Marked by lush greenery and hilly terrain, Siaha is also one of India’s remotest and poorest districts in India with a population of roughly 1,00,000.
Siaha is also the southernmost district of Mizoram. It is surrounded by Lunglei District in the north, Lawngtlai District in the west, and has an international border with Myanmar on the east and south. The district is inhabited predominantly by the native Mara community.
The district area comes under Mara Autonomous District Councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. These councils function like quasi-legislative assemblies with powers to pass their own laws and rules, subject to ratification by the Governor.
The district headquarters of Siaha is about 400 km from the state capital, Aizawl, and it takes a road journey of about 12-13 hours to get there. Meanwhile, the economy is primarily driven by subsistence agriculture.
However, farmers today are earning 14 times more than they used to just two years ago!
How? Well, it is thanks to one really spicy chilli and an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer with a plan.
The chilli is the famous ‘Bird’s Eye’, known for its high ranking in the Scoville Scale, a measure of spiciness. The scale rates it as ‘highly pungent’. A rain-fed Rabi crop cultivated after paddy, today over 280 farmers in the district grow about 102,580 kgs of fresh chillies, resulting in about 3,200 kgs of dry chillies.
And the officer is Bhupesh Chaudhary, a 2014-batch IAS officer who served out his tenure as Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Siaha district, Mizoram, earlier this year in May.
“There are so many officers doing such wonderful work, but sometimes after transfers, these initiatives start to lose steam with their successors. No government body should not be directly responsible for running the initiative beyond a point. Our job is just to initiate and facilitate. Afterwards, it’s for the said community to take it forward. That ownership allows them to put their hearts and minds into it,” says Chaudhary.
And that ‘taking it forward’ is exactly what his administration did for chilli farmers in the remote district.
Once, these chillies were sold to traders from Silchar, Assam, at throwaway prices. But over the past two years, the administration organised these farmers into self-help-groups and formed a cooperative society. They also built the infrastructure for storage, purchased machinery for processing and packaging, and established market linkages. All of this meant today this chilli is attracting profitable prices, and other farmers are being encouraged to grow them as well.
Building This Initiative One Phase After Another
It was during one of his field tours as DC in late 2018, when Bhupesh came to realise that a few farmers were growing a Bird’s Eye, which had already obtained a Geographic Index (GI) tag.
On further enquiry, he learnt that these farmers were selling this chilli fresh off the farm to traders from Silchar, Assam, at very cheap rates ranging from Rs 50 to 100 per kg just before Christmas. They were basically selling it for whatever rate they could get since they had no place to store them, and thus in no position to bargain.
“The cycle of cultivation for this particular variety of chilli is about 60 days. Earlier, the remuneration farmers received was meagre. Upon realising the real value of this chilli once processed into chilli powder and packaged, the first thing we did there was to organise farmers across five villages—Siatlai, Zyhno, Ahmypi, Chheihlu and Laki—into 25 SHGs, which were then aggregated into a cooperative society consisting of 281 members,” notes Bhupesh.
This move, in February 2019, was inspired by his administration’s previous successful endeavour in the remote Tisopi village, where they organised farmers and set up a turmeric processing unit, which today produces organic turmeric powder for sale.
“If farmers are organised into a group or collective, their bargaining power increases, and hence the price quoted by traders who buy it from them rises. By merely organising them into SHGs and cooperative society, we helped double the price they were receiving,” he adds.
So, the first phase basically involved organising them into a cooperative, registering them, and obtaining an FSSAI certification for their chillies. In January 2020, the administration also applied for an India Organic certificate, but obtaining it for these farmers takes about two and a half years to finalise. Nonetheless, the process has been initiated.
The next phase involved building physical infrastructure.
“In this stage, a storehouse of raw materials like organic manure, seeds, etc. is required by the farmers. Another important component at this stage is organising the farmers in proactive groups and imparting training to them. The training to the farmers on the basic business concepts was provided through the Mizoram State Rural Livelihoods Mission (MzSRLM), and the technical training about the best practises in chilli production was imparted through Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) and Horticulture Department,” notes a government document detailing the progress of this initiative.
One of the major challenges Siaha’s chilli farmers faced was that they had no place to store their produce safely. The traders from Silchar would exploit this fact and buy the chilli at a nominal rate since farmers had no holding capacity.
From February 2019 onwards, the administration set up the necessary infrastructure in Zyhno village. Three key structures were built for farmers—a storehouse, a packaging unit and processing unit. Zhyno is strategically located along key routes through this chilli producing belt.
“We constructed these structures through the convergence of various government schemes. For example, the storehouse was built under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana – Remunerative Approaches for Agriculture and Allied Sectors Rejuvenation (RKVY-Raftaar). The water tanks (with a capacity of 20,000 litres) for washing the chilli were built under The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Building a storehouse increases the farmer’s negotiating power further because now they can bring all their produce and wash, store and dry it there. We also provided them with a solar tunnel dryer to dry the chillies irrespective of the weather since it sometimes rains in December, which earlier wouldn’t allow them to hold onto their produce,” informs Bhupesh.
How does a solar tunnel dryer work?
“It consists of a tunnel type semi-cylindrical drying chamber provided with windows to allow the ambient air to enter the dryer. An exhaust fan is provided to evacuate the moist air from the dryer,” notes this explainer.
“This is the most important stage of the project, where the maximum value is added to the chilli produce. The harvested chilli is washed and then dried in the solar tunnels. The drying process is completed in two days, depending on the sunlight available. The dried chilli is ready to be processed in the chilli grinding machine. After grinding, chilli powder is packed into small packs of 50 gm using a fully automatic thermal sealing machine. The price of the 50gm chilli powder pack is Rs. 30 which translates to Rs. 3000/kg. For the purpose of acceptability in the domestic market, FSSAI registration was also facilitated through the Deputy Commissioner’s office for the produce of the farmers,” says the document.
Value addition to the fresh produce has not only increased the income of the participating farmers but also made them entrepreneurs in the food processing industry.
The wastage in the fresh chilli is also minimised since now all the fresh chilli can be processed without any wastage. Machinery for grinding, packaging and a power generator was provided by the district administration’s CSR partner, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited. In total, a little over Rs 15 lakh was spent, including the money obtained through CSR.
“The project is about convergence. It’s not a very big project in terms of money, but the difference it made in the way farmers in the district practised and understood agriculture was immense. Initially, only Zhyno and few other neighbouring villages grew this chilli, but today farmers in other villages in the vicinity are growing it because their remuneration has increased by about 500%. Earlier they were selling fresh chill for Rs 50-100 per kg. Now, they are selling packaged chilli powder produce at Rs 700/800 per kg,” argues Bhupesh.
The first batch of powdered chilli was up for sale in December last year. Farmers in Siaha district sell packaged powdered chilli under the brand name of ‘Maraland Ahiah Paohpa’, which translates into the Maraland’s Organic Chilli in their local language.
“We were exploited by the traders. Now, we are getting a handsome price. We are thankful to the administration. This has increased our income manifold. I have resolved to do only chilli farming from now on,” says local farmers KT Masa and LC Lawkhei, speaking to The New Indian Express.
“The chilli initiative is close to my heart because the benefit was immediate. I was fortunate to see these initiatives achieve fruition. The Bird’s Eye chilli initiative wasn’t achieved through any one specific government department. The administration has handed over the machinery and infrastructure to the cooperative society on a lease basis. Now, they have market linkages in place and the local NGOs are there to help them,” says Bhupesh.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)