On 15 August 2021, marking India’s 75th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a crowd-packed Red Fort. “Just as we are making sure that no person or no class should be left behind in the development journey of society, similarly no part of the country, no corner of the country, should be left behind,” he told the crowd. “Development should be all-round, development should be all-pervasive, development should be all-inclusive.” Speaking of possible initiatives, he said, “There is a huge potential in the fields of tourism, adventure sports, organic farming, herbal medicine, and oil palm in the North East. We have to fully harness this potential and make it a part of the development journey of the country.”
Three days later, a national scheme on palm oils was approved by the union cabinet. Palm oil is an edible oil derived from the fruits of oil palms, that are native to west Africa, and are widely grown across Southeast Asia. Modi announced the decision in a tweet: “Today’s Cabinet decision on National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm will be a game-changer when it comes to helping oil palm farmers and creating an Atma Nirbhar Bharat”—referring to a plan to make India economically self-reliant. “The Northeast, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands will specially benefit from this.” Later, in a press briefing, Narendra Singh Tomar, the union minister of agriculture and farmers’ welfare, said the cabinet had approved Rs 11,040 crore for the National Mission on Edible Oils—Oil Palm. The scheme aims to increase cultivation of oil palm trees to one million hectares from the current 3,50,000 hectares, and to achieve an oil-production rate of 2.8 million tonnes by 2030.
On 31 August, Tomar alongside G Kishan Reddy, the minister for the development of the north east region, held a meeting with the chief ministers of the Northeast states. In it, Reddy mentioned that the states have an important role to play in the success of the National Mission on Edible Oils, or NMEO-OP, and that Mizoram has had a successful journey in the cultivation of oil palm, which could set an example for the other states.
Both oil palm farmers and environmentalists from Mizoram told me that, unlike the positive picture Reddy painted, the state’s experiment with oil palm has been a failure for everyone both farmers and companies. Several farmers told me that oil palm, which is an incredibly nutrient and water intensive crop, has left fields and the surrounding forests infertile. Many farmers said they made absolutely no profit in the decade and a half since the crop was first planted, most often because companies that were legally required to buy their produce did not, often because of poor road access. The farmers also accused the companies of failing to pay the compensation stipulated by Mizoram’s laws. Mizoram’s experiment with oil palm cultivation has led to a host of impoverished farmers, and unaccountable companies. Environmental activists and farmers told me that they feared the NMEO-OP would yield the same results, albeit at a much larger scale.
In 2004, Mizoram had started an oil palm development program with the same enthusiasm that Modi currently showed this project. That year, the union ministry of agriculture issued the administrative approval for oil palm cultivation under the Integrated Scheme of Oil Seeds, Pulses, Oil palm and Maize. The programme was implemented with its costs being shared between the union and state governments. That December, the state assembly passed the Mizoram Oil Palm (Regulation of Production and Processing) Act. Oil palm plantations have since been operational in seven districts—Aizawl, Kolasib, Mamit, Serchhip, Lunglei, Lawngtlai and Siaha.