Agriculture is the primary means of livelihood for majority of the rural population in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR). However, Himalayan agriculture is constrained by multiple natural and socio-economic stressors, which often make the rural households extremely vulnerable and marginalized. With the declining productivity of agriculture, food security of such households is often uncertain and their marketable surplus inadequate to sustain them, thus leading to a vicious circle of poverty–resource degradation–scarcity–poverty (Jodha 2009, Partap 2011). To break the circle, policymakers have begun to focus on high-value products, such as tea in Darjeeling in West Bengal, saffron in Kashmir, and pashmina wool in Ladakh, that offer the rural mountain communities a comparative advantage due to their unique ecological and socio-cultural systems. However, these high-value products have their drawbacks, such as low productivity, environmental fragility, weak stakeholder links, and inequitable distribution of economic returns. One needs to identify such challenges, develop ways to overcome them, and prioritize those potential solutions that are feasible to lower the risks involved in such niche farming and to make such ventures more profitable so as to improve livelihoods in the region. So far, there are few studies in India specifically related to the IHR that have focused on understanding the challenges at different stages of such ventures, not just on farm production but also on developing and marketing the niche products and on the power relationships between actors that make up the mountain agricultural systems. These actors need help in prioritizing the many recommendations based on different dimensions of sustainability, namely economic, societal, and environmental, and in understanding the implications of such choices.
The present study therefore sought to develop a sustainable value-chain system for a niche product in the IHR for improving rural mountain livelihoods. To achieve that aim, the study addressed three main objectives: (1) to identify and understand the different components (activities and actors) and drivers (natural and human) of a rural value chain system in the IHR; (2) to identify and evaluate strategies to tackle the challenges and to ensure the sustainability of the selected system for improving mountain livelihoods; and (3) to draw policy-relevant conclusions for sustainable management of value chains in the region.
The exploratory study takes large cardamom, a major high-value spice ecologically adapted to the eastern Himalayas, as the niche product. Originating in Sikkim, cultivation of large cardamom has spread to the central Himalayas, to the north-eastern states of India, and to Nepal and Bhutan. Large cardamom (Amomum subulatum) is grown organically in Sikkim because the state adopted a policy of organic farming in 2003 and was declared a fully organic-farming state in 2015. Currently, India is the largest exporter and the second largest producer in the world (Sharma et al. 2016, Bhutia et al. 2018); within India, Sikkim accounts for 82% of the total production (Spices Board 2018). Each Sikkimese household is estimated to earn $500–$1700 annually depending on the size of its land holding and management efforts. However, even this system now faces multiple and diverse challenges, which have adverse impacts on agricultural livelihoods in Sikkim. These considerations prompted the choice of large cardamom from Sikkim for the case study.
To understand the large cardamom system as a whole, the value chain approach was used, which is one of the common approaches used for exploring agricultural markets in the developing economies. The approach uses the principle of systems thinking and has proved useful in understanding product flows, identifying diverse challenges, and developing strategies to improve the performance of a value chain in mountain agriculture (Hoermann et al. 2010). Data for the study were collected through intensive field visits to cardamom-growing areas during 2015–2017 and to major market hubs in and outside the state using a mix of qualitative tools and techniques including such tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) as participant observation, community resource mapping, climate perception mapping, in-depth and key informant interviews, and focus group discussions. The visits were supplemented by stakeholder workshops and literature review. The value chain approach was integrated with participatory multicriteria analysis, which is a decision-support tool for prioritizing the interventions recommended for overcoming the challenges identified in the study. Another major analysis tool used in the study was social network analysis, which yielded insights into the relationships between actors (individuals, social groups, and institutions) and looked at patterns of interaction between flows of resources and the positions and the influence of different actors. Inclusive stakeholder participation to understand their perception was a common denominator of all the tools and techniques used in the study.
The overall participatory methodology thus devised helped in understanding the large cardamom value chain, which had eleven major activity levels and multiple actors. The chain was a highly integrated system influenced by a range of human and natural factors—climatic, geographical, cultural, management, socio-economic, and market-linked. The impacts of these factors varied with the activity level. For example, climate change and access to water were very strong natural drivers at the production level (farming level) but had only limited impact on the value chain beyond the farmer’s gate. The policy of organic farming and the GI tag (geographical indication) were unique policy drivers that proved to be major enablers in the system because they allowed the actors to set a premium on the cardamom produced in the state. Also, the drivers from both human and natural systems interacted to influence the value chain. For example, social drivers such as social network and historical ownership of land influenced access to water, which, in turn, affected irrigation for the crop. The challenges were thus climatic (e.g. erratic rainfall), management (incorrect selection of the cardamom variety), socio-economic (gender exclusion), and policy related (lack of awareness of the premium commanded by organic or GI-tagged produce, unexpected political events such as the demonetization with adverse effects on cash-based economies, and the nascent stage of the niche market for organic produce, confined mostly to large cities).
Given these challenges, the study shortlisted twenty-five strategies best suited to overcome the emerging challenges to the large-cardamom value chain. These strategies were then prioritized through participatory multicriteria analysis based on the overall preferences of multiple stakeholders. Stakeholder discussions along with sensitivity analysis also showed how these strategies could be implemented and how the preferred criteria could change following input from experts. One of the major policy finding from the prioritization of strategies was the influence of economic criteria on the adoption of any potential intervention and the tendency of the actors to accord the highest priority to those interventions that increase primary production. Therefore, any policy intervention must take into account economic returns and also focus on supplying higher-quality inputs and encouraging more efficient cultivation and harvesting practices if it is to be implemented successfully and by a greater number of people. However, given that such a focus may lead to skewed prioritization, the study also emphasized a balanced approach in selecting the interventions and creation of a comprehensive database of economic, social, and environmental feasibilities of the recommended interventions. For instance, the options assigned a higher priority should have no adverse impacts on such horizontal elements of the chain as gender balance, income level, labour, and the environment. The mix of options must balance the various needs of the actors (e.g. sustainable production and lower transaction costs) and of the sectors (e.g. water, land, food, and energy) and be gender sensitive to prevent further disparity between gender roles and responsibilities.
The study also revealed that the governance of natural resources is complex because of multiple stakeholders at varying activity levels not only from the same sector but also from other sectors. Thus, any shift towards more sustainable and equitable management of an agricultural value chain will need to focus on the networks of actors and the dynamics of such networks across all activity levels and among different sectors. For example, in the present study, springshed management emerged as one of the top-priority option, but the in-depth study brought out the fact that farmers – who use water for irrigating their crops – had not been specifically classified as one of the categories of the users of springsheds: the policies for managing the springs were confined only to the supply of drinking water in Sikkim. Given that such interconnections between resources had been ignored, farmers were unable to benefit from the programme that promoted improved management of springsheds but had little positive impact on the cardamom value chain. Programmes related to springshed management suffer from an inherent problem, namely the inequitable distribution of benefits, owing to the nature of springs as a resource, which respects no administrative boundaries. Other complexities include restricted flow of information, lack of recognition of voluntary and non-state actors, limited involvement of local actors in setting the agenda, and the threat of splintering the existing groups of actors to form new groups. Therefore, another key conclusion of the study is that policy documents require iterative revisions to capture such changes to include the complex web of actors and the relationships between them that develop over time. Such iterative revisions help in drawing attention to several critical issues not foreseen during the initial stages of policy planning and in identifying interventions that promote sustainable value chain management.
Besides the above general conclusions related to policy, the study also resulted in some specific recommendations for strengthening the large-cardamom value chain in Sikkim.
• Develop synergies between multiple value chains.
• Establish a collaborative platform for strengthening actor networks.
• Develop location-specific technologies that integrate local knowledge.
• Promote peer-to-peer exchange of knowledge.
• Make growers and traders aware of quality standards and certification (GI-tagged and organic produce).
• Promote market and brand by exploiting such unique features as organic certification and the GI tag.
• Ensure water security in rural areas.
Suggestions for future research include conducting similar studies for other niche, high-value chains across the IHR to enable useful comparisons and to test the applicability of the methodology to other sectors and domains, conducting a pilot study after implementing the prioritized options identified in the present study to analyse their impact, and integrating scientific modelling and feasibility studies (e.g. climate change and hydrological modelling) to facilitate the implementation of the interventions.
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