In an exclusive interview with our Thoubal Correspondent the Vice-President of People for Nature Kh Romio has urged the state government to walk away from the plans for mass scale palm plantation under the National Oil Mission-Oil Palm (NMEP-OP) which is being envisaged in the north-eastern states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands with a plan outlay of Rs 11,000 crores to boost production of cooking oil and decrease dependency on imports. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pushed the northeastern states to own up a majority of the plantation area, selling the dream that it will be a big boost to farmers in the region. DoNER ministry had also made a headlong promotion stating that it is a major opportunity for employment generation in the region. A statement from the ministry further inferred that the farmers of the northeastern regions should be thankful because the region had been identified as a special focus area as the target set for the next five years here is more than 50 percent of the overall target of 6.5 lakh hectares set for the entire nation. The ministry of agriculture believed that the palm plantation is ideal for the northeast region. Though most states are working to increase production of palm oil the length of time it takes to bear fruits and volatility of the prices of oil are scaring them. They are motivated to cultivate in the presence of processing industries which is dependent on good cultivation. On the other hand, there is no such worry in northeast India where there is a traditional absence of processing industries. The ministry is aiming to convince potential palm growers here with monetary assistance for planting materials and promises to buy the product at reasonable minimum support prices. However, the moot question that local activists like Romio has brought up is the environmental impact we will behaving compared to the commercial advantages from growing palms.
According to Romio, palm trees are not an endemic species of the North East Region and large-scale plantation will create irreparable ecological imbalance and threaten the wildlife and local vegetation. Sticking to the plantation of endemic species of trees is necessary for restoration of the ecological balance. Also, in the course for plantation of palm trees vast swathes of forest cover will be denuded and the endangered wildlife taking shelter here will become extinct and the region which has been recognised as a biodiversity hotspot will lose its natural feature. For the same reason, there have been numerous objections to the scheme from all north-eastern states. Mizoram which has a history with palm plantation has witnessed public outcry on this issue in recent times. Environmentalists there have assessed that the widespread oil palm cultivation inflicts damage on the biodiversity, draining ground- water and causing immense destruction to flora and fauna in the state. Moreover, with its long gestation period it is not favourable for small farmers.
Tropical countries including Sri Lanka have started prohibition on the plantation of the tree due to its socio-economic and eco- logical impacts. It is not like we believe the Centre is pushing a cursed crop to our states. But it is imperative that we consider the pros and cons of taking up the commercial plantation of palm trees and only take a firm decision after hearing both sides of the story. Yes, it is true that the Centre is keen on revival of agricultural marketing in the northeast and increasing oil production. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the appeals to watch before taking the leap as there are many convincing arguments that the negative impacts of palm tree cultivation are hard to solve. Many north-eastern states have already passed laws to start palm plantations. There is still time for initiating dialogues to identify a better course for our future by discussing its merits and demerits with the participation of all stakeholders. Until then the implementation of the NMEO-OP scheme should be put on hold in the light of the present and upcoming opposition.