Requiem for sustainable, subsistence agriculture

By Ravleen Kaur

In Ladakh, the dzo has been replaced by the tractor, organic manure by chemical fertilisers, and indigenous crops by vegetables for the tourist market. A whole culture of agriculture is dead

farming in Ladakh

“This is the story of a dreamland, where people were always happy. There was no hurry to get anywhere and no stress of earning more money for a better lifestyle,” says Aba-Le (father) Tsering Gonbo as he sits misty-eyed in the newly built concrete community house at the top of the hill in Nimmo village, about 30 km from Leh. The biting cold of the concrete in March makes everybody shift in their places as they sit chanting on mattresses placed on the ground. With the new generation opting for a more ‘finished’ look, the old houses with their thick mud bricks that insulated the rooms are gradually losing favour in Ladakh.

The occasion is the annual prayer meeting in Nimmo where the entire village has gathered. March is the first month of the Tibetan calendar, meant only for prayers in Ladakh where Buddhism is the dominant religion. “Here, people worked hard to grow food and build houses for survival but they always had a song on their lips. There was a song for all functions of life and everybody -- old, middle-aged and young -- sang them together,” continues Aba-Le Gonbo.  

Then came a surge that blew people off their feet. The army came to the region, followed by tourism. Both created jobs that paid in cash and suddenly money became the all-important factor, Aba-Le Gonbo recalls. He is telling me the story of how agriculture, a way of life in Ladakh, has changed. “The respect and worship that every creature linked to the soil (ants, water, seeds and animals) commanded took a downturn and money became the new god,” he says.

In the remote village of Sumur, in Nubra region, I did see what Aba-Le Gonbo was missing in his own village. Every time the dzo (a cross between the mighty yak and the indigenous cow) that is used to plough fields finished one row, the person manning the dzo would shout a loud ‘Ju-Le’ (thank-you, in Ladakhi).

Aba-Le Gonbo goes on to give me an account of the festival that farming was in Ladakh. “Summers were quite hectic for us but we enjoyed it thoroughly. Children enjoyed their job of ferrying donkeys that carried manure to the fields. Women would enjoy gossiping and singing as they made way for water in the fields, or during weeding. Even the old people contributed to the work as much as they could. Neighbours worked together on each field by turn,” he says. During Lhangtse (harvest season), the person whose field was harvested would throw a party in the evening and chaang (the local barley beer) would flow freely as everybody danced and ate together.

There is no one in the village to celebrate Lhangtse now. “Our children have gone out of the village for jobs. And people who do the actual work are labourers from Nepal or Bihar. Labour is very expensive -- as much as Rs 300 per person per day -- and after the floods last year the rates are expected to go up further,” says Gonbo’s companion 82-year-old Aba-Le Tsering Jordon who pitches in every now and then as he chants.

“In between we did try to do away with labour and harvest the fields on our own. But then it took three or four days. Meanwhile, if the neighbouring field was already harvested, the owner would let his animals loose and they would eat up our crops,” says Aba-Le Gonbo’s daughter-in-law Chuskit Rafta Pa, who heads the women’s group in Nimmo. Rafta Pa runs a guesthouse, has a government job and also manages the fields as her husband works in a cement factory in Uttaranchal.

Earlier, there was no question of letting the livestock loose as they would all be taken high up into the mountains when the seeds were sown and the first watering in the fields done. “We would form a group of about 10 people in the village and go up to Padum where there is enough green grass in the summer,” says Aba-Le Jordon who began leading such a group from the age of 20. “We stayed there for three months and made cheese and butter from the milk that we collected. Every once in a while, somebody from the village would get supplies to us and take back the dung that would be used as manure the next year,” he says.

Agricultural labour is not the only thing Ladakhis have to pay for now. For want of time and farm hands, the docile dzo has been replaced by tractors, which means Rs 350 an hour. “In spite of spending so much money, the tractor leaves the land in the corners untilled. Nobody has the time to till it manually, so it’s left unused. As a result, it becomes hard and weeds grow on it,” Aba-Le Gonbo says.

When the public distribution system began to take care of the food requirements of people, their focus shifted from producing for themselves to producing for the market. The staple barley in parts of their land was replaced by vegetables. This meant seeds that were not indigenous to Ladakh had to be bought from the market, whereas, for barley, people preserved their own seeds and exchanged them with other villages every few years. The shift to vegetables reduced the supply of fodder for animals; even that has now to be bought. “Vegetables fetch good money in Leh market where the hotels pick them up. Or, the cooperative society picks up the entire stock for the Indian army,” says Sonam Deldon Nyrpapa of Takmachik village.

Nyrpapa says growing vegetables is a lot of hard work. Besides, there’s the expenditure on pesticides. “In the last five years, I have seen insects that I never saw in my entire life. There is this moth which bores holes in the soil and does not let water spread properly in the fields. There is another that eats up cauliflowers, and a white pest that yellows the outer layer of onions. If I water the vegetables after the sun rises, the crop is bound to get infected. I have to spend on pesticides as I do not want to end up spoiling the vegetables,” Nyrpapa explains. The fact that a majority of the population here is Buddhist has at least ensured that people are not very keen on pesticides as that would amount to killing insects.

Ladakhis have traditionally used dry toilets because of lack of water. A shovel-full of mud thrown in after one has finished decomposes human night soil to make manure. Called ‘chak lut’ (latrine manure) in Ladakhi, this is combined with animal dung to efficiently recycle nutrients back into the soil. The quantity of this free resource decreased when people migrated out of the village. “With only two or three people in the house, there is not much manure. We have to buy cowdung from others; it costs Rs 130 for a bag of 10 kg. We even try to source chak lut from Leh town if it has been preserved well. That costs us about Rs 1,000 for a tipper-full,” says Aba-Le Gonbo.

Strange as it sounded to an urbanised person like me initially, I soon grasped the importance of night soil to the people here. I also realised how hard Aba-Le Gonbo, with both his sons working outside Ladakh and only his wife and daughter-in-law for help, was stretching himself to continue organic farming when I met Dorjay, his young neighbour who works in the district commissioner’s office in Leh. “We use ‘government lut’ like urea and DAP. It is so much easier to get it, though it does cost anything between Rs 500-Rs 800 per 50 kg sack,” Dorjay said.

Aba-Le Gonbo hates ‘government lut’, as chemical fertilisers are called in Ladakh as it is supplied on subsidy by the district agriculture department. “It hardens the soil and is only good if there is enough water available for irrigation,” he says. 

“Now, farming requires more inputs than the returns that one gets out of it. Therefore, the younger generation’s interest in farming has dwindled. Here in Ladakh we consider it inauspicious to leave the land fallow. It has always been said that one who cannot take care of his land is a failure. Sadly, we are all leaving parts of our land fallow now for want of farm hands,” says Ama Le Rikzin Lamo, Gonbo’s wife. “But what can the new generation do? When everybody is sending their children to private schools, even we have to. And for that we need a good income. And the children of course do not like the drudgery that we enjoyed. So they don’t even want to come back to farming after their studies,” she adds.

The government, for its part, is trying to take the drudgery out of agriculture by introducing processing facilities and supplying seeds of commercial crops like French beans and potatoes. A 2008 report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on agriculture in Ladakh states: ‘The aim is to make agriculture attractive for farmers. For this purpose, the government has resorted to mechanisation as a solution. It has introduced small machines such as power tillers, crop-reapers, multi-crop threshers and power lifting pumps.’

“We supply high-yielding varieties of seeds for cabbage, cauliflower, peas and summer veggies like brinjal too. Farmers are mainly dependent on the agriculture department for seeds. And we have succeeded. Before 2000, vegetables worth Rs 90 lakh would go to the army; now, about Rs 6-7 crore worth of vegetables go to the army,” says Mohammad Hussain, Chief Agriculture Officer, Leh.

According to Aba-Le Gonbo, agriculture is something Ladakh cannot survive without. “Nature has put us in a region that is cut off from the rest of the world for about six months in a year. Although there are roads connecting Ladakh to Manali and Srinagar we still cannot depend on them for all our needs. What if they shut down due to bad weather? The floods last year proved this, when both the bridges and the airport were flooded with mud. We need to be self-reliant when it comes to food or we will die. Sadly, the present generation does not understand this,” he concludes.

(Ravleen Kaur is an independent researcher and writer, currently reporting from Ladakh)

Infochange News & Features, August 2011