of organic produce, willingly shell out 15–20 per cent more money.”

Sikkim’s example, he feels, offers a scalable model for the other Northeast states to follow. Laxmi Prasad Bista, a 37-year-old large cardamom farmer from West Sikkim, had humble beginings. Financial stress at home forced him to lease 10 hectares of land for farming. Today, he aggregates the produce of seventeen other farmers and is able to sell it in the local market at Rs 600 per kg, though in the past he has even fetched thrice as much. A neat profit of 30 per cent leaves him with an annual income of over Rs 2 million. Cardamom flourishes the most without pollution. Road construction, ironically, is a cause of worry as fuel emissions are bad for the crop.

Siliguiri is the main trading hub for large cardamom. Bista believes holding auctions within the state would eliminate intermediaries and give true value to the farmer. He, unhesitatingly, lauds the role of the state and Central government agencies. The Sikkim government provided water sprinklers, tanks, pipes, and seeds – all free of cost. All it took was some courage and a lot of hard work to make it all happen.

Vladimir Nabokov used the symbolism of orchids in his landmark book Ada (Ardour) to define the forbidden amorous relationship between Van Veen and his cousin Ada. HG Wells in his short story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” lends a mystique to the flower: “Pride, beauty, and profit blossom together on one delicate green spike, and it may be, even immortality.” Orchids have found their way in the living rooms of the wealthy across the world. World trade in orchids is estimated to be around $150 million. The Netherlands, Thailand, Taiwan, and Singapore are the leading exporters. India imports cut flowers worth Rs 340 million annually.

The Northeast holds the lion’s share of orchid species within the country. In the late 19th century, British botanists George King and Robert Pantling documented 449 species of orchids in their book The Orchids of Sikkim-Himalaya. In the post-liberalisation period, the Sikkim government imported hybrid cymbidium varieties from Holland, New Zealand, and Australia. “500 plants along with a greenhouse were distributed to identified growers,” says Padam Subba, state director for horticulture. Nearly 150 farmers are presently engaged in orchid cultivation and they sell their produce to Mainaam garden, a firm owned by Pawan Kumar Chamling’s wife.

Nearly a million cut flowers are sold annually to wholesalers in Delhi. Prices at the farm gate are Rs 60−80 per flower spike, which go up threefold in the wholesale market and sevenfold in the retail markets of Delhi. Some farmers prefer selling potted plants directly, each pot of three flowers fetching Rs 3,000. The challenge, Subba says, is the long gestation period of the flowers, nearly five years, during which period farmers need alternate soruces of income.

“Vegetables, much like babies,” says Arjun Chhetri, proprietor of Vartoh Organics, “need tending not just in growing, but also equal care in transportation.” Chhetri used his ingenuity to bridge the chasm between the farm and the market. An agri-entrepreneur, he supplies seeds to over a hundred farmers with buy-back guarantees. A showroom in Gangtok serves as his base, before goods are dispatched to Siliguri, enroute to Kolkata, where a temporary storage is available in the government-run Sikkim House.

Farm-fresh vegetables arrive on the shelves of Spencer’s Retail shopping malls in Kolkata, where the Bengali bhadralok shop for veggies. He focuses on niche products like asparagus and pak choi. Organic avocadoes, he says, sell for five times the cost. An astute market observer, he is selling the homegrown yacon, an exotic Peruvian tuber and a cross between apple and watermelon. “Google it to discover the health benefits,” he says. Chhetri is using heat pump dehydration for vacuum-sealed broccoli, so that it retains its colour and taste. He is now dipping his fingers into the pickling business and vacuum dried chips. With a monthly turnover of Rs 6,00,000, he aims to reach the 2 million mark soon.

Excerpted with permission from A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change, Ashish Kundra, HarperCollins India.