It’s a hot afternoon
and Narayana is standing at the edge of his one-acre field. He wades in, toes
squishing in the mud, to the patch where rice stems have been flattened and lie
on their sides. Wild winds and rains a week earlier loosened the culms from the
soil, knocked down the stems in patches, their panicles pregnant with greenish
yellow spikelets. The damaged patches amount to half an acre.
He bends down to his task, collecting the stems and tillers and ties them into sheaves so they stand erect and grow well and mature. He has been doing this for the last three days with three other workers, paying them each ₹300 for their work. Narayana’s palms and fingers are nicked, pierced, and cut by the sharp edges and hairy surfaces of leaves and stems. The other workers too have suffered. They will not be coming in the next day.
“We cannot work more than one or two days because these sharp edges cut into our hands,” he says, even as he picks out scattered and flattened stems, and bundles them into a sheaf.
Narayana is a tenant farmer who cultivates two acres, one here and the other some distance away, in Kondepadu village in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district. The storm flattened the fields in patches across the area surrounding the village and neighbouring villages. He knows farmers stake their being in the soil, and that they are one storm away, one pest infestation away, one mosquito invasion away, one God-knows-what, from wipe-out. Forty-years-old, he is rake thin, with a head a bit large for his body, large, compassionate eyes that have seen many storms since he started going to the fields at the age of 15. His long jowl curves into his chin, like a folded window curtain.
Narayana has no choice but to do this, tying the stems into bundles, because if he leaves them as they are now, they will rot in the mud, or attracts rats that can eat the whole field. In a normal season he would have filled 35 to 40 bags of 75 kg each. The damage will shave at least 20 bags from the harvest. So he salvages what he can, pulling himself together and trying his best to limit the damage to 10 bags. Farming—even as the light-green fields with the promise of a good harvest stretch far and wide to the horizon, shimmering in the afternoon sun and—is very different when looked at it up close.
Tenant farmers like Narayana spend more than ₹40,000 per acre per crop— like kharif—now, over 150 days until mid-December in this neck of the woods. About ₹28,000 of that pays for fertiliser, pesticides, insecticides, and agricultural labour, and ₹15,000 goes to the land-owner as rent. If all goes well, which is rare, they get 35 to 40 bags of paddy, each selling at ₹1,000. With the best harvest they make ₹40,000 which, more often than not, doesn’t balance.
So both he and his wife work in their own fields to save on labour costs and as agricultural labour in others’ fields. The rabi crop, which takes 120 days, has the same investment but fetches 50 bags, because, Narayana feels, weather is generally conducive, and they make ₹50,000. The investment in both crops comes from loans, in the form of fertiliser and pesticide. This particular storm, though, cost Narayana an extra ₹4,500.
After the harvests, land-owner comes to take his share and the pesticide shop owner comes for his take. On average, with all able-bodied individuals in a family working as farmers and workers and the weather holding good, they make ₹10,000-12,000 a year from their Sisyphean labour.
On the other hand, the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households, in its NSS 70th round, conducted in 2013, says the average monthly income is ₹6,426, including wages, animal farming, and others. The survey pegs consumption at ₹6,223. That leaves nothing for farming expenses for the next crop. Farmers have to take loans for that.
Moreover, the average size of land holdings has come down consistently in the last 20 years. Two-thirds of them are classified as marginal, less than one hectacre.
Food grain production, rice, wheat and pulses stood at 273.38 million tonnes in 2016-17, helped by a good monsoon, according to government reports. The government wants to double farming income by 2022-23.
The only thing holding farming communities together in a world of unfavourable government policies, truant weather, middle-men and crashing prices is the social relationship of mutual dependence. You could call the other for your farm work, and the other calls you for his farm work.
The sun dips. Narayana emerges from his field, feet caked in mud, palms and hands bloody.
“If there is money, we
could buy some goods, fix broken windows, and plaster our peeling walls, a few
grams of gold for the wife. Maybe buy a
bike. Maybe construct a small house. These things seem so far away,” he says.
Without income from farming, all the shops that sell clothes, goods, all the shops that sell anything get hurt. Businesses all over suffer. When farmers hurt, the rest too suffer.
Agriculture and farming are the backbone of the community, he continues. “Without income from farming, all the shops that sell clothes, goods, all the shops that sell anything get hurt. Businesses all over suffer. When farmers hurt, the rest too suffer.”
Facts are stubborn
things. We need to eat to survive. Food grows in the earth and the earth is
hurting. Food growers, farmers, are hurting. We’re part of the network of food
and when farmers hurt everybody hurts, whether we’re aware of or oblivious to
“All beings, humans included, are made from interconnection. And so the fate of plants and the soil is also our fate. We’re not separate, but rather are tied together in relationships of mutual dependence. These relationships are particularly strong and important in agriculture,” says David George Haskell, in an email. He is a professor of biology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, and author of Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees.
Every bite of food, Haskell continues, emerges from and depends on the work of farmers, the health of the soil, the productivity of plants, the availability of water, soundness of storage and transport, and the art of cooks. This modern relationship rests on more ancient bonds: humans who domesticated plants, the ancient knowledge of place embedded in plant genomes, the many microbes and animals whose lives built the soil, and the flows of water and minerals that keep the fields fertile and productive. When these relationships are fractured, it is not just the production of food that is affected, but whole networks of ecology and human culture.
“So a crisis in agriculture is also a crisis of culture and of human relationship.”
There are layers and layers of crisis and distress that our farmers face: livelihoods at risk from falling incomes, failed rains, flooded fields, heat, drought, pesticides, their health and spending on their health, monoculture, creeping corporate control, pests, plant diseases, government policies that create and accentuate the crises and distress, the middlemen, credit and banks, loans from money lenders, debts, degraded soils, environmental changes and climate change.
These are manifestations of one economic theology: growth. Growth is good and its associations with “development” and “progress”. It’s as if we’re all members of this economic cult, a Titanic in love with its iceberg.
Nehru saw agriculture
as the basis of all development in independent India. He ensured that the state
invested in farming. But in the next
phase, the mid-1960s to mid-80s, the emphasis was on agricultural modernisation
“That’s a completely different articulation,” says Rajeswari Raina, professor at Shiv Nadar University, an expert on agriculture and the politics of knowledge and growth. “Capital formation for agriculture took precedence over capital formation in agriculture.” It led to investments in agro processing, credit, transport, electricity for agriculture, and many others, which are outside agriculture. In this formulation, women were marginalised and removed from many agricultural activities that were theirs. It also disconnected agriculture from its biological foundations.
Raina says, “It subsidised private investment with public money, and disconnected the individual farmer from his moorings.”
“Politically conscious and interest-seeking middle and large farmers” promoted capital-intensive production practices, according to research by Mishra and Chand.
It’s well-known that the green revolution, with its emphasis on monoculture, fertilisers and pesticides and yields, ended in ruined soils, soil toxicity, pollution, health problems, depleted and contaminated fresh water and groundwater and rivers, reduced crop genetic diversity and indigenous farming knowledge. Although yields increased, their rate of growth became far less than the rate of growth of chemical and mechanical inputs. Input prices increased by leaps and bounds compared to agricultural output and it became unsustainable. Green revolution became profitable only for the massive agro-industrial complex.
When the economy opened up, farmers had nothing to cushion its onslaught. Unprepared, they got hurt more. As the years rolled on, input costs skyrocketed and incomes plummeted.
According to studies, India’s average rate of growth of food grain yield per year fell from 4.4 per cent between 1980-90 to 2.8 per cent between 1991-98, and further to 0.6 per cent between 1999-2009. According to Raina, during the period 1990 to 2010, less than 0.4 per cent of agricultural GDP was allocated to agricultural research, excluding education expenditure, while input subsidies alone accounted for 8-11 per cent of agricultural GDP. Input subsidies in 2006-07 accounted for 88 per cent of the total plan outlay for agriculture, irrigation and rural development. All of this goes to agro- industries and intermediary people.
A cotton farmer pours ₹50,000-60,000 into a five-year crop, and it never goes well. All kinds of trouble—diseases, rains, price crashes—do them in, and they cannot bear the stress of debt.
Farmers continue to take their lives. The rural-debt suicide cycle continues to churn. Ram Babu, a farmer and thinker on the human condition, from Kondepadu village, says, “If you observe, farmers and teenage students take their lives most, although others, too, commit suicide. A cotton farmer pours ₹50,000-60,000 into a five-year crop, and it never goes well. All kinds of trouble—diseases, rains, price crashes—do them in, and they cannot bear the stress of debt.”
Farmers, already reeling from their burdens, don’t want their children to continue farming, he continues. “They want their children to go for professional courses, for which they have to take additional loans. Students are pressured to succeed and they cannot bear that stress. The next generation is also not interested in farming.” Rural distress is driving people out of villages to cities, to wherever work is available.
Even after a farmer
takes his life, as the study published by Gowri Ramanan in William and Mary
Journal of Law notes, moneylenders continue to harass the families—the
living victims are women, children, and the elderly, the lenders often taking
away the living victims’ land and pushing them further into deprivation.
“Agribusiness conglomerates continue to put expensive hybrid seed varieties on the market; poor farmers continue to enter into debt to buy them, and continue to commit suicide when they can no longer maintain their existence in a poverty-debt cycle. In rural India, the invisible women who often run and always support smallholder farms are consequently the victims of a process of industrial agriculture that not only devalues traditional modes of agricultural production, but also destroys the lives and livelihoods of farmers that once depended on them,” the study says.
The green revolution led to the “cancer train” from Bathinda (Punjab) to Bikaner (Rajasthan). Farmers die of pesticide poisoning. A girl dies of starvation, among perhaps many. Children are stunted, suffer developmental disabilities for lack of food. We’re in 100th place out of 119 countries on the global hunger index.
As Amartya Sen’s research and P. Sainath’s reporting point out, food insecurity is not about supply; rather, it is access to food. It’s about poverty, inequality, and poor management. Scarcity of food arises at the intersection of lack of access to local markets and politics. Weather may exacerbate the situation, but we create those conditions in the first place.
The malaise runs deeper, according to Raina. “We are blind to the diversity and variability of agriculture. When I say ‘we’, I mean middle-class consumers, professionals, policy-makers, bankers, suppliers, scientists and so on.”
In the biophysical context, diversity is the main thing, she says. Farming communities respect diversity and variability; they always grow crops that are adapted to regions, soils, water systems, and local ecologies. Instead, we want everything in one straitjacket, she says.
“Financial capital wants massive volumes with least diversity and variability. Standardisation is necessary for control using capital, instead of kinship relationships and community based accountabilities that have in the past ensured access to and quality of food.”
Diversity does exist in India in rain-fed farming, which constitutes over 64 per cent of arable land in the country, where uniform inputs of irrigation, chemicals and High Yielding Varieties (HYV) are either not available or ineffective. Rain-fed India produces 34 predominant crops, whereas irrigated India produces two to four predominant crops. Millets, the dominant nutritious cereals in rain-fed farming, which had almost disappeared, are now in demand; diversity is welcomed now, though as part of a larger consumerist logic, she adds.
“Now, crops are bred for only one parameter: yield. That’s one of the drivers of crisis.”
The other major drivers include climate change and environmental degradation.
Farmers like Narayana
also face a crisis that is not of their making. Global warming and climate
disruption are the result of human-induced emissions which have vastly raised
the output of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide shot above the symbolic (400
parts per million) threshold in 2016, and it is unlikely to come down in our
lifetimes. The last time the planet was so rich in carbon dioxide was millions
of years ago long before we came on the scene, when ice melt had raised sea levels
by tens of metres.
Nowhere else is the impact of climate change more pronounced than in agriculture. The disruption may well be global in reach and sweep, but it hurts people like Narayana in many different ways. Local warming, which can be caused by many factors, including environmental ones, could drive down yields much below the 35-40 bags of paddy limit and lock him in more debt. He has a debt of ₹75,000 now.
Globally, the efforts to contain the temperature increase to below 20C gives us a few years at best, because carbon space is diminishing.
“Two-thirds of the 3,000 gigatonnes of CO2 that can be emitted to remain within a 20C temperature rise over pre-industrial times has already been emitted. Despite the pledges by various countries to reduce emissions, the remaining 1,000 gigatonnes is likely to be emitted by 2030. Even if the current pledges are fully implemented, average global temperature rise will exceed 30C. Some even put the number as high as 50C,” according to Sagar Dhara, a scientist based in Hyderabad. As coordinator for Platform for Sustainability and Equity, he has given a break-down of the crisis in climate in a note that has been taken up and discussed in various farmers’ forums.
He likes to identify himself as “Male; university-educated; upper caste and class; member, most ferocious predatory species on earth—humans.” He is also beginning to be a farmer, and wants to measure energetics, which studies the energy flow in a system—be it the human body, a field, a forest or an economy.
In his well-sourced note—the government’s data-gathering was done when Jairam Ramesh was environment minister—Sagar Dhara says India’s CO2 emissions in 2014 were estimated at 2.3 gigatonnes; up from 0.7 in 1990, growing at 2.2 per cent per annum during this period. The per capita CO2 emission in India was 1.8 tonnes in 2014, up from 0.8 in 1990. Agriculture contributes about 17 per cent of India’s CO2 emissions.
Plants capture and store carbon. India’s forests capture and store 67.8 million tonnes of CO2 a year while croplands store 207.5 million tonnes, which tots up to 275.3 million tonnes. Eighty-three per cent of the emissions are non-agricultural, that is, 228 million tonnes of CO2. Of this total, forests store 56.3 million tonnes and crop lands 172.2 million tonnes.
The farm sector should be compensated for storing non-agricultural emissions, Dhara’s note says. If carbon prices are fixed at $100 per tonne, the non-agricultural sectors, that is, cities, must compensate yearly the agricultural sector ₹1.17 lakh crore ( ₹7,500/ha of arable land) and government ₹38,000 crore for carbon sequestration on agricultural and forest lands, respectively. The per-hectare compensation will increase if permanent fallow land is excluded, Sagar Dhara says.
“Such compensation will begin to address the historic unequal exchange that exists between urban and rural areas.” Apart from systemic factors such as unequal exchange, warming affects plant physiology at specific growth points, mainly photosynthesis and transpiration—plants releasing moisture into the atmosphere.
Increased carbon concentrations rev up photosynthesis while also increasing transpiration. That leads to high Vapour Pressure Deficit (VPD), the difference between water vapour in the leaf and surrounding air, says Shesh Shayee, professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.
Plants then need more water to survive. With water sources already depleted, there will be more stress as temperatures rise. What’s more, to prevent moisture from leaking out, the plant has to close its pores, limiting its capacity to absorb CO2 and affecting its growth.
As a slew of research papers indicate, the effect of greenhouse gases is far deeper and widespread. The pathways in which climate change affects environment is mind-bending—extreme weather, less frequent, more intense monsoon rains, floods (a month’s worth of rain in two days), droughts, cyclones that can dump so much water that they can take that dumped water and hurl it back again as Harvey did in Houston, melting glaciers and dead or overflowing rivers, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, de-oxygenated seas, dead zones. One estimate—referred to in P. K. Aggarwal’s paper on the impact of climate change on agriculture—has “crop production loss in India by 2100 at 10-40 per cent despite the beneficial effects of higher CO2 on crop growth. We could lose 4-5 million tonnes of wheat with every rise of 10C. Dynamics of pests and diseases will be significantly altered.” Aerosols too affect crop harvests.
The latest research shows that global warming knocks out the mineral content in crops, effectively turning them into junk food. It’s just not climate change but environmental degradation and changing land-use and denotification of forest lands that will create a nightmare for all of us. Farmers will get hit harder than most of us.
We all live in a
context that worships GDP growth—defined as the increase in goods produced and
consumed in a year—whatever its social and ecological costs. But there is a
whole raft of literature that suggests otherwise. K. William Kapp’s (a pioneer
in ecological economics, a three-way study of nature, economics and society)
study of social and environmental costs of capitalist growth; Donella H.
Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens’ short book on The
Limits to Growth; Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s work on the entropic nature
of economic processes; Herman Daly’s
steady-state economy; E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If
People Mattered, (Buddhist economics); and many more works point out one
basic fact: perpetual growth is a lie. They tell us that GDP is a convenient
lie necessary for those with the power to capture all the gains and dump all
the costs on others (society and ecosystems).
The way words like “sustainable development” and “sustainable growth” are used is at best a fad and at worst meaningless. The actual definition of sustainability is zero external input, in terms of matter and energy. All industry, especially extractive industries, farming, different aspects of any economy have to be kept alive by massive infusions of input. The macroeconomic argument— no growth means no income to distribute among people—doesn’t take into account the cost of growth.
For instance, Raina explains, if GDP grows from 100 rupees to 110 rupees in one year that is a good growth rate. The government distributes it among all sectors, and we who are producers or service providers in these sectors will use it to consume. Our consumption in turn adds further value; note that our asthma, our cancer, help the growth of the health sector. Our stunted children (38.4 per cent of Indian kids under 5, a majority in families that are first generation poor), the zinc-fortified oral rehydration salts (to prevent diarrhoea deaths among children born to anaemic mothers—estimated at 83 per cent of rural women) are but the expression of weak soils and agriculture with more fertilisers and pesticides in the field, but has parted ways with nutrition and rural employment to add more value to a range of intermediary sectors.
“It’s surreal,” says Raina.
Post-growth or “beyond growth”, on the other hand, is a political, social and economic orientation that searches for alternatives to the attempts that promote the Euro-Atlantic-type growth-driven society. It encompasses a variety of currents and views, the main ones being post-GDP, agrowth, steady-state economics, post-extractivism, alternative “good lives”, and degrowth, Raina says.
In a post-growth society agriculture will not be a net energy guzzler. It will be valued and supported by public investments for the net energy it produces by converting the most abundant source of energy: the sun. or the net energy that it produces by converting the most abundant source of available energy: the sun.
In a post-growth society agriculture will not be a net energy guzzler. It will be valued and supported by public investments for the net energy that it produces by converting the most abundant source of available energy: the sun. We will have a new macro-economic understanding of and valuation of all the bio-physical systems on which our economies depend and irreparably change or damage—the real-real exchanges of matter and energy between the environment, economy and society, Raina explains.
In the midst of
all-around despair in the farming community, there is light. Farmers’
collectives are growing crops in tune with bio-physical principles of nature.
Some individual farmers shun chemical pesticides and fertilisers and go back to
tending and caring for the soil.
There is Debal Deb’ seed bank. Vrihi (rice) continues its great work, promoting the use of native seeds through seed exchanges, cross-breeding experiments and teaching. The Sundarban islands’ farmers availed themselves of salt-tolerant varieties in Vrihi when cyclone Aila hammered the delta in 2009. These were the only farmers who reaped the harvest. In 1999, Vrihi distributed drought-tolerant seeds during a dry period in Bengal.
There is Shiraz Wajih, president of the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group, retired associate professor at Gorakhpur University who works on livelihoods in ecologically stressful situations in rural and urban areas. He bets on the resilience and knowledge of small and marginal farmers. Diversity in farm systems is what we focus on, he says, “the recycling processes within diverse farm sub-systems where the refuse of one crop produces input for another.” A marginal woman farmer Ram Rati, grew 53 crops on less than one acre and has increased net gains many fold.
“Wherever there is monoculture—cotton, sugarcane, or paddy—absorption capacity is low. In agriculture, there are shocks and there will be shocks. We have to focus on diversity farming. We have to think about recycling flows in the farm,” he says.
Raina points to several experiments with fundamental changes in knowledge and democratic practices (the “next system project” for instance). Alternatives, whether in India (like the Mendha Lekha case or the Timbaktu collective) or abroad (like Berkshares or the Bristol pound) may be addressing different aspects of a faulty relationship between the biosphere and the economy. They are alternatives that are re-conceptualizing and re-valuing food, manufacturing, services, investments, employment, incomes, lifestyles, well-being and happiness; they are important sources to learn from.
There is Helena Norberg Hodge’s Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. She suggests economic localisation for our food, shelter, and clothing will have positive effects in terms of environment, economics, and happiness.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but select examples of imagination and action.
As Haskell puts it, “We are given life and sustained by our connection to plants, the soil, other animals, and other people. In agriculture, we feel the importance of these relationships in our strong bond to places, a bond that transcends utility (what the land gives to us) and enters into the realm of kinship (this land is part of me, part of my extended family). Through years of knowledge and work, our emotions and bodies become connected to the land.”
Narayana knows only how to care for the land. He doesn’t have the luxury of opting out of farming, even with all the uncertainty that attends it. “I don’t know any other work,” he says.
Out here in the expanse of fields, light fades. The tinny chorus of insects crackles through the air. Narayana turns into a silhouette. His sonorous voice punctuates the dark.
(This is the first part of a series on farmers and farming, agriculture in a world facing climate change and how the interaction between government, agribusiness and the general economy affects the farmer.)