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Agriculture in Uttarakhand – an asset turning into a liability?

Terrace fields amidst Himalayan ranges near Rishikesh_Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Terrace fields amidst Himalayan ranges near Rishikesh; Wikimedia Commons

Parts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur that fall above an elevation of 2500m are home to traditionally agro-pastoral societies. People who have combined farming and horticulture with rearing livestock as a dual source of living. Success at growing barley, a crop that can tolerate cold temperatures, allowed people to farm and hence inhabit high-altitude areas about 3,600 years ago. Agricultural land was historically held through semi-feudal arrangements – by the appointment officials who were given powers to collect taxes. Over centuries the traditional crops ranged from varieties of barley (at least four varieties that were locally known as kneu, soa, nenak, and eumo), to buckwheat (known locally as ogla and phafda or kaathu), and black peas. Horticultural produce included varieties of apricots and apples, especially in Kinnaur. In addition to helping plough farms, livestock were a source of many essentials: protein, dairy, wool and manure. The region’s remoteness and sparse population made cooperation in farming essential. Clear rules to manage water, pastures and other essential village common resources have been practiced for centuries. Farming enabled subsistence with surpluses being traded.  Such trade involved barter that was largely regional. Annual trade fairs held at Ladarcha (Spiti), Kullu and Lavi (Rampur-Bushahr) provided occasions for such exchange.

Agriculture began to transform soon after India’s independence in 1947. Himachal Pradesh witnessed land reforms in the form of four separate acts that were enacted between 1953 and 1968. In addition to a ceiling on the amount of land that could be owned individually, ownership rights of land were granted to those who had traditionally cultivated them under old semi-feudal arrangements. Land for farming was allotted to landless individuals, a landmark reform referred to as nautor. Even though there were discrepancies in land holdings and allotments, the laws ensured that almost every household owned land for agriculture. Another key factor that went on to influence farming was the setting up of cooperative societies with the aim of preventing outsiders exploiting local people because of their isolation.


Set to the north-east of Manali across Rohtang La, Lahaul was the most remote part of this region remaining cut-off during winter. Enterprising Lahaulis set up an informal Muleteers  society in Manali in the 1950s, where they used to come in the winters to rent mules or to work as labour. This arrangement let them fix rates they would charge and prevent any exploitation. This ran successfully without any formal support or intervention until the road over the Rohtang La was built in 1967. A Kuth Cooperative Marketing Society, established in 1959, was the first registered cooperative set up by Lahaulis in Manali in order to stabilise kuth prices and explore new markets. The roots of the kuth plant, introduced in Lahaul around 1925 from Jammu and Kashmir, has medicinal values and is a non-perishable item. Kuth cultivation was a success and probably brought local Lahauli farmers their first substantial financial gain by planting 10–15% of their fields with kuth. Though kuth prices started to decline in the 1960s, this success marked the start of the region’s experiments with commercial crops which continues to this day.

Potato was first introduced into Lahaul in 1860 by Moravian missionaries. Local climatic conditions offered an advantage as it enabled Lahualis to produce off-season vegetables. In 1965, as kuth prices began to fall, a meeting was held in Keylong where a few leading farmers of Lahaul held discussions with scientists and potato growers of Punjab. Some potato growers from Jallandhar assured the purchase of their entire first crop at rates that would give farmers higher returns than kuth. All preparation for potato cultivation were completed months before the closing of the Rohtang pass in winter. In 1966 the first batch of disease-free seed potato was exported from Lahaul. This led to the formation of the Lahaul Potato Cooperative Marketing Society (or simply, Lahaul Potato Society) in 1966 with just 20 farmers. Farmers had soon realised that potato cultivation would not be financially viable without collective action to influence the market to which all the farmers were vulnerable. The Lahaul Potato Society thus set out to procure, store and market agricultural and horticultural produce of the region. It worked closely with the Central Potato Research Institute that had come up in Shimla in 1956.  These collaborations brought in knowledge of contemporary farming techniques and access to fertilisers. By the mid-1970s potato became the most prominent produce of Lahaul, with very small portions remaining under barley and buckwheat. Seed potatoes were being marketed to Gujarat, West Bengal and Maharashtra with small amounts going as far as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. By 1975 the Society was not only financially viable but it also started gathering assets and venturing into other services. At its peak, the Lahaul Potato Society was India’s second largest cooperative after Amul.

When prices of potatoes fell in 1979-80 and again in 1984-85, the Society lobbied with the State government to ensure a support price for their produce. The Society supported diversification through the promotion of hops cultivation in 1973-74, and later with the introduction of green peas in 1984. Cultivation of green peas picked up in the following decade, with farmers switching from potato to peas. Since green peas was perishable, the Society’s role in its marketing remained limited to offering a support price in the case of a crisis. Farmers initially sold their produce in markets directly by taking heavy risks. In time, private buyers emerged who bought green peas directly from the farms at attractive prices. This led to the expansion of green peas cultivation across Lahaul, and to surrounding areas. Currently, Lahaulis grow newer off-season vegetables like cauliflower, purple cabbage and iceberg (lettuce) which are more profitable than green peas and are also procured by private buyers. Potatoes are still cultivated, but its acreage remains marginal. The Lahaul Potato Society remains active in the region and continues to work on the principle of pooling prices, costs and risks. In its nearly 60 years of running, the Society managed to prevent political influence in its administration with its management focusing on the broader collective benefit of Lahaulis. Over the years, farming in Lahaul transformed from being a subsistence-based livelihood to a lucrative cash-crop based occupation. 

Organically grown iceberg lettuce in Lahaul_Tashi Angroop.jpg

Organically grown iceberg lettuce in Lahaul;

Pic: Tashi Angroop


Within Kinnaur we especially focus on the Hangrang valley that falls in upper Kinnaur at elevations above 2500 m. Set around the confluence of the Spiti river and Sutlej, farming in this region faced multiple challenges due to its remoteness even though it remained accessible in winter. Subsistence based farming and livestock rearing were the mainstay in the region, alongside active trade with Tibet via the Shipki La. The Indo-China war of 1962 led to the development of infrastructure along the border, but affected trade ties that the locals traditionally had with Tibet.

Apple was first introduced in Himachal Pradesh around 1916 and soon these parts were identified for horticultural development. Kinnauras were encouraged to grow temperate fruits such as apples, cherries, apricots, pears, almonds and walnuts. Kinnaur did grow potatoes, also registering a Society in 1962 and one in 1981 for upper Kinnaur, but its cultivation almost always remained marginal. Upper Kinnaur switched to green peas as a cash crop and by the late 1980s, its production was picking up. Kinnaur’s economic switch to a cash-crop based economy, thus began to take shape from the late 1980s.

Apples of Himachal_Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Apples of Himachal Pradesh; Wikimedia Commons


In 1988, about 70% of cultivable land in Kinnaur was still under traditional crops such as buckwheat and barley, with green peas providing cash. Hill slopes had begun to be occupied by apple, which took up to 15 years to bear marketable fruits. By the mid-1990s, apple became a prominent source of livelihood. With the adoption of apple, came newer techniques of orchard management and the introduction of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Today, green peas cultivation remains restricted in pockets as apple plantations are fast replacing them. Farming in upper Kinnaur has almost completely switched to horticultural produce, with a rising demand for land that can be brought under apple production. This boom in apple production has become possible because of the warming of temperatures due to which the apple belt appears to have migrated higher to this cold and dry mountain zone. It is a rare example of how changing climate may have created opportunities for the community, while also creating several vulnerabilities.  

Apple orchard in Kinnaur_Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Apple orchards on the hill slopes of Kinnaur; Wikimedia Commons


Set between Lahaul to one side and Kinnaur to the other, Spiti is probably the highest and coldest part of this region. Though technically Spiti remains accessible in winter, it was the region farthest from any large town of prominence. This reflects in the fact that while Spiti too is moving from subsistence crops to cash crops, its transition is the most gradual.


The two prominent crops of this valley were barley and black peas. Spiti too experimented with potato and set up a Society in 1977, but potato production did not pick up as did in Lahaul. Many Spitian farmers felt that this was likely because the harvest of potatoes overlapped with that of barley, which was a more essential crop for subsistence. Spiti eventually began to experiment with green peas, and in the 1990s Spitian farmers traveled to Delhi for the sale of their produce. The production of green peas picked up significantly from the 2000s, when private buyers started to purchase their produce from their farms. Around 1990, barley was sown on 55% of the arable land, while peas occupied around 30%. By 2009 barley had fallen to 43% while green peas had risen to 51%, mainly by reducing cultivation of other marginal crops like black peas, wheat, masur dal, rajma and mustard that were cultivated for personal consumption. Today green peas are being cultivated in more than 75% of the fields, and most locals’ cultivating barley occasionally in a few years to fulfil household demand. The success of apple in the villages closer to Kinnaur has excited farmers to also start experimenting with apple plantation in the hope that apple orchards may eventually move even higher than Kinnaur. In 2023, a few farmers from Kee village succeeded in growing sample apples at an elevation of nearly 4000m, which has further increased hopes.

While Spiti is following a similar trajectory to Lahaul and Kinnaur in switching to cash crops, there is one aspect in which it still remains traditional. While Lahaul and Kinnaur have adopted the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, Spiti has largely resisted this switch. While a decreasing interest in livestock rearing may have led farmers of Lahaul and Kinnaur with little choice, livestock rearing persists in Spiti and most farmers are skeptical of introducing synthetic supplements. Farmers buy organic livestock manure from as far as Changthang in Ladakh and are also buying poultry manure from the plains. 

Peas cultivation in Spiti_Prasenjeet Yadav.jpg

Pea harvest in Kee village; Prasenjeet Yadav

Agriculture – a story of constant change

Agriculture in the high mountains of Himachal Pradesh has evolved continuously. Improving access and connectivity made it possible for farmers to take their produce to markets. With connectivity improving over the years, farmers have taken risks with growing perishable cash crops. Sometimes these risks also bring major losses, as they did in 2023 when unforeseen weather events caused widescale damage to infrastructure affecting transportation. However, in regular years the financial returns can be attractive. The advent of technology has further led to the adoption of locally relevant technical solutions. Farmers have diversified cropping and have been open to experiments, which have brought them financial rewards. They have balanced between selling their produce to cooperatives and private buyers. Rising incomes have let them broaden their aspirations, with younger generation getting opportunities for better education and greater exposure. Access to cash has also allowed farmers to hire labour, which was previously not possible. Many parts of Lahaul are now experimenting with various forms of contract farming where the profits are shared between the landowners and the labour who manage them. Remoteness may have brought out the dynamism of the farmers of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur. The success of early experiments with cash crops by a handful of farmers paved the way for the entire region. Locals were aware of the risks they were exposed to on account of their remoteness, and they countered this challenge by setting up institutions and arrangements that distributed both the risks and rewards. In the process, cultivation of traditional crops has declined and is now limited to very small pockets.

Unlike several other Himalayan regions where farming is in severe decline, farming retains its significance in the region. With nearly all households of the region involved in agriculture, it forms a key source of income. And with almost all households owning land parcels on account of land reforms, almost every family has benefited financially, even though the benefits may vary with the size of land holding. This reflects in the fact that the districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti rank second and third in terms of per capita incomes among the districts of Himachal Pradesh, and are well above the average per capita income of the country. There is a continuous demand for land to be brought under cultivation through the extension of nautor rules. A lot of this commercial success has also been possible because of the local climate, which has allowed these regions to supply off-season produce that fetch a premium. But with rising uncertainty in weather patterns, farmers and farming stand increasingly exposed to greater risks even as people’s relation with their land remains strong.

About the Storytellers 


The following farmers from Lahaul, Spiti and upper Kinnaur chiefly contributed their views: 

Angail from Chango 
Chhering Gaaji and Angmo Gaaji from Gumrang 
Dawa Buthit and Gela Phuntsog from Kee 
Dorjay Changez from Kibber 
Dorjay Zangpo and Padma Angchuk of Sagnam in Pin valley
Dorje Chhering from Gumrang 
Pema Gyatso and Chhering from Hango
Tomdan from Kee 

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