Solitary reapers

Some years ago the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) reported after its study on agriculture that roughly half the farmers in the country did not wish to continue with farming. They would quit if they had an alternative. This shameful fact reflects the despair that farmers feel and is based on the fact that agriculture is a loss-making enterprise and the farmers are unable to either feed themselves or turn a profit.

In addition to this, rural India is looked down upon by the well-to-do urban India, including the policymakers, who are seen as part of the urban elite. Whether or not they are, they certainly behave like that. This discrimination strips farming and the farmer of his (and even more so, her) dignity and does anything but provide an incentive to the younger generation to want to take up farming. Raised on a diet of unreal aspirations beamed out through our surfeit of television soap operas and Bollywood films, the rural youth sees neither glamour, money nor dignity in farming. Why would he want to adopt it if there is nothing in it for him?
The tenuous situation with farming is not helped by electoral politics playing with rice and wheat as gimmicks to get votes. In this election the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala joined the rice politics of the state and promised 35 kg rice at `1 per kg in a month for below the poverty line (BPL) families and at `2 per kg for above the poverty line (APL) families in its election manifesto. Before this, the Left Democratic Front manifesto had guaranteed rice at `2 per kg for all BPL and APL families.
The poor must get the help of the state to overcome hunger and poverty, but the way to do this should be empowerment and fostering self-reliance, not creating dependency through doles. When such support is enmeshed in politics, nobody is fooled and it creates a culture of cynicism and dependence. This has undesirable consequences at several levels.
In the last few months during my visits to the Gene Campaign field station in Jharkhand, I have been encountering a dangerous pulling away from agriculture. In addition to the other work we do on food, nutrition and livelihoods, we also provide training in adapting the fragile agriculture of the dryland to the growing uncertainty of global warming and climate change. These trainings are hands on, with several practical demonstrations and we usually have enthusiastic farmers coming for training programmes, which they have found useful. Although the youth have sometimes been less keen to continue with agriculture, or to invest too much physical labour in it, it is now all farmers who are reluctant to practise farming and are reluctant to come for trainings. If their agriculture has become unattractive, why would they come for training programmes to improve agriculture?
The uncertain rainfall and drought of the last three years has made farming even more risky than before. In Jharkhand, farmers can take only one crop in the year during the monsoon when it rains. Because there is no irrigation, they are unable to plant a second crop in winter season as farmers in the irrigated regions of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh can.
When the monsoon has become uncertain because of global warming and farming remains non-remunerative, the farmers have no incentive to continue farming. Farm losses become even higher if the single rice crop too fails, creating a crisis of hunger for farm families. The coping mechanism in such a situation is to abandon farming and seek work as manual labour since that brings assured income, which farming does not. Abandoning farming now makes economic sense to the farmer.
In Jharkhand, here is how it works for them. In a family with five members, if four go out to seek manual work in mines or at construction sites, they collectively earn about `300 per day at an average wage rate of `75 per person. This makes the average monthly income of the family `9,000 per month, or `1,08,000 per year. This is several times what they can ever dream of earning from farming from the un-irrigated land holdings they possess. In the farmer’s calculation, agriculture is expensive, risky and requires back-breaking work, which does not even bring enough to eat, let alone surplus. On top of that, it carries the near certain burden of debt since in order to coax his single crop out of the ground, the farmer needs to take loan to procure inputs like seed and fertiliser, sometimes even water.
In another scenario, the BPL card holder gets 35 kg of rice at `1 per kg and three litres of kerosene oil per month for cooking. This subsidised grain lasts his family for 15 days in the month, for the other 15 days he purchases food from the market with the money the family has earned from manual labour. On the other hand, here is what many farmers recounted about their experience with hybrid rice cultivation. Hybrid rice is promoted aggressively by government agencies although all the hybrid rice seed is being sold by private companies and there is not a single public sector hybrid rice available on the market. Farmers bought hybrid rice seed at about `250 per kg, planted the nursery and at the time of transplantation, the rains failed. Since there is no investment in rainwater conservation, there are no water bodies and life-saving irrigation is not available to save the crop. So, after investing between `3,000 and `4,000, the farmers got about 50 to 60 kg of rice from the entire kharif crop. Compare this with the 35 kg rice that they get for `35 every month. Why would the farmer farm?
The failed agriculture sector combined with wage labour opportunities in the market and subsidised grain schemes, like those for BPL and Antodaya card holders, has made agriculture and food production the least attractive option for the rural community, especially the youth. Food is more easily (and less painfully) obtained by a combination of activities that does not include farming. There is another danger in this scenario, the deskilling of agriculturists. Many youth are forgetting how to farm. They have increasingly little facility with the hoe and plough, do not know how to turn the soil and make the field ready. The younger lot are unable already to read the weather to time the planting of their crop; they do not know which seeds to choose for the particular situation that is currently obtaining. Slipping away too is the knowledge of agricultural practices in special land types, keeping the soil alive, problem solving, seed and grain storage, adding value to local produce and a host of other things. Two more generations of this kind of youth and we may not have enough people who can grow food in this country. And then?

The author is a genetic scientist. She has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg and is
convener of the Gene Campaign

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