Depleting water tables and a shift from farming for food to cash crops have transformed thriving villages into wastelands.
Less than four years back my friend Naren left the world, succumbing calmly to a malevolent tumour in his brain. I wrote in these columns how in life, as in death, my friend taught me many lessons in human goodness. A quarter century has lapsed since, opting for life as a farmer, he resigned his job as a banker and returned with his wife Uma Sankari and two daughters to his village Venkatramapuram in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. He tried to farm in ethical ways founded on multiple solidarities — with earth and water, with crops and trees, with his workers, and with dalits and women. After his passing, Uma was determined to continue their experiments with sustainable and just farming. She persevered bravely, but recently made an announcement to her family and friends which left them grieved.
She declared that she was defeated. She could not go on. She must sell her land and leave their village, forever. Uma wistfully describes emptying villages, hollowed out of their young people. They are crowding the shanties and footpaths of the cities, leaving behind only the old people to live or die. Except for a small minority lucky to be absorbed in the organised sector, the vast majority migrate with no certainties of either decent employment or a dignified life. At the same time in the village, government schools are closing one by one because there are fewer children left; they are moving in droves to residential schools in towns, their parents convinced that they have no future in the countryside. Venkatramapuram once was served with a decent public bus service, making five to six trips a day. In the last 10 years, this was reduced to two trips and now none! The government says there are not enough people to support the service.
Until the 1970s, a third of the farmers irrigated their fields, with dug wells in which water was easily found at 30 to 50 feet, or through small tanks. The rest relied on rain-fed agriculture, and the soil was moist. But since then, the electric pump literally became a watershed in the history of their village. People started drilling bore-wells, and dug deeper and deeper to strike the elusive ever-receding water. In Venkatramapuram today almost all bore-wells have run dry. Some people in insane desperation have tried to drill bore-wells up to 700 feet without striking any water.
The crazed race downwards for vanishing water was accompanied by the shift from farming for food to farming for cash. “Agriculture is about food,” says Uma, a truism which everyone has forgotten. “Farmers, planners, consumers have all come to believe that farming is about making money. Money is of course important, but it is a by-product of agriculture. The primary goal of agriculture is to provide ourselves with good nourishing safe variety of foods to eat and drink. But no longer!”
With the electrification of pump-sets was also introduced the epochal life-changing idea of cropping for cash. In Naren and Uma’s region, sugarcane, milk, meat and mango became the main cash crops. In the past, people grew a wide variety of crops in both wet and dry lands: paddy, millets, pulses, oil seeds, sugarcane, coconut, vegetables, herbs and spices. Meat, fish and milk was part of the diet even of the poor, because little was sold in the market. Cash payments to workers were rare; grain and clothes were given by the employers. There was year-round farming.
Farmers and farm workers, for the first time in history, are today forced to buy much of their food, dependent on a creaky and corrupt PDS, or volatile, inflationary private food markets. The largest numbers of persons who sleep hungry each night are ironically food-growers. When people grew food, there was also more sharing of food. Uma recalls that “the first thing people would say at any time of the day to a visitor is ‘come and eat’. There was enough to give to beggars, cows, dogs, cats, birds, and so on. These days women calculate and cook just enough for food for the family, because everything has to be purchased and the incomes are meagre and uncertain. Beggars have become rare; they too seem to have moved to greener pastures, to the traffic signals in the cities…”
Even as water was steadily going down and under, an additional disaster struck: a seven-year drought between 1997 and 2004. “There was neither crop, nor food, nor cash!” This spurred mass migration. Farmers and farm workers became convinced that there is no future in agriculture and rural areas and started sending their children away to urban residential schools with a vengeance. Committed family labour became scarce. Since 2006, MGNREGA helped double agricultural wages. But it offers employment in their village for hardly 20 to 40 days in a year; that too riddled with corruption and delays, and nobody knows whether and when they will get work. Therefore landless agricultural workers have fled even faster than the farmers to the cities, as they cannot live on hungry stomachs. Vanquished and heart-broken, Uma may finally decide to sell the 10 acres of farmland Naren received in inheritance, and move in with her caring daughters and sons-in-law in the city. She will leave behind in her village only those too old to move, or those whose grown children in cities are unable to share with them their poverty. This generation will pass somehow, but what about the next?
The Indian countryside has become, transformed into this wasteland of near-terminal despair and increasingly impossible survival, by new technologies, forced integration with globalised markets, and an uncaring state. For a sector which employs 51 per cent workers, contributes 14 per cent of GDP, the state invests as little as five per cent of total public expenditures. No wonder that tens of thousands of farmers each year drink pesticide or hang themselves; and millions of the young flee, when they can, wherever they can.