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Breathing life into farming

By Darryl D'Monte

The guarantee of 100 days of work in a year cannot by itself provide food security. The trick, says alternative technologist K R Datye, lies in using the NREGA not to build roads but to regenerate the land and create permanent rural assets which will facilitate sustainable livelihoods

Now that everyone's agreed that farmer suicides, which have largely taken place in peninsular India, are a matter of national concern, it is necessary to look beyond the immediate causes and the relief that is being proposed.

In a word, it is high-input cash crop farming that is to blame, with farmers mainly in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka relying on seeds, pesticides and fertiliser to support this system, which yields handsome returns in a good year but proves disastrous in the long term.

The pauperisation of these farmers has been growing for well over a decade and it is only through exposure by the media and activists that it has now come to light.

In a related development, the recent changes in food import and export policies by Food Minister Sharad Pawar, ostensibly to meet the shortage of grain, among other factors, also highlight the inadequacies of so-called 'modern' agriculture. It is simply not sustainable in the long run. As Shripad Dharmadhikary's book on the Bhakra project reveals, even the gains of intensive irrigation have proved illusory in the grain basket of the country -- Punjab and Haryana.

Sharad Pawar ought to know. His constituency is the sugarcane-growing districts of western Maharashtra, where rich farmers have become a politically powerful lobby, which he heads. Apart from all the financial and political irregularities implicit in this process, there is the ecological devastation. Cane guzzles water, which is the most precious commodity in Maharashtra's hinterland. The diversion of water to this monoculture has deprived marginal farmers -- who are in an overwhelming majority -- of their needs and has led to their pauperisation.

Pawar has recently championed the cause of wine-growers -- another constituency he is nurturing. Here too, the problem is the same. Grapes consume a lot of water and when the basic consumption of foodgrain and pulses is declining among the rural poor throughout the country, it is highly questionable to encourage these islands of prosperity at the cost of the majority. As a symbol of rural affluence, Sangli, in cane-growing western Maharashtra, is as dangerous as Shanghai is for urban growth in Mumbai. These pockets only accentuate the widening disparities within the state.

One can only imagine what further traumas are in store for farmers in peninsular India, now that genetically modified (GM) crops are being introduced. Monsanto's Bt cotton is already extremely controversial, with conflicting claims about its yield. But on one issue there is no doubt: once a farmer goes in for GM crops he is locked into not only buying the same seeds year after year, but also the same pesticide to which the genes are programmed to be genetically resistant. This is the epitome of capital-intensive and unsustainable agriculture, which may possibly make economic sense in the US or Europe, where there are a microscopic number of farmers with huge holdings, but will prove the death knell for subsistence farmers in a poor agrarian society like India.

It is in this context that the fledgling efforts of a handful of 'alternative technologists' like K R Datye and his team in Maharashtra, with links elsewhere in the country, acquire significance. Datye, a former mainstream irrigation engineer, is the founder of the Society for People's Participation in Eco-system Management and, more recently, the Watershed Forum, of which his Society for Renewable Technology is an integral part. Two political developments have made such initiatives less idealistic and impractical than they might have seemed a few years ago. One is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which guarantees every needy person a minimum of 100 days of work every year. The other is the 73rd constitutional amendment, which devolves power to disburse funds to the panchayats. One can add a third ingredient -- the Right to Information Act -- that can empower and enlighten this process.

One can start with the premise that the very idea of importing foodgrain to meet basic needs and build a stockpile is the antithesis of self-dependence and sustainability. It strikes at the heart of policies that have been in place since the 1960s, when India ominously had to live a 'ship-to-mouth' existence with handouts of US wheat. The problem does not lie, however, merely with the disappearance of the once-embarrassing mountains of procured foodgrain and the inadequacies of the public distribution system but with a more deep-seated issue, which is the lack of purchasing power with the rural masses due to the disintegration of subsistence farming.

Famine or drought relief, while essential in emergencies, creates its own dependencies. As Datye, who is based in Mumbai, emphasises, the trick lies in using the NREGA not just to bail out those in distress but to create permanent rural assets which will enable those people to eke out livelihoods on a sustainable basis, year after year. Just the dole that the NREGA provides is hardly sufficient. It has to be combined with concessional credit to boost farm productivity and improve the efficiency of water use (as the slogan goes: 'More crop per drop').

Armed with these two basic weapons, the landless -- or what alternative technologists term "the resource-poor" -- need to enter into partnerships with farmers who own a modicum of land. They not only provide labour but, with proper technical training, can regenerate land using local resources, and make it more productive than it would otherwise be. The thrust will be on organic agriculture, with minimal use of water and locally-procured inputs. Needless to add, instead of cash crop monoculture like cotton and cane, such farming will be diversified, more in consonance with nature's rhythms than the marketing strategies of some multinational.

Gandhiji taught that development must always look to the needs of the last man. This alternative practice should therefore begin with the needs of the poor household rather than the market. Since size of plot and paucity of resources do not permit large surpluses, there is a need for an intelligent mix, which combines horticulture and even, to a limited extent, silviculture. One of the aims of this entire process is to generate a greater amount of biomass, the organic material which alone can nourish the soil and enable yields year after year without depleting the soil of nutrients.

While such practices sound noble but impractical, given the imperatives of the market, the large economic and social disparities within rural society, and a host of other obstacles, some caveats are in order. There are no hand-outs, as in the EGS or NREGS, at least in the sense of output not being monitored carefully. The extension of credit and rewards is performance-based. Here is where, under the 73rd amendment, the gram sabhas, which are more democratically run than panchayats, come into play. Indeed, the proposal is to further sub-divide these sabhas into smaller units, comprising 100 households each, which will allow for greater accountability. The decision-making is relegated to this smallest unit of governance, which ensures that it is far more equitable.

These units will decide how loans can be recovered from the landless and smaller farmers who are eligible for wages under the NREGA. The funds available under this Act will have to be supplemented to train people, demonstrate and build capacity in these alternative practices. The NREGS is thus tweaked to ensure that state spending is diverted to more sustainable practices. The major departure is that the recovery of loans will be based on performance -- not only on crop yields but also on the regeneration of the system, which includes the health of the soil, increased vegetation of all kinds and, last but not least, the recharging of aquifers.

The 'core committee', so to speak, will consist of self-help groups. Inevitably, they will tend to consist of women. The decision-making will shift to this group, a sub-set of the gram sabha, which will decide how and when to disburse funds, based on the extent to which security of livelihood is guaranteed, external inputs eliminated, and a local stockpile of foodgrain built up.

There is a paradigm shift, therefore, from handouts to thrift and credit-worthiness, which will do wonders for the self-reliance of any marginalised social group. The experience throughout South Asia is that the poorest have a much better record of returning loans than the rich (textile mill owners, for example, once accounted for 9% of all outstanding bank loans in the country).

By itself, the guarantee of 100 days' work in a year cannot provide food security because of its reliance on the present system of procurement in high-input farming areas, and the flawed public distribution system (which the World Bank is ill advisedly recommending be further diminished). For the bulk of the rural poor, production and consumption ought to be as close to each other as possible, and always based on local resources. One additional component, which is often forgotten in drought-relief programmes, is to provide for livestock, which is an integral part of any rural economy. Thus, all subsistence farming ought to provide fodder.

Datye and his team have come up with the concept of a 'livelihood basket' after years of experimenting with such alternative farming practices in drought-prone areas like Solapur in southern Maharashtra. For example, in Bhusawal, five poor women have joined an earlier self-help group which had achieved the productivity norms. Women from the new sub-group are now learning techniques fast and are expected to match the performance of their mentors in producing 10 tonnes of organic vegetables annually from half an acre. Selling the vegetables has fetched the group about Rs 45,000 a year and their net income exceeds Rs 30,000, in addition to each earning Rs 6,000 a year under the NREGS. These activities have helped the women develop their skills and gain confidence. A significant proportion of the income needed for securing their livelihood arises from the sale of the organic vegetables and fruit from these small plots. Once a woman earns Rs 12,000 a year, her household has some minimum food security and her newly-acquired skills can only enhance her earning capacity in future. .

Once self-help groups help small farmers boost their productivity through diversified agriculture, the farmers will be prepared to compensate them over and above their wages. This is because the groups will provide a range of services like soil nourishment, vermiculture, seed production and pest control -- all of which eliminate external inputs like fertiliser and pesticides. The same approach applies to farm forestry, which often fails or lags behind due to lack of proper maintenance. This would also mean a more diversified strategy, with bamboo and species other than timber, including fodder.

As an example, a 16-hectare area can be managed by a group consisting of 10 poor rural households along with five small farmers who have access to irrigation. Biomass can yield substantial gains in the shape of 'artisanal' occupations like basket- and rope-making. Likewise, 'non-timber forestry' can yield such produce as oils from species like jatropha and karanj, raw material for biogas plants, latex and chemicals, as well as medicines, herbs and perfumes. Poor households will be entitled to a share of the produce, which ensures them a livelihood even as it promotes ecological sustainability.

Initiatives in Bhusawal and Yavatmal have already demonstrated the feasibility of this approach. However, the weakest link in this intricate chain is the social system that requires farmers to part with land to be worked upon by self-help groups. It may be easier to organise initiatives in dryland areas, where the return from farming is that much more meagre. Existing institutions that will assist this effort are the gram sabhas, panchayats, watershed committees, joint forest committees and self-help groups. Datye envisages the formation of sarva seva kendras, which will provide technical inputs. These have already been set up in some areas and consist of a local organisation supported by a group, which includes a local or external resource person who has been trained both in simple technologies and possesses management skills. After imparting basic farming knowledge to villagers, the kendras will facilitate the involvement of people working on NREGA wages and concessional credit, which will be repaid through the production of biomass. Food-for-work programmes can then be fine-tuned to attend to land regeneration rather than the time-honoured neo-Keynesian tradition of building roads (many of which are washed away in the very next monsoon!).

The cornerstone of this alternative approach is the kendras, which will be set up by self-help groups that will accept a two-part compensation for their labour. The first consists of the NREGA wage of Rs 6,000 per household per year. This is to use the window which this scheme provides in the form of a guarantee of 100 days' paid labour in a year, with the twist that the labour is instead used to create permanent livelihood assets. The second, more innovatively, consists of compensation in kind -- new sources of irrigation provided by the state to grow the kind of diversified crops and plantations which make for sustainable agriculture, horticulture and silviculture. Instead of demanding irrigation which is then used to grow water-guzzling cash crops, this approach relies on asking the state to provide as an entitlement the water that has been saved in much more sustainable and equitable agriculture. And, last but not least, the kendras will be entitled to a share in the produce.

In a recent article in the Indian Express, Vasant Sathe has made a case for granting Vidarbha statehood to avoid the kind of extreme distress that its farmers are suffering from. This is typical of the political response to such emergencies. He points to the case of western Maharashtra, where there hasn't been a single suicide in the sugar-rich belt. However, what he fails to recognise is that this is precisely the kind of politically-led, resource-intensive agriculture that perpetuates lopsided development within any state.

While initiatives such as Datye's can be faulted for their heavy dose of idealism, they have to be taken seriously for several reasons. One is the pressing nature of the farmers' distress itself, which is showing no signs of abatement. Secondly, this approach is not based on some textbook theories but has been demonstrated on the ground, over a decade, on some of the most degraded land in interior Maharashtra. These initiatives have shown how the nurturing of the soil, low-cost irrigation (not the expensive drip technology) and diversified cropping (for example, combining cotton with tur and water-efficient jowar) add up to an integrated pattern which can support the poor, yielding a group upwards of Rs 30,000 a year after five years. While similar initiatives have been launched in pockets elsewhere, this is perhaps the first time that they have converged in a scientific manner and been proved in practice.

But thirdly, and most importantly, it marks a paradigm shift away from looking at agriculture solely in terms of the produce it generates, and treats it as a livelihood source. Despite all the tall talk of India becoming prosperous (recall that just 1.3 million Indians are employed in that showcase service sector -- IT), three-quarters of its 1 billion-plus population continue to depend on the land, and their extreme penury is only growing with so-called 'modern' farming practices. An alternative approach would be to ensure that the poorest of the country are able to eke out a livelihood from the land, and build an agro-industrial base from that situation, rather than hope for some illusory trickledown from the top of the pyramid.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2006