India: Changing the Contours of Farming in Assam

October 16, 2006

The US$146 million Assam Rural Infrastructure and Agricultural Services Project (ARIASP) has tripled rice production, increased the output of milk and fish, and introduced a variety of other crops. Farmers’ incomes have risen substantially, and Assamis now self-sufficient in rice – the staple foodgrain – for the first time in decades.

October 16, 2006 -- The mighty Brahmaputra River winds its way through India ’s northeastern state of Assamcarrying an abundance of water and fertile silt to paint an emerald landscape.

Yet despite nature’s bounty, Assam’s farmers have rarely flourished, and over two-thirds of them have long eked out a precarious existence below the poverty line.

Water has been a major problem: either too little in the dry season, or too much when the torrential monsoon rains burst upon the region.

Only a fraction of the state’s farmland – less than 7% – received the benefits of irrigation during the long dry spell.

When the monsoon rains unleashed their annual fury, however, the swollen river invariably overflowed its banks, and farmers had to wait for months for the floodwaters to recede before planting a new crop. By that time, the peak sowing season would almost be over.

As a result, Assam’s farmers have long been able to plant only one crop – largely paddy. And the state’s rice production has been far lower than others that are less well endowed.

Farmers' incomes rise substantially

A World Bank-assisted project has since changed all that.

The US$146 million Assam Rural Infrastructure and Agricultural Services Project (ARIASP) has tripled rice yields per hectare, increased the output of milk and fish, and introduced a variety of other crops, improving farmers’ well being substantially. And, Assamis now self-sufficient in rice – the staple foodgrain – for the first time in decades.

Most of those who have benefited from the project have been the poorest farm families - marginal farmers with average holdings of less than half a hectare.

“Earlier, we would barely get one paddy crop a year,” says Rintu Baruah, the secretary of a farmers’ cooperative. “Now, we get two, and manage to squeeze in some vegetables as well.”

Irrigation Boosts Rice Yields   

Strings of shallow tube-wells and community-managed lift irrigation systems have enabled farmers to bring the abundant ground water to their parched fields during the dry season.

“These shallow tubewells have proved to be a boon to farmers,” says Laxmi Dutta, the agricultural development officer of Bongshor in Kamrup district.

Recalls Mohammad Abu Tahir, a farmer from Baiganhaati in Nagaon district,  "I would barely get enough grain to feed my 11-member family."

“Then we got a shallow tubewell and our lives changed. Today I hire seven men,” he proudly says, "and 18 people sit down to eat at my house at every meal” – quite a change for this poor cash strapped family from their subsistence days not so long ago. With fortunes improving, tha family has also built three pucca (brick-and-mortar) houses in the village.

The difference the tube wells have made to farmers’ lives is evident. “Earlier, very few farmers could afford tractors; today few of them are willing to wait their turn for the government-subsidized machines, and are buying them in the open market instead,” points out the agricultural development officer.

“These same farmers used to wait desperately for the government to distribute seeds as relief; now they want my help in getting premium quality potato seeds that cost them Rs 1,800 per quintal,” she adds.

“They are also sending their children to school - not just the village school, but to better schools in Guwahati (the state capital) more than 25 kilometers away,” she adds.

Diversification into New Crops

Farmers have also diversified their produce. To reduce their dependence on low value paddy and move to higher value vegetables, fruits, and oilseeds, they have been helped to buy high-yielding seeds for these crops and trained in better farming techniques.

Not surprisingly, farm incomes have increased substantially. And with more farm work, the landless poor have also benefited.

Livelihoods from Livestock

Although livestock have long supplemented Assam’s meager farm incomes, the state’s cattle have generally suffered from poor genetic stock. This, together with their inadequate nutrition always left farmers with low yields of milk.

Since the project upgraded local stock through artificial insemination, and helped train an army of workers to provide basic veterinary services, Assam’s milk production has soared and people’s milk consumption has almost tripled.

Silver Harvest

Although Assam, with its abundance of water bodies, has immense potential for fisheries, the state’s annual catch of fish – 150,000 tonnes in the mid-1990s – used to fall far short of the demand of 250,000 tonnes.

The project motivated rural communities to turn their innumerable water bodies into a source of income. Framers were encouraged to clean the silted and weed-choked ponds and seed them with carp; they were then trained to feed their fish with resources close at hand, such as rice-bran, mustard oil cakes, kitchen scraps and cow-dung. The umpteen beels - or oxbow lakes formed by the river - were also rejuvenated and villagers encouraged to form cooperatives to develop them into fisheries.

The result has been a marked rise in fish production. Not only has this pushed incomes up significantly, but with fish consumption increasing from 6.5 kg to 18 kg per person a year, has also improved the nutritional intake of hundreds of poor farm families.

Rural Roads Connect Farms to Markets

As in the other north-eastern states, the interiors of Assamhad only a rudimentary road network, and that too largely in poor condition. Narrow dirt tracks and wooden bridges over the state’s many small rivers and streams left most villages cut-off during the region’s long rainy season.

The project has helped widen and strengthen rural roads and convert wooden bridges into concrete, slashing travel costs and enabling communities to access markets and basic services such as schools more easily.

In Baramboi village in Kamrup district, for example, better roads have enabled farmers to hire trucks to take their produce – mainly coconut and betel nut – directly to the Rangia market, enabling them to bypass the local traders who used to earn a hefty profit from them for ferrying their goods earlier.

Women Take to Livelihood Training

Women in the region have responded enthusiastically to the project’s livelihood training. They now supplement their family incomes with earnings from duck rearing, growing marigolds, and weaving gamochas, the traditional red-and-white Assamese scarves and sarongs. Self-help groups of the area have now formed a federation to market their products further afield.

The Good Work Will Carry On

“One of the projects greatest successes has been its demonstration-effect,” says Project Director, Ravi Kota. “The state government has replicated several elements, including policy reforms like cost recovery.”

Following on the success of the shallow tubewells, the state government has asked the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) to install an additional 100,000 such tubewells in the state.

The project’s mechanism of self-help groups and field management committees has been adopted by the District Rural Development Agencies, the district body that handles all centrally - funded development schemes.

Several elements of the project’s fisheries program have been incorporated into the state’s fisheries policy.

After the project closed in June 2004, a follow-on project – the new US$154 million Assam Agricultural Competitiveness Project – has been launched to replicate some of this project’s successes and take the work done to the next level.

“An emphasis on marketing, for instance, was missing in the earlier project,” says Prabir Joardar, the World Bank’s task leader for the Project. “We are trying to address this in new project.”

The new project will step up the livestock program to increase milk production, place greater emphasis on farm mechanization by increasing the number of tractors and power tillers to be provided to farmers, while simultaneously reducing the subsidy from 70% under ARIASP to 30%. The project will also boost agricultural production by further shoring up the state’s rural infrastructure like village markets and link roads.