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How a tiny, remote Sikkim district became the world’s leading producer of black cardamom

Organic, fair-trade and sustainable, Sikkim currently holds a monopoly over black cardamom. And the district producing it has a population less than Lajpat Nagar in Delhi.

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North Sikkim is a sparsely populated, remote district associated with high-altitude lakes and yak-herding. It is also one of the few places in the world that produces the black cardamom or badi elaichi, a distinctive smoky flavoured spice. In the third of a series on the One District One Product (ODOP) Initiative, we look at how the programme is helping North Sikkim district’s Mangan, where the spice probably originated, boost India’s global spice exports.

Sikkim’s smoky black cardamom sold for almost Rs 2,000 per kg in late 2021, an eight-fold jump in its price from 10 years ago. Organic, fair-trade, and sustainable, Sikkim currently holds a monopoly over black cardamom in global markets, with Singtam town’s spot market setting new price and production benchmarks each year. For a remote, tiny state, this remarkable success in spice is no mean achievement and is an example of how government policies and local entrepreneurship can result in a spectacular turnaround in a local economy.

A 100 per cent organic state, Sikkim banned the import of fertiliser into the state back in 2003. A move that fetched mixed results, it led to significant crop losses for cardamom farmers in the subsequent decade, but also resulted in Sikkim’s successful rebranding of cash crops as sustainable, organic, and able to command a premium over produce from other parts of the world.

In the early 2000s, India accounted for over half of the world’s production of large/black cardamom, with Sikkim at one point accounting for almost 88 per cent of India’s production. The numbers fluctuated with prices ever since, with India losing its position as the world’s biggest producer of badi elaichi (Amomum subulatum) to Nepal in recent years

After a decade of fluctuating cardamom yields and relatively low prices, the last few years have seen a significant uptick in the production of large or black cardamom in North Sikkim, one of Sikkim’s four districts. In 2020, India accounted for slightly over 8 per cent of the world’s cardamom (large and small) exports, valued at $114 million – a jump of almost 100 per cent from 2019. The relatively tiny North Sikkim also punched well over its weight in helping displace Nepal as the world’s leading producer of large cardamom. The introduction of the ODOP initiative, and a renewed focus on black cardamom in the district resulted in a 250 per cent jump in district exports from $2 million in 2018-19 to more than $7 million in 2019-20.

Read More: China loves Guntur chillis — How the Andhra district produced a spicy global product

Small district meets global standards

A remote, high-altitude border district abutting China, North Sikkim is home to less than 45,000 people. Most of its population is Buddhist and Bhutia, in marked contrast to the rest of the state dominated by Nepali-speaking Hindus. A district so remote that you require a special government permit just to enter it, it is largely known for its massive hydroelectric powerplants, high-altitude lakes and nomadic yak-herders who straddle the Tibetan border.

The district is home to two sub-divisions – Mangan with about 45 villages and Chungthang with nine villages. Mangan also serves as the district’s capital and is at a relatively lower altitude than Chungthang and houses some of India’s largest cardamom plantations.

Sikkim has seen a tremendous surge in cash crop cultivation like black cardamom. While the details of its origin are vague, cardamom was likely domesticated by the Lepchas of Sikkim during ancient times, before being widely adopted by the state’s Bhutia and Nepali-speaking communities. It is estimated that over 15 per cent of the households in Sikkim cultivate cardamom in their plantations, and in recent years, the state has produced over 5,000 tonne of black cardamom with over 20,000 hectares under cultivation.

Despite the Spice Board’s headquarters being in faraway Kerala, Sikkim aggressively took advantage of the board’s various schemes of such as the spice parks and financial assistance to set up cold chains. It also benefited extensively from Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA)’s “Export Development and Promotion” scheme through the grants-in-aid to exporters for constructing of processing facilities, and trade promotion and packaging support programmes. As a result, North Sikkim’s cardamom meets global phytosanitary standards in ways that the rest of India’s production are yet to. Not content with its stellar cardamom processing success, Sikkim is now exploring ways to exploit cardamom fibres to make mats.

Read More: From ban to brand, Indian govt now champions mahua liquor. But Chhattisgarh isn’t cashing in

Global success

In a unique example of converging government schemes, the Director-General of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI), decided to focus their energies on promoting the black cardamom from North Sikkim (Mangan). The MoFPI went on to select six districts for large cardamom- Kra Daadi, Siang, Anjaw and Kurung Kumey in Arunachal Pradesh, and Mon in Nagaland, but support from the Ministry of Commerce and the powerful Spices Board resulted in significant support being provided to North Sikkim’s farmers.

During initial discussions, tourism – a service not product – was selected as the unique, signature ODOP product of the district, which houses part of the Kanchendzonga National Park, and is home to the hill stations of Lachen, Lachung and the Gurudongmar lake, while large cardamom was allotted to West Sikkim. However, the prohibitive cost of travel to such a remote destination, coupled with the need for travel permits and limited accommodation led to a rethink of tourism as the district’s unique ODOP, and was replaced with large, black cardamom early on – its only real notable product besides hydroelectric power.

North Sikkim had filed for GI (Geographical Indication) tag for its unique variant of large cardamom back in 2012 and has extensively cultivated the disease tolerant Dzongu-golsai cultivar. This variety of large cardamom was indigenously developed by the district to counters viral diseases and cankers chirke (bushy dwarf), and foorkey (mosaic streak) that had led to a drop in crop yield when the transition to a 100-per cent organic state began.

However, North Sikkim might be a victim of its own success if it gets complacent. As a result of changing government policy, Arunachal Pradesh has started cultivating black cardamom in a big way and is rapidly emerging as a major competitor. Further, the production in North Sikkim is highly vulnerable to shocks such as changing temperatures and plant diseases.

It is rare to find government agencies acting in concert towards a common goal. It is even rarer to find a remote, tribal district with a population of less than one-third of Lajpat Nagar that has achieved global success in such a short time. In 2020 alone, this tiny district’s contribution to Indian exports was Rs 52 crore, or almost Rs 12,000 per resident of the district – a record unmatched by any other district.

District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a Director in the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog where he works on the evaluation of government schemes. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Pranay Dutta Roy)

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