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Op-Ed

My Years in Service

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By EMN Updated: Apr 18, 2014 1:10 am
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The sale of the second year production showed marked improvement in the rate of ginger which afforded a fairer price for the farmers. They were now able to stand on their own. Ginger market suffered an adverse impact in the subsequent years  when the GoI began a bulk import of ginger at a cheaper cost from China. However, a point had been proven. It became reasonably apparent that our rural farmers could be motivated for commercial production provided marketing outlet was assured.THE intensive market study actively carried out by NEPED served the Department of Agriculture well. We went into a serious ginger production effort through the crop zoning approach with a coordinated involvement of many of the NEPED project villages. For the very first time Nagaland produced ginger on a commercial scale. NEPED and Agriculture Department helped the farmers to export approximately 350 tonnes of ginger to Subji Mandi, New Delhi from Dimapur. It was not a plain sailing operation because of the monopolistic nature of the transaction which could not be avoided. We had just one bidder willing to make that bulk purchase at his quoted rate which was obviously not an optimum price. The department of Agriculture was left with no option but to bail out the farmers by at least providing them transport subsidy. It was the least we could do for them to ensure a break-even returns in their maiden commercial venture so they don’t get discouraged in any way. Our primary goal was to try and create a niche in the ginger market. Nagaland’s publicised organic ginger was a big hit in New Delhi and thereafter, the competitive market gave us the opening of more bidders entering the fray in the following season. The sale of the second year production showed marked improvement in the rate of ginger which afforded a fairer price for the farmers. They were now able to stand on their own. Ginger market suffered an adverse impact in the subsequent years when the GoI began a bulk import of ginger at a cheaper cost from China. However, a point had been proven. It became reasonably apparent that our rural farmers could be motivated for commercial production provided marketing outlet was assured. 

Meanwhile, cardamom, passion fruit and ‘kholar’ beans in the NEPED project villages were picking up steam as well. Few villages showed exceptional focus. Kuthur village in Tuensang began mass producing ‘kholar’ but marketing still continues to be a constraint, presently serving the local markets mostly. I vividly remember a joint project site visit at Kuthur with the Canadian representatives from IDRC…(Madam Liz and Mr.Graham)… which was located way down the river valley. It took a great deal of effort to climb down the steep slope to the project site. My football playing days had long since passed and having been deskbound for so many years, I was very doubtful about my physical fitness level. Compounding the fitness problem was the added problem of gout beginning to bother my ankles and so I decided to head back to the village about an hour ahead of the team. For the villagers this climb was a cakewalk…for Khekiye it was as good as scaling the Mt. Everest unprepared and unconditioned. Dusk had already set in and I was still struggling upwards towards the base camp equivalent when the other team mates caught up with me. With the foreign lady in the team I did not relish the thought of being a Naga unable to negotiate this stupid hill…I gritted my teeth and took one meditative step at a time… bringing up the rear. The dim village lights were finally in sight. We were that close. It was then that my left leg just refused to overtake the right no matter how hard I tried to persuade it. I had reached the end of my road…I sat down to enjoy the village scene which was not really visible. The accompanying villagers had already deduced long before that I would never be able to reach the village on my own. I did not know that an advance party had run ahead and had prepared a rudimentary rural palanquin…a wooden chair with a parallel bamboo poles tied to it…they helped me on to the chair. I blushed red in the face but no one noticed it…it was dark. From there on, there was no way of stopping the NEPED team from singing a chorus of made up puns with me as the centrepiece as we laughed our way home. It was a high price to pay for ‘Kuthur kholar’ without a market.
Sapotimi was another such village that picked up cardamom and passion fruit on a larger commercial scale. The village leadership under an honest Head GB, Mr. Pukhato, ensured a transparent use of VDB grant-in-aid funds where equitable subsidy was being disbursed to all the households involved in cardamom cultivation. More than 50% of the Sapotimi households were already growing cardamom before NEPED stepped in. Reinforced with NEPED revolving funds of Rs.8.00lakhs, this village increased the cardamom growing households to almost 95% with loans to start a fresh plantation. A handful cases of landless households, infirm widows, widowers and elders no longer able to work, were the only sectors unable to access on this fund. Cardamom production multiplied exponentially. This village was wrestling with couple of constraints…lack of cardamom drying unit (they were drying the fresh cardamom on tin roofs) and a fluent marketing of the commodity after harvest. Earlier, the villagers were spending days selling the cardamom @Rs. 80/- per kg at Mokokchung on a retail scale. NEPED constructed a drier unit and helped to improved their market. Considering the bulk production, NEPED encouraged the cardamom whole sale dealers to purchase their cardamom directly from village at a more fairer competitive market price of Rs.120/- The eco-sociological status underwent a remarkable transformation within a span of 7-8 years. When I met Pukhato, the Head GB Sapotimi, way after I had left this department, he recounted with much pride that there were now 3-4 RCC buildings in the village with 9-10 households owning Television sets. While owning a television set in itself was no big deal, in their case, it represented a paradigm shift of the social order at the rural base. The most telling transformation was that the villagers had stopped jhum (slash and burn) cultivation completely, except for those involved in permanent terraced cultivation (pani khetis). The community was purchasing paddy from Changki valley according to their respective annual requirement and collectively transporting it back to the village in truck loads. This village had taken a small step towards an environmentally friendly existence without really having intended it. He went on further to say that labour investment in cardamom cultivation normally involved six months of intensive labour inputs only. Therefore, more than fifty households had branched into passion fruit cultivation in their free time and the village was now a proud owner of passion fruit juicing cottage industry where 6 to 7 trained village workers were being employed. It was a wonderful story of what an honest transparent leadership could do to transform the whole village economy. During a State Level ‘Monsoon Agricultural Show’ in the Kohima local ground, the more forward looking villages like Kuthur, Sapotimi and Kuhuboto were given prominent stalls. They disposed off their entire village products in record time and had to leave a day before the closing function. It was a proud moment for NEPED and Agricultural Department to actually see our efforts paying dividends in this manner.
Project proposals for a marketing network in all the districts, based on our strategy, was approved and funded by Ministry of Agriculture, GOI. The Department constructed APMC Office cum godowns in most of the District HQs with active participation of the APMC members. Armed with similar success stories a more concerted effort was made to convince the State Government to provide a special budget for effective operationalization of the buyback revolving fund for the APMC. The department reflected this need in the annual administrative report which got included in the Governor’s address in the Assembly. It became a policy statement. The then Development Commissioner, Shri. Alem Jamir,( former Chief Secretary), also perceived the potentiality and went out of the way to scavenge Rs. 20 lakhs as a start up fund against our projected requirement of one crore at the minimum. By now, I had already done close to 3 years stint in the Department and was transferred out. I was saddened to learn later that this vital revolving fund for the APMC was subsequently allocated haphazardly, more on political inclination rather than target productive potentiality. The initiatives of setting up APMCs and VMC network, the important focus on soil testing, crop zoning, buy back revolving funds should have gained reasonable maturity by now had it been sustained. It is most likely that this initiative was abandoned after my departure from the Department, which frequently happens in a Government system. While the above mentioned strategy was aimed at commercial production, it could be modulated to focus on local market requirement in a more fluent and sustained manner by strengthening the APMCs and VMCs in the neighbourhood of the District HQs. The consistency in which our essential commodity market gets destabilised every time Assam /Karbi ‘bandh’ is declared, ought to dictate a change of agriculture production strategy. It makes sense to revive the earlier ongoing effort that has been tested, if new alternative productive approach cannot be brought forth.
My 24th transfer in 27 years of service was issued on 9th April 2003. I was now slated to take over the Department of Power. Shortly, on 7th May 2003 my responsibility in NEPED as Team Leader was also relinquished, with Mr. Alemtumshi Jamir taking over the reins.
Power department was a highly technical department with a whole lot of unheard of technical jargons that flew all over my head…I had to remind my officers that I was not a technocrat and that they would have to speak to me in plain simple English. In the first couple of meetings after going through half the discussions in foreign language I would say, “gentlemen, now let’s start all over again…but this time in English”. It took me some time to acclimatise to this new environment but it was generally a smooth sailing as we went along. Optimizing the revenue of the department was a serious effort being focused upon. The reduction of transmission losses and the power theft was at the top of the agenda. While sincere efforts was continued with the transformer maintenance, budgetary constraints plagued the department to the hilt. Transformers could not be repaired and replaced as fast as was required. On the other hand, the issue of power theft was way out of control and frequent raids and fines was still inadequate to quail this unhealthy practice. Seeing this field constraints the department decided to attempt a new venture…setting up of Urban Electricity Management Board (UEMB) in a similar management approach to that of the Village Electricity Management Board (VEMB) at the village level. The concept was simple…the department was unable to provide individual meter to each household and therefore one central meter for the identified urban colony would be set up from where the use of power in the entire colony would be metered. The billing benchmark for each household would be fixed on the basis of the certified ‘connected load’ at the time of connections being given to that household. The UEMB would be authorised to collect the revenue from their respective sectors and earn a commission of 12% from the collected revenue. A pilot project was initiated in Kenuozou(KNZ) colony in Kohima. The colony selected committed individuals in their UEMB and they earnestly began the task of setting their colony in order. Households which did not have connections were immediately asked to have a legal line installed or be heavily fined for power theft when caught.
The legal consumers were naturally unprepared to foot the bills of the illegal users which was being recorded centrally in just one meter. As a result, households without connection were listed and submitted to the department. The department in our turn prioritised the wiring of these households with fresh connections being given. We were able to wipe out the illegal consumers entirely, in this colony. The revenue also showed a quantum jump. This experiment was replicated in one sector in Thahekhu village in Dimapur but a more major thrust was made in Mokokchung. We however faced a great deal of teething problems in Mokokchung.
The existing lines were not systematically connected within the respective wards as a result a whole lot of lines had to be realigned to have a clear cut consumer identity within the wards as a starter in order to effectively rely on a single metering facility. Budget constraints slowed us down considerably since all this had to be accomplished without a specific earmarked funds. However the Superintendent Engineer and his Officers put in their best effort in stages and some semblance of improvement began to slowly appear. The revenue generation in Mokokchung showed a reasonable increase. We were now beginning to systematically eliminate power theft in the project zones through the UEMBs. The problem of replicating UEMB in all the urban stations was however a mammoth task requiring a gigantic investment which the Department could ill afford…further progress could not be significantly registered.

The writer is a retired IAS Officer, Forest Colony, Kohima

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By EMN Updated: Apr 18, 2014 1:10:23 am