Guwahati: The first consignment of fresh vegetables that were sent off via air from the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati, Assam to Dubai last month is being hailed as a historic moment for the state and the region.
However, more than a matter of pride, say experts, the development will come as a boon for farmers in Northeast India, who will now get a ready international market for their agricultural products. At present, most of their produce get wasted due to low consumption within the states and the lack of proper cold storage facilities.
The direct customs clearance of air cargo that was launched by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) at Guwahati airport recently will also help farmers, who will now be able to export their agricultural products directly.
Given Guwahati airport’s strategic location, the entire Northeastern region can benefit from the facility. As per AAI officials, the facility will soon be replicated at four other airports of the region including Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Imphal and Agartala.
The Northeast region has at least 22 agricultural products which can be exported to international markets. The demand for these products is always high in countries such as the UAE, Qatar, Singapore and Hong Kong, besides Myanmar, and Bangladesh.
According to the a research commissioned by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), the Northeastern states produce 60,92,225 metric tons (MT) of marketable surplus of these 22 products against their consumption of 90,37,492 MT.
The findings of the research published in 2017, listed maize as having a marketable surplus of up to 97.1% of the total production of 350,000 MT; pineapple with a 95% marketable surplus against total production of 777,144 MT and litchi with a 95.4% surplus against total production 78,847 MT, all of which can be exported.
Apart from these three crops, honey, orange, ginger, lemon, jackfruit, guava and peas also have over 80% marketable surplus production against their consumption demand internally.
On the other hand, cabbage had 74.2% export capacity, okra 72.6%, cauliflower 69.3% and tomato 67.7% against their total production of 912,387 MT, 203,083 MT, 479,245 MT and 517,365 MT, respectively.
To add to these numbers, an analysis made by Hyderabad-based advisory services firm Sathguru Management Consultants also reveals that the Northeast region has an ocean of opportunity, resources and unexplored potential when it comes to agriculture.
“The region possesses several comparative advantages like fertile soils, favourable climatic conditions, rich biodiversity, forest wealth, educated manpower as well as geographically strategic location acting as a gateway to Southeast Asian countries and China,” the report noted.
Professor Amarendra Kumar Das, who is hailed as a pioneer in agricultural design, said: “The Northeast is already exporting agricultural produce to other parts of the country, especially flowers, to places such as Bengaluru. However, the addition of air cargo will take these products directly to international markets.”
Das, who is at present the director of Indian Institute of Information Technology, Manipur, also served as a professor at IIT Guwahati’s design department.
“Exporting the entire surplus is not possible through a single consignment. However, the air cargo facility is a good start to a bigger export,” Das said, adding: “The basic problem is infrastructure. You need to get the produce to the airport first by roads, after which you need cold storage facilities. There is hardly any such facility available. Unless you build warehouses and cold storage facilities at various places, you are not getting vegetables to airport.”
However, Das said that the quality of agricultural products in the region is generally good. He claimed that almost 95% of the produce is organic; the only thing required now is to get organic certificates.
Dearth of storage facilities
As per official data available with the Assam government, the cultivable area in the state increased from 8,07,117 hectares to 10,28,599 hectares during 2015-16. A resultant increase in production, however, becomes meaningless in the absence of proper storage capacities. According to some reports, there are 43 cold storage facilities available in the state with a capacity of 86,776 MT.
The state government also reported a surplus in the total production of rice in 2015-16. Answering a question in the state assembly, agriculture minister Atul Bora had said that during 2015-16, the total rice production in Assam was 80.03 lakh MT as against consumption of 76.79 lakh MT. Again, the surplus production becomes meaningless due to lack of adequate storage facilities.