A farmer’s perspective
THE farmers around where I live have not been able to raise any crops of value for the second consecutive year, but the lush growth of vegetation after the recent rains hides their hardship. Fruit trees have discarded their yellowing leaves for fresh ones and fields are covered with a green carpet of weed, horsegram and ragi. The greenery all around presents a picture of perfection, affirming the immense power of nature to heal itself, making it easier for officialdom to forget about implementing drought relief measures until the next ‘visible’ signs of distress.
The national agricultural policy of the Vajpayee government drawn up by urban academics has little in it that connects to the actual life of farmers in this country. Agricultural policy does not distinguish between the different type of farmers living under different agro-climatic zones and their specific needs. While we may talk of a ‘farming community’, in reality there is not one farming community but several. The small farmer may only be a tenant of another land owner or may have leased a plot for cultivation. Most farmer’s organizations are dominated by those growing irrigated crops practicing chemical agriculture and are preoccupied with wresting concessions from government, such as free water and electricity. In the absence of organizations that represent the interests of the small farmer, little surprise that government policy neglects the needs of the marginals.
A critical review of past and present agricultural policies in the context of the changing situation of farming is necessary. The time is ripe for a major ‘repair’ job if we are to avoid serious consequences of neglecting our resource base, i.e. land. Unless environment and agricultural issues are interlinked and reforms brought about in the administrative machinery, there can be no easy solution to the problems of our deteriorating natural resources. Overlapping administrative and bureaucratic structures are a major problem in implementing changes. The question is whether our agricultural policy-makers, conservationists and campaigners for protection of ecology are ready to change their rigid mindset and take a broader view of things.
The average size of land holding, i.e. two acres and below, is considered too small and economically nonviable. Agriculture has been dubbed a ‘non-performing sector’ and agri-business companies and corporate interests are being encouraged by the present government to make farming more ‘viable’. But for who is the question. This discussion of ‘viability’ is not new. In the 1950s consolidation of farms through cooperatives was considered a solution to the problems of small holdings and their inability for capital investment. Cooperative farming also was considered ideal for our conditions where poor farmers could pool in resources to jointly hire machinery, implements and build common facilities for storage of grains.
The failure of the cooperative system to make any major headway can be attributed to lack of timely credit, poor rural infrastructure, political interference and lack of a spirit of cooperation among farmers and, most importantly, their illiteracy. The government, instead of bringing about reform in the system to make it more responsive to farmers needs, has begun debunk all past structures. Whenever faced with a problem the current trend among politicians is to abdicate their responsibilities and call upon the NGOs and private industry to intervene.
One of the major problems facing farmers is an inability to access credit, which in turn is linked to a faulty land record system. Land survey and settlements have not been carried out in some states for three to four decades and extant records do not reflect the changes in land use over the years. Land survey maps show several decades old information, creating avenues for corruption in the revenue department and for harassment of poor farmers in need of basic documents. Failure to grease the palms of officials means an endless wait for farmers chasing paper; in all this there is a total lack of respect for their time and agricultural work.
Recently, there has been much publicity for the computerisation of land records scheme instituted by some state governments. RTC (Record of Tenancy and Crops), a basic document a farmer has to produce to avail credit facilities, is now easily available. Though this has brought great relief to the farmers who can get this document within minutes, it has meant computerisation of the faulty record system as it exists. Kharab land granted to the landless a few decades back may have been brought under cultivation and changed hands many times, but land survey maps of villages do not record the change. In the absence of a foolproof record system the burden is always on the farmer to prove that the land is no longer kharab. Outdated information may show lands to be growing field crops when actually a farmer may be growing horticultural crops and as such extension services of the horticulture department do not reach these farmers.
The assessment being higher for land under horticultural crops, a faulty record system also means the loss of revenue to the government.
Agricultural policy also does not cater to the special needs of non-irrigated agriculture. Such lands dependent on the bounty of nature are not given much importance even though social scientists have time and again pointed out that plans made for irrigated agriculture are imposed on the rainfed arid regions with disastrous consequences. For example, chemical agricultural practices, especially the use of pesticides that is liberally practised in canal irrigated conditions, have been the ruin of many farmers in arid areas.
No land, however fertile, can satisfy the ever increasing demand for food and raw materials of industries and urban populations. Agricultural income is unable to support farm families forcing the younger generation to look for wage labour in nearby urban areas. In the absence of basic mechanisation and loss of able-bodied young to agriculture, the old and infirm are unable to complete agricultural work on time. The much talked about mechanization of agriculture has only meant tractorization. Simple labour saving tools are either not available or they are beyond the reach of most marginal farmers.
Interestingly, V.S. Naipaul in his unpopular book India: A Wounded Civilization makes some perceptive remarks on the poor quality of implements designed for farmers by the National Institute of Design, a premier institution of the country. In a country that calls farmers the ‘backbone’ of its economy, agricultural cooperative stores and shops selling harmful agro-chemicals do not sell basic protective gear such as gloves and masks.
Our understanding of what constitutes rural poverty needs to undergo a change to reflect the present-day realities of rural life. Despite the neglect of agriculture, the situation of our villages is not the same as prior to independence. The public distribution system has been able to reach remote villages because of the improved transport system. Mass starvation and deprivation once the normal feature during droughts, has considerably reduced. Officialdom, however, wants to see total distress among the rural population for it to reach relief. Little wonder that many of the drought relief measures are simply not implemented because of official apathy in recognizing signs of hardship and even the few remedial measures are delayed or postponed once there is some rainfall.
Where I live, the failure of the southwest monsoon brings great financial hardship to farmers who look forward to the season with expectation, investing their savings or borrowed money in preparing the fields for sowing, buying seeds and fertilizers. Their main cash earning crops such as cotton and pulses requiring rains at regular intervals fetch better prices in the market. The second crop of ragi and horsegram sown during the northeast monsoon provides basic food security for the family which is supplemented by the rice and other essentials provided through the PDS.
Unless there is a surplus most farmers prefer not to sell their second crop especially if they are able to earn enough from the first crop. Cash is important to buy basic necessities like rice, oil, soap, tea and coffee, jaggery, spices and clothes, but in good years they buy gold and other valuables that can be pawned during hardship. The first priority is always given to repaying the debts just as creditors wait for harvest time to demand repayment of dues. Most farmers somehow are able to cope with crop failures for a couple of years but successive failures can cause great hardship to farmers who have no other source of income.
The impact of crop loss on a farming family is gradual and not sudden. It results in several problems for farmers and impacts their health and children’s education. Inability to keep up minimum social obligations results in a loss of self-esteem, especially when marriages of grown up girls are cancelled or postponed due to crop failure.
It is in the above context of the failure of government policies to respond to the specific needs of farmers that we have to examine the government’s intentions in recommending introduction of GM crops and contract farming. Already, the practice of modern agriculture promoted by state institutions has placed the marginal farmer a more precarious situation and spells doom for the country’s biodiversity. In this mindset, for example, plants considered ‘weeds’ are systematically eradicated, even though these ‘weeds’ may be valuable medicinal or food plants used at the time of scarcity.
Weedicides are literally dumped on farmers since weeds are believed to compete with crops for nutrition. The role of so called ‘weeds’ in maintaining soil moisture, in preventing pest attacks on crops, in checking soil erosion, in providing healthy habitats for the survival of soil microorganisms and beneficial insects that improve soil quality by recycling nutrients is now an accepted fact. It is during periods of agricultural stress as after prolonged droughts that one can see the value of earlier sustainable agricultural practices.
Ecologically sustainable agricultural practices have to yet get support from the agricultural establishment and as such fail to make a positive impact on the larger agricultural scene. Organic farming practices are limited to experimental communities or individual farmers and are not supported by policy measures. If proper incentives are given for ecologically sound farming practices it might still be possible to improve the quality of our agricultural lands and save the great expense involved in the manufacture of chemical fertilizers and poisons that goes under the name of agricultural pesticides.
Huge grants are made available to professional scientists, forest department, NGOs and agricultural universities to develop medicinal plant nurseries in unnatural surroundings when it is possible to conserve them where they occur naturally by encouraging farmers to adopt more tolerant attitudes to so called ‘weeds’. If our existing natural environment has to survive for sustaining the life of humans, plants and animals it is necessary that we recognise the interdependence of our forests, agricultural lands, water and mineral resources and the people dependent on them for their livelihoods. Land and water conservation has to start from rural areas.
Conservationists ignore the fact that much of the country’s productive land is under the ownership of individual cultivators and that without their involvement, protection and conservation of natural resources would remain an impossible dream. Farmlands and plantations are not just home to food crops but hundreds of species of plants, fungi, insects, birds and domesticated animals. Pressure on land to meet demands for food, raw materials for industry and commodities for export is threatening the biodiversity of Indian agriculture. While dry land farming areas provide one type of biodiversity with cultivation of many drought resistant millets and poor man’s pulses, plantation areas growing tree crops and commercial crops deserve equal attention by conservationists.
The encroachment on forests by farmers and the pressure on forests by forest-dwellers is often debated, but appropriation of agricultural lands to provide housing and other amenities for the growing urban population rarely receives the same attention by environmentalists and academics. Agricultural lands are acquired by urban development authorities and property speculators but abandoned when real estate prices crash, thus making once cultivable agricultural lands urban wastelands. If environmental laws are enforced to prohibit city dwellers from acquiring property that was once farmland or forests, the ‘environmentalism’ of a number of conservationists would be put to test. It is a far easier proposition to confine biodiversity conservation to distant forests and evict tribals from forests than to bring about changes in cities.
There are increasing instances of conflict between forest department officials and farmers in the predominantly agricultural districts of the Western Ghats. Farmers point out that increased destruction of crops by wild animals is a recent phenomenon, traceable to the mid-eighties when the forest department resorted to clearing forests near human settlements for implementing social forestry programmes. Even though farmers have lived near forests as cultivators for generations, the destruction of crops on the scale now reported is recent. Not surprisingly though hunting of wild animals is banned, farmers continue to hunt wild boars and monkeys. Hunters with guns are sometimes invited by farmers to free them from wild boar menace.
Farmers living near forests complain that they are unable to grow crops like coconuts, banana, areca and tubers for fear of inviting attention, especially of the elephants. Planters dump jackfruits outside the boundary of their estates to prevent elephants from destroying their crops and more recently by installing electric fences. They blame the government for the mismanagement of forests and for not growing enough species that provide food such as jackfruit, wild banana and rattans that are the favourite of elephants. The issue of compensation in case of destruction of crops by wild animals is another cause for friction between forest officials and farmers. Farmers assess their loss not only in terms of crops lost, but labour, time and money invested in growing them. But the forest officials refuse to see their point of view.
The forest department earns huge sums of money from the sale of timber from forests that is extracted periodically under the ‘dead and wind fallen’ category, but it is common knowledge that extraction is not just limited to fallen trees. The department also undertakes auction of timber extracted from private lands collecting heavy sales tax from bulk purchasers of timber. Though 6% of the total value of timber sold is collected as forest development tax for the development of local forests, farmers charge that the money is spent in developing only commercial forestry.
The laws relating to extraction of timber on private lands vary from place to place depending on the type of land holding. Private company owned plantations of a few thousand acres are classified as ‘redeemed’ category only because the companies had the ‘foresight’ to pay a nominal fee (probably a few paise) decades ago to the government for getting the redeemed land status. On redeemed lands, timber can be extracted without the payment of any ‘valuation’ to the forest department.
Valuation is the percentage payable to the government which amounts to fifty five per cent of the total value of timber. The high valuation is meant to deter owners of trees from wanting to sell them. This coupled with rampant corruption amongst officialdom and the delays in the functioning of the forest department bureaucracy frustrates some tree owners and drives them into making deals with smugglers who pay better prices. They are able to pay a higher percentage to the owners essentially because they dodge the system by not paying the stipulated valuation fee. More often smugglers resort to theft of trees, including sandal trees, from both private lands and the forests. These situations are the ones that establish the nexus between forest department and smugglers like the forest brigand Veerappan who still eludes capture.
Most farmers were afraid to conserve sandalwood trees on their farms and plantations for the trouble it may cause if sandal trees were allowed to grow to full size on their lands. Farmers were worried that the trees on their land would attract smugglers. Earlier sandal was the exclusive property of the government even when on private property and farmers were given no incentive to conserve the trees on their lands. Young plants were destroyed because once they grew big, their existence had to be reported to the authorities. It was the responsibility of the land owner to protect them and theft of trees, if unreported, was punishable under the law.
While sandalwood was the monopoly of the state, the government gave licences to private parties for extraction of oil. The high price of the wood at the government auction depots gave rise to smuggling of trees. Today the rules have been simplified and incentives given to the farmers – 50% of the value of the trees protected on their lands, extracted and brought to depots specially meant for sandalwood. Unfortunately the change in law came much too late, once sandal forests with no natural regeneration are on the verge of extinction in Karnataka. The arrogant attitude of forest officials when dealing with farmers, intimidation they resort to, and not recognising the contribution of farmers in protecting the trees ends up in farmers distrusting the forest department.
Owners of trees are allowed to extract a minimum amount of timber without paying valuation once they can prove that the timber is for personal use and not sale. Extraction of trees is generally on the increase when prices of agricultural produce fall. Most owners of lands protect naturally growing trees on their lands and even plant more trees as insurance against hard times. Cutting these trees though legal still has a negative impact on the environment particularly when cutting is resorted to during a short span of time when agricultural commodity prices crash.
For example, it is said that timber yards now have no space to stock timber given the present collapse of prices of plantation crops. In recent years, several independent agencies have mushroomed that, for a percentage of the sale price, undertake to liaise with the forest department making it easier for owners to sell timber. Fall in agricultural prices has had consequences of its own, not just for agriculture but also the natural resources and biodiversity.
Most planters do plant tree saplings in thousands on their lands but their preference is for fast growing species like the silver oak that are ready for harvest in 20 years time rather than locally found varieties that take longer to mature. Mangium, another fast growing tree, was popularised by the forest department but is not preferred as the branches are susceptible to breaking during heavy rains, thereby damaging the crops. No one prefers growing local varieties but they do conserve naturally occurring tree seedlings on their lands if it does not interfere with the crops. The forest department itself is not keen on planting slow growing local varieties of trees.
Government extension services to farmers do not see the link between trees and conservation of water and soil. When recommending new crops to farmers they do not take into consideration water availability in a particular area because basic hydrological data are not available for most rural areas. The agricultural university based research focus is on developing high yielding, pest resistant and drought resistant varieties of crops but they have no say in the matter of implementation of policy. Increasingly research is also dictated by availability of funding from the corporate sector. Naturally agricultural universities and CSIR institutions are also only interested in research that meets the needs of their paymasters.
One could go on endlessly about the neglected issues of agriculture of which there is not just one type in our vast country blessed with several agro-climatic zones. I can only say that agricultural policy, planning and programmes do not have farmers and farming at the centre of policy-making as it is for example in the case of food processing where farmers are only suppliers of raw materials to urban entrepreneurs. Institutions like the CFTRI that came into existence in the name of providing assistance to farmers actually help only private investors with capital and train individuals who can pay high fees in food processing skills.
It is very difficult to make urban dwellers, however knowledgeable about the workings of the agricultural economy and that of agriculture within the larger economy, to understand the day-to-day problems of those living in rural areas. I have tried through some examples from the semi-arid zone where I now live and the plantation area where I grew up, to present a small picture of the daily attrition that the agriculturist has to face and survive. In writing this I hope that agriculturists will one day be given their due space and recognition.