Assam has been one such state that has the vast potential of becoming the rice basket of India. Every year, Assam witnesses heavy rainfall for months which is the most essential requirement for the proper growth of rice. Added to this, the soil conditions is such that there is much larger scope for Assam to produce rice more than the other leading producers of the country. But today, the area of rice cultivation in Assam is fast decreasing. And this has aggravated the problems that are already plaguing the rice farmers of Assam.
The total area under rice cultivation in Assam, which registered a bumper record production of 40.7 lakh metric tonnes of rice in 2008-09 — an all-time high — has been shrinking over the past decade and more. From 26.46 lakh hectares in 2000-2001, it dwindled to 24.84 lakh hectares in 2008-09, with the state having the lowest area under rice cultivation — 21.90 lakh hectares — during 2006-07. Likewise, the rice yield has also witnessed a sharp downward trend in the past one decade, coming down from 39.98 lakh metric tonnes in 2000-2001 to an all-time low of 29.10 lakh metric tonnes in 2006-07.
It is not a new thing that Assam is the victim of yearly floods. Every year, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries submerge most areas of Assam for months altogether. Heavy soil silts are deposited and there is heavy erosion of soil and rocks that affect the topography heavily. One might think that the presence of rivers like the Brahmaputra and the heavy rain cycle would be enough to improve the situation for rice cultivators of Assam. But the truth is that these heavy floods destroy the rice fields beyond imagination. The absence of a proper irrigation system to salvage the waters of the Brahmaputra and tributaries during the flood season is a big issue for rice cultivation here. This year’s heavy floods has caused great damages to the agricultural areas of the state; especially in Dhemaji district that has the damage of 60% of its agricultural lands.
Apart from floods, there are other factors that are responsible for the decrease in the agricultural area of Assam. Over the past one decade, Assam has seen a huge spate of industrialisation. There has been acquisition of lands for industrial purposes. This has resulted in the loss of agricultural lands and has also reduced the scope of farming among its traditional holders. With industrialisation, there is also an emergence in the urbanisation phase of the state. Cities like Guwahati, Tezpur and Jorhat have grown up to be huge urban centres of the region. This has resulted in the decrease of the farmlands that have been based around these areas. If we take the case of Guwahati alone, then we find that the areas of Amingaon and Palashbari have been big sufferers in this respect. There have been many cases of agitations by farmers when their lands were taken over by the BSF to build base camps. These two areas, which are close to Guwahati, have lost huge tracts of farming lands over the decades. And due to this, the city’s easy access to foodgrain from the neighbouring areas has lessened down. Similarly, a mega gas cracker project in Dibrugarh has also recently sparked off protests from farmers who have lost their lands due to this.
Highway building has also its fair share in causing harm to the agricultural areas of Assam. The trend which we are seeing now in states like Uttar Pradesh is something that Assamese farmers have been suffering for years. Highways like the four-lane East-West corridor from Srirampur to Silchar has caused heavy damage to agricultural areas which had to be sacrificed for it. Many farmers lost their lands to this and this resulted in the reduction of agricultural lands in the state. This is a fact which was recently admitted by the state agriculture minister Pramila Rani Brahma. The minister had recently asked the Public Works Department to ascertain as to how many farmers had lost their land due to this project.
Farmers in Assam grow three major varieties of rice, these being ahu (autumn rice), sali (winter rice) and boro (summer rice). Though farmers in Assam have been traditionally used to growing only one crop a year, efforts are now being made to motivate them to go for at least two rice crops. Irrigation is not yet a popular concept in Assam. While canal irrigation has remained almost a non-starter, sinking several thousand shallow tube wells some 10 years ago has come as a big relief for farmers, especially in the lower Assam districts.
Although the present situation of rice cultivation and overall agriculture in the state has not given way to chaos, it is not to be forgotten that if the present ways continue then Assam will terrible times in the near future. Land has still to be retained for agricultural purposes and the growing urbanisation has dealt a heavy blow to the farmers of Assam who have not been able to cope with the situation properly. Added to this, the heavy influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into the state has also resulted in the grabbing of lands that were originally meant for farming.
Let’s hope that things improve in Assam and the once thriving rice belt of the Northeastern region soon regains its lost glory.