Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sustaining Agriculture in the Long Run

Whenever I talk to my folks back home in Palakkad about plans to probably go back to our village one day and try my hand in agriculture,  I am greeted with well-grounded scepticism. The apprehensions are pretty clear – high labour costs, poor water management, low sales price and lack of support by the Government and industry to sustain careers in agriculture.

Despite being the top-ranked state in the suicide industry, Kerala does not lie within the suicide belt of the country, when it comes to farmer deaths. The state has vast tracts of land and is well-endowed in terms of natural resources and so would ideally qualify to be a good player in the agriculture sector. But there is still a mood of despondency I notice whenever I visit the place.

However watching Green Kerala Express raises my hope and gives a slightly different perspective. In its mission to zero on the best panchayat in the state, it chances upon several villages, where people and the administration have come together to give agriculture another chance and prove that despite being a poorer cousin, farming can be a livelihood tool with a much larger impact than the others.

For an average Malayalee, Kudappanakunnu in Trivandrum is known primarily for being the base station of Malayalam Doordarshan Kendra but a wonderful facet of the village was brought to the fore in one of GEKs episodes earlier this week. Employment opportunities were once few and far between in this village and agricultural land was practically zero, primarily due to its proximity with the main town.

Then three years ago the panchayat in collaboration with the local Krishi Bhavan implemented the Karshika Karmasena project – a project to harness the youth of the village to revive agriculture in the area. The Karshika Karma Sena launched by the panchayat has 25 agricultural technicians (a euphemism for workers) who are trained in using modern agricultural devices such as the power tiller, brush cutter, soil digger and sprayer.

The karma sena was started as a means to combat the intense labour shortage in the region,” said C.L. Mini, Agricultural Officer, Kudappanakkunnu panchayat. “The cost of cultivation can be brought down significantly by using agricultural technicians,” she added. The technicians assist interested clients right from selecting a plot for farming to marketing the produce.

Today, these workers earn close to Rs 7500 per month working in fields where they help to cultivate a variety of mostly-organic fruits and vegetables that are later marketed and sold through the Karshika Vipani Kendras. The wages are paid as monthly salaries through an SBI Account opened nearby for the employees and they are also entitled to EPF.

This is a sustained ecological and agricultural movement where the entire community had come in to help, resulting in making Kudappanakunnu a Green Panchayat. The technicians are educated persons and work on lands taken on lease by the Panchayat at low rates. Mind you, these are not workers and they are given proper training by the Krishi Office; additionally, machines are used for most tasks (including tree-climbing and tilling), making it a highly productive enterprise. In addition to the use of machinery, subsidies in the form of seedlings and low cost organic fertilizers were distributed to the technicians, abhorring the use of expensive pesticides.

Kudappanakunnu presents a case where the community and the administration came together to implement an innovative solution to tackle the issues of wastelands and employment. When more than 70% of the country depends on agriculture for its livelihood, it is important that rather than doing away with it in the name of development, the idea should be to enhance the scope of agriculture and utilize it better.

Moving from Trivandrum to Kannur, we now come across the village of Chembilodu, which is unique that every house in this village has a kitchen garden. As part of the Panchayat’s initiative to ensure that no land in the village is wasted and to promote food security, a directive was given to the people that they need to maintain a kitchen garden and grow vegetables themselves.

As a result, close to 4000 houses have vegetable gardens where ladies finger, cucumber, spinach and pumpkin are grown, which is used for local consumption. Anything extra is then sold outside to the markets by the villagers; this has dramatically reduced the food prices in the region and added an extra means of livelihood for the people. Additionally, the villagers use organic fertilizers from their household waste and have abandoned the use of chemicals totally, leading to a healthier vegetation.

It is important to realize that such a movement would not have happened without the active role of the villagers as well as the Panchayat in changing the face of the village. It is laudable that the administration took the initiative to not only revive the agricultural produce but also revive barren lands in the place, leading to more than 40 hectares of waste land becoming productive again.

Most people would say that agriculture is no longer relevant to our growth and that the government should look at promoting industry at the expense of farming – this explains the almost non-questioning of creation of SEZs haphazardly to businessmen. When an Infosys asks for large tracts of land at rock bottom rates, it is a legitimate business demand but when the farmer wants protection from dumping and other duties, we view it as protectionism and dub any support to the farmer as socialist interference.

Subsidies is a bad word in the economy now – as we move towards embracing greater role for private companies, we demand that no one should get a freebie and everyone should earn them. But let us understand that, this is not a perfect economic world and that the State has a greater role in bringing up the poor than increasing the wealth in the country (the trickledown theory is a classic case where the trickling down never really happened). Writing off bad debts by farmers is foolishness but then tax holidays and waivers for corporate is smart capitalism (This year alone, the budget gifts over Rs. 500,000 crore in write-offs, direct and indirect, to the Corporate Sector)!!!

Quoting Sainath on this:

In India, people have the perception of "subsidies" being given to farmers, and this is one of the reasons why the urban folks think that farmers need to improve their act. But the vast majority of this subsidy is given not to the farmers themselves but to fertilizer producers. The "farmers" who get this subsidy are called Birla, Tata and Ambani! Also, this is given in such a way that the more you produce the lower the rate of subsidy, and the smaller amounts you produce, the more higher the rate of subsidy. In theory, this should support the "small farmers", but in fact the large producers overproduce and understate their output, just so they can avail of the higher rate of subsidy.

But blind subsidy is equally silly, more so in our case where implementation is abysmal (Remember Rajiv Gandhi’s famous comment-Out of every rupee of subsidy only 15 paise reach the targeted populace). Most successful villages, as seen in GEK, have worked on a strategy of providing subsidies to take care of the infrastructure, followed by regular support to ensure that the subsidies do not go waste. A more directed approach towards subsidies (which UID is aiming to do) will possibly make the entire exercise more useful.

Traditionally, Indian farmers have flooded their fields with water using canal irrigation. Canal irrigation advocated through large dams (a by-product of Nehru's fascination with Russian style of mega structures) have never been popular with farms - massive land loss to construct costly dams are one issue while farmers are plagued with the problems of depending on agencies to release water as and when they want and  wastage of water through evaporation. But the Government has never sort to promote the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation, which is far a cheaper and more economic option - something that Israel has excelled in.

The Government further focuses on market needs and so expensive cash crops are encouraged, at the expense of poor food crops. This has not only forced farmers to abandon traditional farm crops but grow these crops on a large scale, creating a massive monoculture, which erodes soil value slowly. When the Agricultural Minister is more pre-occupied with starting sugar factories and advocating wine cultivation in dry lands in Maharashtra, is it any wonder that the State looks away when farmers look to it for guidance?

Pawar pushes for greater cuts in import duties on a large variety of crops, as the Indian farmer struggles to sell his produce. Even while being in WTO, India can charge duties (even upto 150% as in cotton) but for mysterious reasons, we have decided to be pro-West in our approach. So, while European and American Governments dole out large amounts of cash subsidies to their farmers, we force our farmers to sell their produce at absurd prices and expect them to sustain their livelihood without any complaint. What explains the Government importing food at high prices when many of the crops rot here in godowns, lying unutilized?

Agriculture contributes close to 17% if India’s GDP but it is largely a poor man’s story in India today. Policy issues in the mainstream media tend to be about the economy but the ones pertaining to agriculture do not merit sufficient space – lack of glamour as well as interest contributes to this. The key word is outsourcing and so prominent bloggers, who are self-appointed economists also, bemoan the fact that after so many years, India remains largely a rural populace.

An agricultural policy that moves out of the ghosts of the Green Revolution is important, as we struggle to maintain the relevance of agri-business in the country. Successful villages have shown a way out to keep agriculture in the forefront with greater focus on watershed management, organic farming and greater administration support. As we hurtle towards globalisation at a rapid pace, will the Indian farmer increasingly become a mere suicide statistic or a critical driver of our GDP? It is a choice that we have to make and make it pretty soon.


  1. Brilliant..I really enjoyed reading this piece..I hold the same view as you and would like to do something like that in Muthalamada. That's why we are clinging to the land our grandfather had given to us..

  2. reg: ''Subsidies is a bad word in the economy now – as we move towards embracing greater role for private companies, we demand that no one should get a freebie and everyone should earn them. But let us understand that, this is not a perfect economic world and that the State has a greater role in bringing up the poor than increasing the wealth in the country (the trickledown theory is a classic case where the trickling down never really happened)."

    The last line is the catch, no? If it never happened, why be for it?
    I now think that one reason that the quality of life in western Europe in general is good is that food (agricultural produce) is not ridiculously subsidised as it is in India. This was the Russian/ socialist strategy to keep wages low (agrarian and industrial) to supposedly boost capital accumulation and industrial production.
    While it true that western capitalism thrived on colonial and impoverished labour before Keynesian welfare changed things, now that not manufacturing but IT (service sector) is on top, consider for a moment that food prices reflect the real input and production costs. If wages of domestic workers and agrarian workers then reflected this increased cost of food (eg: Rs80 for onions), the ratio of the highest and lowest wage in India will not be 1:400 or 1:4000 but 1:4 (like in the West)...domestic work gets 10 euro an hour, and a bus driver 3000 a month, pretty on par with the asst prof there.

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