Elevating the role of agriculture in Northeast India

Karan Sood
Karan Sood

The northeastern region (NER) of India, encompassing the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, holds a distinct position within the country. This region covers diverse agroclimatic zones and terrains, with several areas receiving considerable rainfall, making it a prime candidate for the development of agriculture and horticulture-based industries. The agricultural sector in the NER can be categorised into four sub-sectors: crops (including horticulture and field crops), livestock, forestry, as well as fishing and aquaculture.

The NER boasts of an abundant supply of water resources, accounting for 33% of the country’s total. It receives an annual average rainfall ranging from 2,480 mm to 6,350 mm. With such ample water resources, the implementation of appropriate technologies, including rainwater harvesting, can ensure sufficient irrigation facilities in the region.

Approximately 70% of the NER’s population depends on agriculture as a primary source of livelihood, making agriculture the cornerstone of the regional economy. However, despite its significance, the production of grains and agricultural produce in the region is disproportionately low compared to the national average. This discrepancy is further accentuated by the region’s fertile land, diverse horticultural produce, and the high demand for livestock and poultry products, which are often underutilised and relegated to subsistence-level farming.

Challenges faced by the agriculture sector in NER

Small land holdings and manual farming

This is one of the prominent challenges faced by the agriculture sector in the NER, with small and marginal farmers dominating the landscape. A majority of agricultural operations are conducted manually or with rudimentary tools, without the use of modern machinery. This reliance on manual labour for ploughing, sowing, irrigating, and harvesting has resulted in reduced yields. 

Limited market access and infrastructure gaps: The presence of major players and national-level enterprises in the region is minimal, primarily due to logistical challenges. The rugged terrain, restricted accessibility, and limited transportation options hinder the development of a robust supply chain. This issue is further exacerbated by the absence of essential infrastructure, such as cold storage facilities, machinery, testing laboratories and processing units. The lack of moisture-proof storage facilities, coupled with exposure to pests and rodents, forces farmers to sell their produce immediately after harvest, often at low market prices due to oversupply. Consequently, farmers experience significant post-harvest losses.

Interventions and recommendations

  • Entrepreneurship and partnerships: The transformation of agriculture and its allied sectors in the NER requires a systematic approach driven by entrepreneurship and partnerships that place the farming community at the core of development efforts. It is crucial to harness and showcase the region’s strengths. For instance, the northeastern climate is conducive for abundant production of unique and exotic fruits specific to the area. Some of these have even received coveted “Geographical Indication (GI)” tags to acknowledge their distinctiveness and facilitate their commercialisation, such as the Queen pineapple of Tripura, Kachai lemon of Manipur, Tezpur litchi of Assam, Khasi mandarin of Meghalaya, and Malbhog banana of Assam.
  • Comprehensive interventions across value chains: To facilitate the development and enhancement of agriculture in the region, comprehensive technical, institutional, and governmental interventions are required across the agricultural and horticultural value chains. These interventions should aim to establish a network that allows farmers, farmworkers, and non-farm stakeholders to access inputs, services, and knowledge, leading to improved sales and profits. This holistic approach will result in enhanced produce quality, increased processing scale, better pricing, and higher returns for farmers, while also minimising postharvest losses.
  • State-specific and value-chain interventions: To initiate this process, tailored interventions specific to states, regions, and value chains must be developed. Given the diverse terrain and varying demands associated with each value chain or commodity, in-depth research and analysis are essential for mapping the situation, identifying requirements, and suggesting actionable interventions to enhance farm productivity and profitability. 

    In Meghalaya, for instance, a comprehensive mapping of the turmeric value chain was conducted to promote onfarm enterprises. This initiative, managed by the Program Management Unit for the Cluster Development Programme of the National Horticulture Board, assessed activities, value addition, and prices at each stage of the product’s journey, from farming by producers to sale to consumers for enterprise development. Such exercises are crucial for understanding value addition, pricing dynamics, and potential opportunities throughout the cultivation, processing, disposal, and logistics stages.
  • Leveraging collective action: Adopting a collective action approach that leverages the strength of numbers is another pivotal strategy. Uniting farmers through farmer producer organisations, companies, producer groups, and self-help groups (SHGs) streamlines access to credit and inputs, making it more affordable and efficient. Furthermore, this collective approach increases the scale of operations, creating better prospects for marketing and processing.
  • Industry associations and common facility centres: In Assam, the Cluster Development Technical Agency (CDTAAPART) Project, funded by the World Bank, has fostered the formation of Industry Associations comprising farmers and food processing workers. These associations aim to establish common facility centres (CFCs) for various value chains, effectively operating as food processing enterprises under a common brand name. For instance, a paddy CFC has already been established, and plans are underway to establish a kachi ghani oil mill for mustard oil production. 

    By collaborating, farmers have successfully secured funds, machinery, and established their brand for their product lines. This cooperative approach has enabled them to procure raw materials, packaging, and labeling items at cost-effective rates and meet compliance requirements more efficiently than if pursued individually. Additionally, this approach opens improved marketing prospects for their products.
  • Support from institutional organisations: Support from institutional organisations can play a transformative role in enhancing agricultural practices. Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), state agriculture universities, ICAR branches, the National Seed Corporation, and collaboration with organisations such as NABARD and RSETI can provide valuable resources and services. These include information dissemination, training, technology transfer, access to inputs (including breeder seeds, fertilisers, and farm equipment), market information, credit facilities, infrastructure development, and more. Collectively, these institutes serve as avenues to enhance and expand agricultural extension services for both farmers and workers.
  • Empowering women in agriculture: Projects initiated by Grant Thornton Bharat, such as the Promotion of Value Chain and Market Linkages Project with Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission or the initiatives undertaken in Assam under the STREE project, emphasise the importance of linking and converging women farmers with such institutions. This central component of capacity building and skill training empowers women in agriculture and strengthens their participation in the sector.


While many other regions in India are progressively shifting from traditional agriculture-based economies to industry or service-oriented ones, the NER remains heavily reliant on the agricultural sector. To ensure inclusive development in the area, there is a compelling need to promote agro-based industries. The abundance of raw materials can readily support the growth of processed food industries and open up opportunities to tap into global markets. Strategic planning, that improves market linkages with the mainland and introduces larger players, aggregators, and buyers, will be instrumental in fostering regional agricultural development and expanding the reach of its produce beyond its borders.

The NER is uniquely endowed with diverse agro-climatic conditions, varying soil types, and copious rainfall. These conditions offer immense potential for horticulture and value-added products that can be marketed within the country and abroad. With the right interventions, the region’s agricultural produce can be celebrated, local economies can thrive, and the livelihoods of farmers and other stakeholders involved in the industry can be significantly uplifted. There is both opportunities and challenges in this journey towards achieving these goals. However, with concerted efforts, strategic planning, and unwavering commitment, the NER can set the stage for a brighter and more prosperous future, where agriculture flourishes, communities thrive, and the world recognises the NER as a formidable agricultural powerhouse.