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Trapped into farming

By Michelle Chawla

The declaration of Dahanu as an ecologically fragile zone in 1991 has had repercussions on the orchard economy too. Farmers, already troubled by declining yields and globalisation, cannot convert their orchards to non-agricultural use. They feel they are trapped into farming by an environmentalism that is out of context

Read Part 1 of this series here
Read Part 2 of this series here
Read Part 3 of this series here

Read Part 5 of this series here

Agriculture in Dahanu

The main difference between a farmer today and one 50 years ago is that today's farmer has a mobile phone, said a principal scientist from the Institute of Horticulture Research, during a seminar on knowledge dissemination in agriculture. While this metaphor may be an exaggeration of the conditions today, the reality is that in the India-booming narrative, the agricultural sector has been left behind.

In spite of employing about 60% of the population, it grew at a slow rate of 2.7% in 2007-08, relative to 11% growth in both the services and industry sector.  Agricultural incomes are lower and growing slower than incomes in other sectors.  The reasons for this range from the adverse impact of globalization to inadequate access to credit and direct markets, poor infrastructure and post-harvest facilities and lack of technology.

Ironically, until very recently, prior to the economic slowdown, a booming real estate market had skewed land prices in many regions, making it more lucrative to sell land rather than farm it. Eecological realities such as climate change and impact of industrial pollution add to the farmers’ woes.   

Grappling with these realities daily is the farming community of Dahanu taluka, a small region 120 km from Mumbai, on the border of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Agriculture in Dahanu

Out of a total geographical area of 100,000 hectares in Dahanu, approximately half (45%) is under agriculture and horticulture, making this the predominant source of livelihood in the region. Given that it is primarily a tribal belt, rice is the primary crop grown on 19,000 hectares of land while pulses, millets and vegetables constitute a smaller share. This is largely rain-fed subsistence farming.

However, the region of Dahanu has become famous for its commercial cultivation and large-scale production of the chikoo (sapota) fruit. It was way back in 1898, a little over 100 years ago, when the first commercial cultivation of chikoo in Maharashtra was undertaken in the Gholvad region of Dahanu taluka.  

The coastal plains with their warm and humid climate and rich black cotton soil have created a lucrative and vibrant horticultural economy, with a production totaling approximately 400-500 tonnes  annually.

Currently, while the total land under chikoo is 4,126 hectares, constituting only 6% of the land in Dahanu, it has generated employment for the communities in Dahanu, both in terms of direct agricultural labour on farms as well as trading, packaging and transportation. Besides sapota, other plantations in the area include coconut, mango, and litchi.

However, the economy has faced multiple problems in the last few years. 

Orchard economy at risk

“Till the late-1990s, we had a comfortable life. Chikoo being a sturdy crop it did not require heavy doses of pesticide and fertilisers. Its around-the-year fruiting made it a very viable high-income crop. But a slow decline in production, especially from the older orchards, pest attacks and a crash in prices in the period up to 2005 has made farming challenging for us,” states Sanjay Adhiya, a second-generation farmer.  

Professor Mohan Bari, retired chief scientist with the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra in his research report, ‘An Environmental Study on Decline of Chikoo Fruit Production in Coastal Parts of Thane and Navsari Districts’, 2003, finds that chikoo production increased till the year 1999 and then began declining in these regions for various reasons including change in atmospheric temperature, infestation of bud borer and water stress. 

According to data from the same report, chikoo production dropped from a high of approximately 400 tonnes in 1997-98, to 50 tonnes in 2001-02. Local traders verify these figures, stating that truckloads have dropped from around 70 in 1995 to around 20 truckloads in 2003. 

However farmers also allege that the decline they faced in the early parts of 2000 is due to the emissions from a local thermal power plant.   

A research study conducted in 2004, ‘Decline in the Yield of Sapota from the Orchards of Dahanu

Taluka: An Ecological Investigation’, by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History concludes  that “the pattern of decline indicates a causative relationship with the environmental pollution, especially atmospheric pollution and the consequent environmental impacts. The Dahanu thermal power plant is the single most likely source of this pollution and hence more stringent pollution control measures in the thermal power plant especially to reduce the SO2 and Ash emissions are imperative for the environmental health and long-term sustainability of Dahanu’s orchards, farms and other traditional livelihood supports”.

Impact of globalisation

Besides the agro-ecological challenges, farmers are confronted with challenges from a new economy.

During the same period, globalisation led to the opening up of the agricultural markets, permitting the entry of various fruits and vegetables into India.  

“With a diverse variety of international and Indian fruits available to the consumer throughout the year, the common man's fruit, chikoo, now competes with apples from Australia and kiwi from New Zealand,” states Hemant Babu, a local orchard owner. “Very often we are stuck with selling our produce at low prices of Rs 2-3 a kg. The critical challenge for us is to be able to directly access the markets, innovate, introduce fruit processing and most importantly remove our dependence on the cartel of brokers that currently dominates the prices.” 

G Kolhe, head of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Dahanu agrees, stating that there is an urgent need for value addition in these competitive times. The KVK in a report authored by him clearly outlines the need for the development of products such as dehydrated chikoo slices and chikoo powder, direct retailing and better packaging as the way forward.

Impact of protection of orchards 

The declaration of Dahanu as an ecologically fragile zone in 1991 has had its own repercussions on the orchard economy. While the restrictions on industrialisation ensured controlled and limited pollution, the Notification led to a freeze on all orchard lands.  

The Notification categorically classifies orchard land as an environmentally sensitive area along with tribal lands and other green areas and stipulates “no change in land use” of these zones.  

“Our farms, specifically in the growing urban area of Dahanu, are barely viable given the reduced yield with the age of the trees and the increased developmental activities around. Yet, because of the environmental laws we are forced to continue to farm since we cannot convert the lands into non-agricultural use,” asserts a local Irani farmer.        

This contradiction has led to resentment and frustration amongst some orchard owners who would like to opt out of farming. Feeling trapped in an environmentalism that seems out of context, many of them have tried various ways, both legitimate and illegitimate, to 'de-reserve' their lands in the Development Plan of Dahanu.   

While there have been many discussions and debates on the relaxation of this norm, particularly for the orchard owners of the urban area, local environmentalists claim that the region has stayed an unpolluted and fairly well planned zone because of the Notification. Any relaxation of these norms would result in the opening up of Dahanu, with accompanying violation and misuse.

For now, the farmers continue to confront the multiple challenges of agriculture, ecology, environmental protection, industrial pollution and a new economy.

(This is the fourth in a series of articles by Michelle Chawla, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008. Michelle has a Master’s degree in social work and is founder and trustee of the Tamarind Tree Trust, which is located on a chikoo farm in Dahanu, Maharashtra, and works on developmental and environmental issues in Dahanu. Her series for Infochange documents the conflict between environment-protection, development and livelihoods, by looking at Dahanu as a microcosm in which these conflicts have been playing out since 1991.) 

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009