Killing fields

A farmer praying for early rains in Bhanpur Village near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: A.M.Faruqui   | Photo Credit: A.M.FARUQUI.

Basamma and her ailing husband have carried and spread their five sacks of ragi (finger millet) from their half-acre plot to the local tar road so that passing vehicles can ‘thresh’ the grains. Few sights signify for us the desperate acts of continuing to be in agriculture than this marginal cultivating family, representing 83 per cent of all cultivators who own less than two hectares of land and who account for 41 per cent of all land holdings in the nation. That the threshing yard — once a site and occasion for rituals of propitiating land, crop and deities and for families to gather together — is now a disintegrated site and activity signifies all the other shrinkages and disadvantages that families like Basamma’s face.

Although official reports and studies cite the problems of land shrinkage, lack of access to credit, poor infrastructure, unreliable markets, and now unpredictable climate change as key reasons for the continued agrarian distress, there are additional factors that make Basamma and millions like her vulnerable and susceptible to continuous economic and social erosions. These include poor soil conditions, loss of biodiversity, knowledge dissonance, inadequate labour support, increasing input costs, low prices for produce, new economic pressures, and the absence of any collective entity to address their innumerable grievances.

Dwindling size of holdings, as families split and share their holdings over generations, has rendered the average holding to be only 1.31 hectare (2011 census), making it impossible to meet even the family’s subsistence needs. Most of these plots are also rain-dependent and, for those that lie in the rain-shadow belt or in the arid and semi-arid areas, cultivation is possible only once a year, thereby providing a cycle of work and production for about only six months of the year. Low productivity and the recent sharp fluctuations in rainfall have only made production more tenuous over the years. Like their neighbours and relatives, Basamma’s holding has shrunk over the years, as have the productivity and the abilities of the land to sustain them. If family partition rendered only three hectares as their share, then the demands of having a daughter married and constructing a new house saw the sale of one hectare.

With the remaining land, Basamma and her husband have also tried to integrate some new cultivation techniques and inputs and have, like their plot, burned their fingers. Since they no longer have cattle and are unable to use the cow-dung for manure, they have tried ‘uppu’ (literally salt) or urea, which has left their fields burned and bleached. They failed to understand the appropriate quantities and timings in which the urea had to be utilised, thereby highlighting how knowledge dissonance has added to the burdens of agriculture. Instead of higher production, all the wild plants that used to be their source of uncultivated food have also vanished. This loss of biodiversity represents not only the increasing infertility of their land but also the declining diversity and nutrition of their food cultures. Supplementary grains from the public distribution system have staved persistent hunger but the lack of nutritious and diverse food has contributed to their failing health.

What such cultivating units and their holders indicate is the extent to which inappropriate and wrong agricultural models have become the bane of the agricultural sector. While the focus on increasing productivity has overlooked ecological diversity, the failure to provide a range of other forms of support to such marginal cultivators has rendered them into economically unviable units. Even as they struggle to cultivate their plot, the absence of a younger generation of cultivators makes their task all the more arduous. Sons — and in some cases daughters — have migrated out in search of jobs and their contribution to the family kitty is rare and inadequate. Worse yet, since their neighbours and relatives have stopped cultivating their own plots, the earlier practices of sharing labour during sowing, harvesting and threshing is no longer in practice. Basamma would like to imitate some of the others who have increased their productivity, but she has no capital or the social network to access the right kinds of new seeds, manure, and pesticides. Yet, she is also aware that these are also the very sources of the new forms of debts and the growing and higher risks that other cultivators face. As village talk indicates, many are now deeply indebted and the possibilities of getting out of this debt trap remain.

There is a new kind of desperation among such cultivators as they face not merely the vagaries of changing climate and a hostile political economy but also social pressures and conditions. The need to have children educated, the aspirations of improving their living conditions and opportunities, and the growing costs of health expenses are burdens that break any cultivators back. Dysfunctional public institutions such as schools and hospitals compound the cost and economic burdens that the average agriculturist bears. In such contexts, submitting to the compulsions of the chemical agricultural complex that promises higher productivity despite the range of risks becomes the bane of many marginal cultivators. Rarely do they make a profit in their production and instead face either crop loss from diseases or lack of adequate market price for their produce.

Their precarious resource base is further eroded by the lack of public infrastructure. Even as water becomes a scarcity, there are no systems of conservation and sharing. Instead a growing water market sees the privatisation of even ground water and a depleting water table. Poor information about new crops, market viability, and prices leave them baffled. Even those who have managed to get their children educated face the challenge of unemployment or the absorption of their children into low-end urban economies that are as insecure and precarious as their agricultural lives.

The promise and potential of decentralised administration have only been teasers and the sites of power have been captured by regional satraps whose agricultural interests are secondary to their larger economic base in the electoral system. Regimes of illegalities — from the sale of forest produce and poaching to the leakage of welfare funds — make a mockery of their lives and claims of governmental schemes. The inability of such marginalised cultivators to mobilise and come together to address their foundational disadvantages and the failure of policies to disseminate viable and alternative practices of agriculture compound their growing desperation, and in some cases the resort to committing suicide. Unlike younger couples who have the option of eking out a living by labouring on others’ fields, families like Basamma’s are compelled to either sell their land or completely abandon cultivation and become destitute. Yet, a sense of being cultivators, of having to live by the sweat of their labour and of working the land as a way of life, compels such vulnerable couples to continue to be cultivators.

Missing in the imaginaries of agricultural policies are the lives of these marginalised cultivators. Ironically, despite being the majority, no policies take note of their conditions and instead new economic compulsions promulgate the inevitable and required demise of such holdings and of such agriculturists. Seen as redundant to the ambitions of a fast globalising economy, the marginal cultivator bears the whipcord of not just a cruel landlord but of an indifferent political system. As citizens they send in the largest contingent of political representatives to the Parliament and yet their own issues and concerns are rarely factored in. Given these conditions it is no wonder that in a fast disassembling agrarian world, the displaced threshing yard, now on the public roads, subjecting both the produce and the producer to pollution and dust, and contingent on passing vehicles is symbolic of the current state of marginal agriculture and agriculturists.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 11:41:13 PM |

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