On September 20, hundreds of Mizo farmers took to the streets of Aizawl. Gathered under the banner of the All Mizoram Farmers’ Union, they burnt copies of the Mizoram Agriculture Products (Prohibition of Movement) (Amendment) Order of 1999. Passed by the Mizo National Front government in power at the time, the order sought to “protect the economic interests of the native marginal farmers” of Mizoram. It decreed that the movement of certain agricultural products, such as ginger, to and from Mizoram would require a permit.

But what was put in place to protect farmers has ended up being a curse for them, say the state’s cultivators and farmer union leaders. While the order has an impact on all kinds of cultivators, farmers who grow ginger, one of Mizoram’s major cash crops, claim to have been hit particularly hard. Ginger grows abundantly in Mizoram’s hills, but local consumption is rather limited – the herb does not always form an essential part of Mizo cuisine. Yet, the state is India’s fifth highest producer of ginger.

As Mizoram goes to polls on Wednesday, the Zoram’s People Movement, a collective of seven regional parties who have come together this election, has promised to make ginger profitable again.

The collective, under whose banner several independent candidates will contest the elections, has said in its manifesto that it will buy ginger from farmers at a minimum support price of Rs 50 per kg. “They are, of course, free to sell it to anyone else for a higher price,” said Vanlalthlana, a leader of the party. Currently, ginger farmers in Mizoram sell their produce at not more than Rs 20 per kg.

The collective’s offer has caught the fancy of ginger farmers across Mizoram, and has become the subject of much discussion in many rural pockets ahead of the elections.

Regulating trade

The current order, a step up on a similar directive passed by the Congress in 1994, cites the 1873 Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations as its legal framework. The Congress’ order put fewer agricultural products on the restricted list. The Inner Line Permit system, which controls the entry of outsiders to Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, flows from the same British-era regulations.

The “inner line” divided areas administered by the British from what were then defined as “backward tracts”, into which no British subject could cross without a licence. Colonial administrators had then felt the need to bring under “more stringent control the commercial relations of our own subjects” with tribes living beyond the inner line. The inner line has endured post-Independence, with permits now regulating entry into what are now called “protected areas” and restricting the purchase of land by outsiders.

According to members of the Zoram People’s Movement, however, the permit system that regulates the flow of agricultural produce in and out of the state has led to cartelisation of the ginger market in Mizoram.

Cartelisation allegations

The Zoram People’s Movement alleges that permit holders work as proxies of a select group of traders based in Assam’s Cachar district, resulting in the market being manipulated. “The retail price of ginger goes up to Rs 80 in Aizawl and Rs 150 in Guwahati,” claimed Vanlalthlana. In the third week of November, the price of ginger in a major retail market in Aizawl city was Rs 60 per kg.

“This huge difference in price is because the permit system has meant that a syndicate has come into the picture robbing farmers of all profits,” said Vanlalthlana. “We want to do away with the middlemen and buy directly from the farmers. Going ahead, we want to connect the farmers directly with wholesalers.”

An official of Mizoram’s horticulture department, which deals with ginger cultivation in the state, agreed. “Our farmers are dependent on middlemen who have monopolised the market, that’s why they don’t get a good value,” said the official who did not want to be identified.

Farmers tell a similar story. In Tacchip village in Aizawl district, Sangliana sold his last batch of ginger for as low as Rs 10. “Everything is controlled by the Marwari traders of Bhaga [a market town on the Assam-Mizoram border],” he said. “We are at their mercy, whatever price they say we have to agree. The last word is always theirs.”

Aizawl farmer Sangliana sold his last batch of ginger for as low as Rs 10, while the produce fetches Rs 60 per kg at the retail market. (Credit: Arunabh Saikia)

Another farmer in the area, Zaialinrema, concurred. “The agents representing the Marwaris from Assam come and quote a price,” he said. “If they say Rs 15, it is Rs 15, there is no bargaining, because if we don’t sell to them, someone else will. And since all of them work in tandem, we will not get a better price from anyone else.”

Propaganda, says state

A senior official of the state’s commerce and industries department, which is the nodal agency for ginger marketing in the state, however, dismissed the allegations of cartelisation as “propaganda”. The official insisted, “The government of Mizoram is giving farmers, buyers and all involved in the trade of ginger a free hand.”

He claimed the 1999 order had been relaxed since June for certain products like ginger even as he admitted that it has not been officially revoked. The official said, “We have given instructions to our check-gates to not ask Mizo farmers transporting ginger for permit. They can go sell anywhere they want to. There is no restriction.”

Zion Lalremruata, the general secretary of the All Mizoram Farmers’ Union and a member of the state’s main Opposition party, the Mizo National Front, contested the official’s claims. “The order is still there,” he affirmed. “Our farmers still face problems at the check-gates.”

A woman selling ginger in an Aizawl market. (Credit: Arunabh Saikia)

Elusive marketing policy

In any case, ginger farmers’ woes extend beyond the order as the state government has no marketing mechanism in place, Lalremruata said. “We want a regulated wholesale market where everyone is allowed to sell their produce so that the monopoly of the syndicate is broken,” he said. “In all these years, the Mizoram government has not been able to come up with a proper agricultural marketing policy.”

Lalremruata’s colleague and senior vice-president of the All Mizoram Farmers’ Union, Chawngthu, concurred. “The farmers are producing a lot but market is the main problem,” he said. “The government needs to step in with a proper procurement policy. We need a regulated market, it is very important for the progress of farmers in Mizoram.”

Mizoram has been grappling with an agricultural marketing policy for over 20 years now. In 1996, the state government enacted the Mizoram State Agriculture Produce Marketing (Regulation) Act, but it never quite took off. In 2008, this was replaced with the Mizoram State Agriculture Produce Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act, which too was never implemented in totality. Currently, the government is in the process of drafting yet another marketing act.

The commerce and industries department official conceded that the government has failed to implement any of its marketing policies so far. “Franky speaking, none of the acts were implemented,” he said. “Things like this take time, but we are taking steps to make agricultural marketing in Mizoram more robust.”

‘Only a promise’

Farmers, for their part, are viewing the Zoram People Movement’s promise with cautious optimism. “If they actually do it, nothing like it,” said Sangliana. “But at the moment it is only a promise, and all political parties make big promises before the elections.”

Apart from the Zoram People’s Movement, the Mizo National Front’s manifesto assures “special attention” to “ginger cultivation and ginger markets” as part of a proposed socio-economic development programme for the state. The programme, the manifesto states, will introduce a new marketing system “to facilitate selling of farms produces and other products” among other things.

Some find this promise of broader changes more appealing. “I like and support the ZPM’s offer, but we need a system,” said Lalremruata. “And the MNF’s SEDP [socio-economic development programme] will do that, that’s why I have joined them.”