Agriculture left to die at India's peril

Last Updated 29 January 2010, 17:09 IST

It was Pongal a couple of weeks ago, the Tamil harvest festival, and villages around Tamil Nadu were alive with temple music and firecrackers. Tractors were scrubbed down, shiny, and cows were decked out in flowers.

Pongal is a joyful holiday, a time of thanksgiving. For three days, the countryside was in a festive mood. The monsoons have been abundant this year. Village tanks are overflowing. Fields are green with rice.

The celebrations masked a grimmer reality. Agriculture in this area, and in much of India, is dying. The village economy is in crisis, assailed by migration to the cities, decades of ecological neglect, and the growing unsustainability of farming.
Scientist M S Swaminathan, often referred to as the father of India’s green revolution, has spoken of a ‘disaster’ in Indian agriculture. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta has written of ‘hollowed’ villages.

According to a recent newspaper report,  almost 2,00,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2009 — a national tragedy (although it is rarely treated as such) brought on by rising debt and the resulting economic and existential despair.
Earlier this week, President Pratibha Patil called for ‘a second green revolution’ to stem spiraling food prices and declining supplies. Such calls have emotional resonance in a country that still remembers the humiliation of American food aid in the 1960s. It’s not clear, however, how Pratibha’s goal can be achieved. The forces arrayed against Indian farming are formidable; they are part of the country’s great leap toward modernity.

Quit farming
A few months ago, before the monsoons, when the fields were still barren, I met a man named A P Govindan in the south Indian village of Molasur. He was 56 years old. He was wearing the white robes and prayer beads of a holy man, but he called himself a farmer. Agriculture was in his blood: his father and his grandfather had worked the land, and their parents, too. Govindan and his brothers grew up in the fields, plowing and sowing a two-hectare, or five-acre, plot of land owned by the family.

In truth, Govindan wasn’t a farmer anymore. He quit the profession around 10 years ago, with his family in economic distress. Now he worked two jobs. In the mornings and evenings, he collected milk from surrounding villages for a milk processing company. He also worked during religious festivals at local temples, piercing the tongues and eyelids and stomachs of pilgrims eager to prove their devotion.
Change had crept up on Govindan gradually, almost imperceptibly. He could still remember a time when his land had been fertile enough not only to feed a family, but also to provide a healthy income. For a while, in the ’70s, when the green revolution introduced new fertilisers and pesticides, yields actually went up. Back then, farming seemed to have a bright future.

By the late ’80s, the chemicals had started taking a toll.  Govindan’s land dried up. Yields declined. Govindan said the quality of his crops did, too. In the old days, he told me, if you cooked too much rice for dinner you could keep it overnight and eat it the next day for breakfast. Now, rice from the fields around Molasur turned rotten overnight.

Other things had changed: labour was more expensive, the price of fertilisers and seeds had increased, and the overall cost of living had outstripped the rise in crop prices. It was also harder to irrigate the land. Twenty years ago, the water table was high. Even a cow could pull water from the shallow wells that dotted the area. But as farmers started using diesel and electric pumps, the water table declined. Now only farmers with the most powerful (and expensive) pumps can reach deep enough to irrigate their fields.

All these difficulties conspired to push Govindan out of farming. He wasn’t alone. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of farmers have quit their profession in this area. Across the country, almost eight million people left agriculture between 1991 and 2001, when the last Indian census was conducted. The next census, due in 2011, is likely to reveal an even bigger exodus.

In many ways, these men and women are on the wrong side of history — relics in a country where the centre of gravity is moving to the cities, anachronisms and even embarrassments to a population consumed with visions of a 21st century knowledge economy.

Since the late ’90s, when agriculture represented more than a quarter of the nation’s GDP, its share has dipped to just over 16 per cent. Over the last five years, the Indian economy as a whole has grown more than three times as fast as agriculture. The trend is clear: agriculture is being squeezed out of the new India.
Still, over 70 per cent of the nation lives in the countryside, and, for all its decline, agriculture accounts for more than half the nation’s jobs. It’s not clear that the Indian economy — new or old — is sustainable without a solution to the problems confronting agriculture. The farming crisis is really a national crisis.
In Molasur, Govindan said he had ended up all right. He made a decent living, and his sons also had good jobs. They had never set foot on a farm. But he told me he wondered about all the farmers that would quit their fields in the coming years. Would there be enough jobs for them? Would they be able to partake in the opportunities of the new India?

Govindan wondered about something else, too. Farming had always seemed a special profession to him, with a vital, even noble, role in feeding the nation. He wondered why the country didn’t see it that way anymore. Just the previous night, he had watched Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on television, assuring the nation that it wouldn’t face food shortages. Govindan felt something didn’t add up. He pointed to the barren fields; he said you couldn’t even grow peanuts on them anymore. “I don’t understand,” he said, “Where is all the food supposed to come from?”

(Published 29 January 2010, 17:09 IST)

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