Two Lok Sabha MPs from Meghalaya were among parliamentarians from the North East who recently signed a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to reconsider plans to increase oil palm plantation in the North East region.
Shillong MP Vincent H. Pala and Tura MP Agatha Sangma joined Assam MPs – Pradyut Bordoloi, Abdul Khaleque and Gaurav Gogoi – and Manipur MP Lorho S. Pfoze in a joint letter to Modi stated that oil palm plantation poses adverse effect on the environment of the region.
The MPs also said that oil palm plantation in the North East would cause serious environmental risks as it would lead to large scale deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity in the region.
Appealing to Modi to thoroughly assess the North East oil palm expansion plan, the MPs also emphasised the region’s unsuitability for oil palm development due to its climate.
They also argued that the Central government should focus its efforts on using the peninsula’s current cropland for oil palm production in order to prevent the logging of North East forests.
The central government has promoted oil palm farming as a way for India to lessen its dependency on foreign edible oils. Environmentalists, however, raised a warning about the possibility of disastrous environmental effects of such expansion.
Apart from social and environmental issues, the MPs expressed doubts about the North East’s ability to economically support oil palm cultivation. They emphasised how the area’s significant rainfall and cold temperatures make it unsuitable for such agriculture.
They also highlighted the need for a thorough analysis and well-informed decision-making process that considers the numerous repercussions of the region’s oil palm expansion.
On August 18, 2021, the Narendra Modi government rolled out the National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) with an outlay of Rs 11,040 crore.
The plan aims to bring 6.5 lakh hectares of land under oil palm trees plantation. This includes 3.28 lakh hectares in the north-eastern states and 3.22 in the rest of the country across the next five years.
Under the new scheme, a substantial increase has been made in the assistance of inputs/interventions for planting material for oil palm from Rs 12,000 per hectare to Rs 29,000 per hectare. Special assistance of Rs 250 per plant is also being given to replant old gardens for rejuvenation of old gardens.
The government will give a price assurance in the form of viability price to the oil palm farmers for Fresh Fruit Bunches from which oil is extracted to protect the farmers from volatility in international prices of crude palm oil.
To address the issue of shortage of planting material in the country, seed gardens will be provided assistance up to Rs 80 lakhs for 15 hectares in rest of India and Rs 1 crore for 15 hectares in North-East and Andaman regions. Assistance for seed gardens at the rate of Rs 40 lakh for the rest of India and Rs 50 lakh for North East and Andaman regions will also be provided.
Further, special assistance will be provided for the North-East and the Andaman regions in which special provisions are being made for half moon terrace cultivation, bio fencing and land clearance along with integrated farming. For capital assistance to the industry, for the North East states and Andamans, a provision of Rs 5 crore of 5 mt/hr unit with pro rata increase for higher capacity. This will attract the industry to these regions.
However, environmentalists felt that widespread cultivation of oil palm would damage the biodiversity due to large scale deforestation. Moreover, planting palm oil trees harms the quality of the soil and palm tree oils are known to absorb significant amounts of nutrients from the soil, degrading the quality of the soil.
States of North East India states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands together encompass three Global Biodiversity Hotspots. Besides extensive tracts of forests, the North East and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands host a multitude of species that are globally threatened, range-restricted or endemic.
Currently, India imports a massive 99 percent of its palm oil, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia.