Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rangbull Farm

A view of the State Potato Seed Multiplication Farm from the Packing House.
Twelve kilometres away from the Darjeeling town, the State Potato Seed Multiplication Farm stretches over 356.42 acres at Rangbull (a toponym definitely of the Lepcha origin). The Rangbull Farm, as popularly known is situated a kilometre down from the national highway connecting Darjeeling with Siliguri, and can be seen from the highway, too.

As a part of the Grow More Food campaign under the British Army, the Rangbull Farm came into existence in 1945. The vegetable cultivation was encouraged and was war supplied all over the Middle East, through the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway upto Siliguri. The produce was packed at, known till today as the Packing House with an office nearby (to be specific both at Bangladara on the national highway), now both privately owned. In the subsequent year, due to the lack of budget the campaign had ceased its operation.

In December 1947, the state government again started the potato farming on the organised way on 100 acre plot leased from the Amalgamated Tea Estate, till 1963. Rangbull despite being famous for cabbage (a local variety is named Rangbulle Banda), the State Potato Seed Multiplication Farm was established at Rangbull to produce, multiply, and supply through the government network all over India, disease free and wart immune potato seeds. Moreover, availability of the land and feasibility promoted the idea into practice. Further, the climatic and agronomic factors further encouraged the growth and production of high altitude potato, though the crop production is lesser than in the plains because of less sunshine with an annual average of four hours daily, fertility erosion by rain water, and the high weed growth. The step of establishing farm at Rangbull was warmly welcomed by the locals as it provided employment opportunity in the post-World War II era. Later, the Rangbull Farm became not just a source of livelihood but also as a centre of their existence with many legends attached with it.

In 1963, the West Bengal government cancelled the lease and nationalised the Rangbull Farm. Then after, it emerged as a major potato seed multiplier with the extension of the farm land to 365.42 acres including both the Sonada and the Rangbull units by converting the fallow land into arable land. With the extension, it was expected to be one of the largest potato farms in Asia. For the convenience of acreage, budget, production, supervision, and labour input, the farm, lying between 5, 500 feet to 7, 000 feet above the sea level was divided into six blocks with natural boundaries of streams, marsh, hillocks, etc. Before nationalisation the sole in-charge of the Farm was the Inspecting Officer (Potatoes) but after the nationalisation it was under the Economic Botanist in the Directorate of Agriculture of the state government, and many of its daily wage workers were made permanent staff. Since the fag-end of the last century, it is incorporated under the Agriculture Department of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

The seed multiplication was practised on terraced fields with traditional implements like hoes, spade, forks, etc. Later on, hand driven cultivator tractor and traditional plough were experimented to pulverise the rich brown forest soil. Both inorganic and bio-organic manures were used to yield better result. The seeds were planted in November and harvested in July. Sometimes, crops were damaged by hailstorm, and wild animals, but not a single case of theft is registered so far.

In its first year, the Darjeeling Red Round, a local high altitude variety was cultivated but due to less production because of very high disease risk, it was successfully replaced by a plain variety. In 1959, the imported seeds from the Netherlands, of which a white-skinned and a red-skinned variety called Ackersegan and Pimpernel, respectively were introduced in the Farm. Their success story has now became a legend as they were more immune to diseases and were heavily demanded throughout India. Since 1965, the import of seed potato from Myanmar known as Rangoon seed had virtually stopped and the short-supply was largely made-up by the produce of the Rangbull Farm. Later on, Kufri Jyoti, a Shimla variety was introduced which also achieved a major success, and is common among the local cultivators, too. During the 1990s , the Bhangjyang White Long (BWL), indigenously developed hybrid of Pimpernel and Ackersegan at the State Potato Experimental Station, Ghoom Bhangjyang, and Kufri Jyoti were cultivated in the plot-rotation basis.

The State Potato Experimental Station at Ghoom Bhangjyang, twelve kilometres away from the district headquarter on the Darjeeling–Mirik road was established in 1944 to conduct breeding and agronomic research for finding out better varieties of potato in respect of yield, quality, and disease resistance and also to ascertain the optimum cultural and manurial requirements of the crop. An experiment that started on the five acres taken from the Forest Department is the oldest potato research station in the hills. Later the Station was extended to eighteen acres, where various experiments were carried on with the limited amenities like an insect–proof glass house and a small field laboratory. The improved potato strain are Ackersegan, B-1965, Ultimus, and BWL both for the hills and the plains, and Pimpernel for high altitude cultivation show casing the achievement of the Station. During the 1987 crop season the three varieties of potato were evolved which proved a resistant to the devastating blight disease, also. But with the passage of time, the condition of the farm has become much deplorable as if it has got blight. “The field research especially hybridisation, specing and such under the Economic Botanist III are now conducted on the only thirteen acres for about seveenteen varieties without the glass house, the laboratory and more surprisingly the post of a permanent research officer is vacant for more than twenty years,” said Mr K.B. Rai, a Krishi Prajikti Shayak (KPS) at the Experimental Station in 1997.

A large number of research relating with potato multiplication technique like cut-tuber, side croping with cabbage, etc. were conducted out at the Rangbull Farm, too, with a small field laboratory with few equipments especially to fight viral and fungal diseases. The Farm is proud of finding cause and remedy for leaf rot, mosaic, and wart (The Central Wart Testing Station at Aloobari, Jorebunglow is now the Orchid Centre). In his nineties, Mr K. B. Shah (popularly known as Shah bau), an ex-overseer of the Rangbull Farm under whose tenure the Rangbull Farm enjoyed its golden period, states his experiences with other academicians and proudly recollects his days as a co-worker with Dr H.C. Chaudhary on the high altitude potato. The research scholars from all over the world had conducted their experiments at the Rangbull Farm. But he admits that the Rangbull Farm being situated on the windward side did not permit to be suitable for hybridisation process.

In 1956, the Rangbull Farm had a pucca motorable road connecting the national highway, enabling the Farm to had its own tractor for transportation of farm input and output. In its peak, the Farm had five godowns, two staff quarters, a garage with a tractor, an office, and a laboratory which were reduced to ashes, and the locals did help to clear the left over in the turbulent 1980s. The roads and bridges were damaged by both the human and the climatic factors after the downfall of the Farm. In the late nineties, it was turned more into a playing field, grazing pasture, quarry, etc. than the multiplication farm, once famous all over India. The Kalyani University, too put a side the Rangbull Farm for a proposed regional research station like that of Kalimpong, due to poor existing infrastructure. Whatever its condition has become, not an inch of the farm land is occupied by the locals as they still feel and adore the Rangbull Farm as their bread baker. Moreover, they are hopeful that once again it will retain its glory.
After the Ghising led movement for Gorkhaland, the cultivation which was once carried up to 170 acres, was now practised only on 15 acres and 25 aces at the Rangbull and the Sonada unit, respectively both under the Rangbull Farm. The lack of better co-ordination between the management and the labourers, and proper field supervision, absence of field office and inspecting officer have further deteriorated the farm. In the administrative side, meagre funding, cow dung and seed availability problem and delayed labour wages were also responsible for its collapse.

The issue of the common interest – permanency of labourers as Krishi Shramik, which gained a tempo in the mid 1990 is far from the reality as the farm cannot employ its all registered labourers for more than 240 days a year in its current condition. This demand also depends upon the smooth functioning of the Rangbull Farm, which primarily depends upon the godown.

The produce were once stored in the private hired godowns with poor storing facilities which was not economically beneficial. “Godown is the mother of all the issues concerning the farm's growth and development,” said Mr Samsher Chettri, Principal Agriculture Officer in 1997. After being incorporated into the Agriculture Department, DGHC, the councillor and the secretary of the Department realised the need of godown and reconstructed one each at Rangbull, Sonada and Bhangjyang.

The first time under the DGHC, seeds from the Sikkim State Seed Corporation to rotate the seed species, experiences like from Mr K. B. Shah for the better cultivation and management and the technical guidance from the State government were sought. However, along with the improvement of the infrastructure and the office of the Agriculture Development Officer (Potatoes) at the Rangbull Farm site for better technical supervision and implementation of schemes were never realised in practice.

In 1997, the Principal Agriculture Officer aspired that “the Agriculture Department will provide adequate budget to revive the legacy, and within less than five years in phase-wise, the farm will be better than the before.” However, in reality the condition of the Rangbull Farm has worsened with every passing year, and has almost cease to exist. This labour-dependent farm's progress relies not only upon the labourers' commitment which abounds in plenty but on the vision of the leadership who decides, unfortunately, for this heritage farm, once famous all over the world. In the context of today's Darjeeling, paradoxically, it is their political vision which will decide the fate of such long standing tradition of the hill people to become bright or blight.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.