Covid, Ngari, Yu and Loktak

Ranjan Yumnam *

 Book Cover - How COVID-19 has Reshaped the Agricultural Value Chains
Book Cover - How COVID-19 has Reshaped the Agricultural Value Chains :: Pix - TSE

When COVID-19 spread to much of the world in 2020, humanity went inside their homes and huddled in separate rooms. Our concerns focused on the protection of human lives, staying healthy, and containing the infection caused by the coronavirus. The collective global efforts finally paid off by defeating the virus.

Human ingenuity triumphed and stood up to the challenge posed by Coronavirus by developing vaccines with revolutionary technology like mRNA vaccines, which were used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna varieties that were rolled out in record time. The human species won big time. The world is back to its normal ways.

The book “How COVID-19 has Reshaped the Agricultural Value Chains,” edited by Dr Senjam Jinus and Dr Sanjive Kumar Singh, shifts our focus from humans to non-human lives. The book is an under-reported account of the pandemic’s profound impact on agriculture and related industries.

While we were busy tracking the virus, the human fatalities, vaccination coverage, quarantine measures and oxygen supplies, the two Editors quietly monitored and documented the ruin it brought to the world of poultry, fish and plants which were deemed non-essential. They observed how our best-laid plants, chicks and farms were laid barren.

Our lives were overturned by the pandemic, but we adapted quickly with remote work, hybrid office, hand sanitisers and face masks. Obviously, these measures couldn’t work for poultry farms, pisciculture and paddy fields. Chickens need to be fed; fishes want their daily dose of chemicals, and paddy fields must be tilled by tractors and oxen directed by people.

Since these are insentient animals and plants which can’t look after themselves, they need special human care. The problem arose when the lockdowns hit the farmers, forcing them to halt their normal work. The labour shortage and the disruption in producing and distributing raw materials and inputs starved the agri and allied sectors.

The pandemic not only shrunk the market due to lockdowns but it created a vicious cycle in which the collapse of the market and low productivity further reinforced each other.

Topical and relevant

Before coming to Ngari and Yu, a casual skimming of the content outline of the book will be instructional in itself. The Editors chose to spotlight the overlooked Covid’s effects on the above sectors in North East India, predominantly in Manipur—in contrast to our fixation on Covid’s impact on our work-life dislocations.

When we talked about the pandemic, our conversations converged on remote work, psychological healing, and economic down- turns. This book is bio-diversity’s response to the human-centric discourse regarding COVID-19 and fills a gap in pandemic literature, albeit belatedly.

The Editors, Dr Senjam Jinus and Dr Sanjive Kumar Singh, have done a wonderful job of studying Manipur’s agri and allied sectors during the pandemic and condensing them for scholars and lay people alike.

Their book also looks at the role of traditional beliefs and practices associated with food habits, the use of antioxidant-rich and immune-boosting agricultural and horticultural food, and traditional food processing techniques with suggestions for sustainable and long-term solutions to future pandemics with wisdom filtered from COVID-19 experience.

Salient insights

The first article in the book draws attention to the poultry industry in Manipur. It is not surprising to know that Manipur ranks third in poultry production and the 4th position in meat production in the North East. According to the Livestock Census (in 2017), Manipur had a total poultry population of 24.21 lakh. This census also reported 1016.15 lakh of egg production and 21,000 tonnes of meat production.

It’s my opinion that the increasing preference for poultry and meat consumption drives the trend of upward production. It is a situation in which the supply side tries to meet demands. This happens because the taboo of meat eating has almost disappeared among the population of Manipur.

The young Hindu followers are not shy diners; they are conspicuous by their weakness for enjoying meat. Due to the general problems caused by COVID-19, such as disruptions in the market, logistics, closure of work-sheds, and labour shortage (recurrent themes in this book), the poultry sector plunged into a tailspin during the pandemic, the book confirms.

The Loktak Lake also tells a sorry tale. The author dives into the Covid’s impact on the impoverished villagers in Champak village, which depends on Loktak Lake for their livelihood. About 50,000 people directly pin their lives on Loktak Lake. They barely survived the Covid, thanks to improvised sun-drying of fishes and aquatic farming of plants to tide over the constraints of lockdown protocols.

Their socio-economic conditions deterio- rated within the context of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets, especially targets No.1 (No Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger) and 10 (reduced inequalities). All three SDG targets slipped due to Covid-19.

An important point is also highlighted. Infrastructure projects like Ithai Barrage have disturbed the natural habitat of fish and changed the hydrology and biodiversity of the Loktak region. Over-exploitation and the introduction of non-native species of fish have led to a decline in the yield of fishing in Loktak Lake.

This is despite Loktak Lake being designated as a Ramsar Site that calls for increased conservation and sustainable management. “The time is ripe to reconsider the status of Ithai Barrage in relation to its impacts upon the lake’s ecosystem and loss in biodiversity, which in its turn impacts upon the local population dependent on the lake’s resources for their needs including food and shelter,” writes Salam Rajesh in concluding remarks of his article.

Beyond the Loktak lake, fishery output in Manipur is, well, very fishy. The total fish production from capture and culture fisheries stands at 31997 tons, with an estimated consumption of 40810 tons in 2015-16.

The potential fish production in Manipur is calculated at 2.8 lakh tons per annum, nearly five times the current productivity. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to say fishery is like the tourism sector in Manipur, which has so much potential but has not converted into results. Achieving this requires improved management skills, enthusiastic governance, and skilled manpower, the authors write.

One of the chapters in the book focuses on the mandatory use of certain food items in the customary rites and rituals of ethnic groups in Manipur, signifying their close relationship with their natural surroundings.

Koujeng (grasshopper) Shingju and Nga (fish) Shingju, morokthongba (chilli curry) of Chakpa in Andro, traditional food habits, relying on shifting cultivation and minor forest produce of the Tarao tribe; and rice, meat and yu (country drink) culture of Kharam tribes are described and their importance in cultural ceremonies high- lighted. These traditions surmounted COVID-19 and even insulated the indigenous people from the onslaught of the epidemic.

Do you know that pregnant women of Tarao avoid plucking fruits or vegetables from the roof, fearing infertility? Mud consumption is believed to ensure a healthy child and bitter fruits are avoided to prevent the child from becoming selfish. Likewise, diet is shaped by the myths and cultural and religious practices of the ethnic groups, which strengthen their feelings of togetherness.

An idea of fermented Manipur

Manipur without ngari, eromba (fermented fish and usually bamboo shoot) and hawaijar (fermented soybean) is inconceivable. Sports, culture, fermented foods and flat noses define us. We love our food fermented to add flavour to it and attack the olfactory antenna of the non-Manipuris. The lucky coincidence is that these foods happen to confer great nutritional value through probiotics.

Whether ngari protected us from Covid is debatable and the book doesn’t answer it. But if given a choice between cheese and ngari, we will trade our nose for ngari. Besides fermentation techniques, Manipuris employ sun drying and smoking to preserve a range of foods including fish, meats, vegetables, and bamboo shoots. Other cultures in the North East also make similar culinary delights by different names.

No doubt, ngari-eating Manipuris were hit hard by the Covid pandemic. The pandemic severely disrupted agricultural activities, leading to significant financial losses. It led to Stranded Crops and Vegetables.

The book cites the example of farmers in Khoijuman Khullen village, a major vegetable-producing area, who suffered as their crops remained unattended due to the lockdown. Cessation of Income for the farmers coupled with Adverse Weather Conditions eroded the income of the farmers. The lack of sufficient cold chain infrastruc- ture and post-harvest management facilities worsened the situation.

Somewhere, an important fact was modestly stated, as if preferring to be overlooked. “COVID-19 has disrupted and hampered the activities and production of the farmers, and with lockdown becoming stricter with the banning of partial relaxation, losses of around Rs 5 crore have been incurred every month since the first lockdown,” an article mentions on the sly.

What are the success stories from the Covid-19 pandemic ? One outstanding innovative idea that emerged is that of the Manipur Organic Mission Agency. MOMA introduced a smartphone application called “MOMA Market” to facilitate the home delivery of fresh vegetables and other agricultural products. This initiative was crucial in addressing the challenges posed by the lockdown and ensuring that both farmers and consumers benefited.

The last chapter in the book examines minimally processed frozen vegetables, food fortification, instant soup premix, dried fruit/candy, and cereal-based products from the context of safety and nutrition and as an alternative income source during the COVID-19 pandemic.

College of Food Technology (COFT), CAU, Manipur developed new value-added cereal products, such as Instant Chakhao Kheer Premix, Chakhao noodle, and Chia + Flax impregnated rice balls, which were hits.

Hits & Misses

The book edited by Dr Senjam Jinus and Dr Sanjive Kumar Singh could have been published at any time. Covid or no Covid, its themes are inclusive and perennial. If you remove the COVID-19 references, the book will be as useful in understanding the prospects and challenges faced by the Agri and allied sectors in Manipur.

Sometimes, it feels like the Covid reference is superimposed using brute force by the writers to align with the book’s title. The Covid-19 link is dated, and this book should have happened years ago in that title.

By the way, welcome to 2025 in a few months.

My second suggestion for improvement is about data presentation. The book declares that the poultry industry of Manipur has high potential, but it doesn’t give us the annual data on production, demand, and targets, as well as statistics from before and after Covid.

The Covid’s impact is not reflected substantially in many of the articles dealing with different sectors. They lack comparative data, and we do not get to see self-explanatory charts or tables that would have needed only a few words. All the negative impacts of COVID-19 are couched in narrative form.

But thank the editors and scholars for their insightful book. They put their skin in the game. What is there to critique if there’s nothing to review ? It is an important contribution that must be in the library of every self-respecting Agri university and college.

Dr. Senjam Jinus is the Managing Director of Farming Alternative and Resilience Mitigation Schools (FARMS), Imphal. He also serves as an Assistant Professor with extensive teaching experience at FEEDS Group of Institutes, College of Horticulture & Agri-Biotechnology, Hengbung, Manipur.

Dr Sanjive Kumar Singh is the Dean of the College of Horticulture and Forestry at Rani Lakshmi Bai Central Agricultural University in Jhansi, U.P. He holds a B.Sc. (Ag.) degree from Janta College Bakewar (Etawah) and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. degree in Horticulture from C.S. Azad University of Agriculture & Technology, Kanpur.

* Ranjan Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on July 06 2024.

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