Kashmiris giving up farming for jobs

Kashmiris giving up farming for jobs
It is early October morning in Awantipora town in south Kashmir and scores of pheran (traditional gown) clad residents, young and old, surround what is visibly a road survey team, quizzing the non-local engineers about the possible alignment of a newly proposed road.

It is surprising as villagers are not protesting against the new road as it happens in most parts of the country. Villagers or land losers protest against acquisition of land for development works. Instead, villagers here are happy and consider it as a good riddance! This may sound strange as land is considered gold and prices generally shoot up.

Villagers have a reason which sounds valid also for their decision to part with land for compensation. They are not getting good returns from agriculture or horticulture and their lives have not seen any improvement over the years. In fact, their condition is becoming hopeless and they feel it is better to take up some employment than continue with farming.

“We would prefer to be employed in cities because of better education, health and employment avenues there. We suffer repeated losses as crops are either destroyed because of unseasonal rains, drought, floods and pest attack or we get peanuts in return for our produce,” the farmers complain.

“Farming has left us impoverished. The landless are far better placed as they focus on jobs and small businesses. A farmer’s condition is so bad that he cannot even afford medical expenses of the sick in his family. It is a very sad situation,” they rue.
Most who cultivate in the area are small-time farmers, and agriculture is the only source of livelihood for them.

In recent years, the production of rice, maize, vegetables, apples and almonds has remained stagnant, despite the introduction of several high-yielding hybrids. The farmers complain that while production cost has increased manifold, the returns for their produce is low. Abdul Ahad Bhat, a farmer, has some interesting statistics to offer.

“In the year 2000, a quintal of polished rice sold at Rs 1,500, a kg of almonds for Rs 150 and a boxful of good quality apples roughly about Rs 1,000. Look at the prices 17 years later. Rice sells for between Rs 2,000 and 2,500 per quintal, almonds fetch Rs 200-250 a kg and apples at Rs 800 to Rs 1,200 per box,” he says.

“During the same period, the prices of fertilisers have tripled, pesticides have quadrupled and wages of labour have gone up from Rs 100 to Rs 600 a day in peak season,” he claims.

Business of loss
“Farming is a business of loss; it is no more profitable. That is why nobody wants to continue farming. It has only pushed us over to abject penury," he adds.

The declining interest in farming is quite evident anecdotally and empirically. As per official data, the number of cultivators in Jammu and Kashmir has come down from 9.5 lakh in 2001 to less than six lakh in 2016 and the state has witnessed a fall in both the number of holders as well as the area under cultivation. This is despite substantial increase in population of the state over the past 15 years.

With disproportionately escalating costs of fertilisers, seeds, pesticides and labour, both agriculture and horticulture sectors have been impacted –quantitatively as well as qualitatively. This phenomenon has triggered large number of conversion of cultivable land into commercial use by building business units, houses and roads.

The farmers say that while the government keeps a close watch on inflation it hardly bothers about spiralling input costs of agriculture.

“If the government cannot check prices of pesticides, fertilisers, manpower, machinery etc, they should provide commensurate subsidies to farmers so that they can keep going,” said a local farmer.

“The agriculture department does provide some subsidised seeds but they are usually of poor quality and farmers incur losses by sowing them,” he said.

“The government should allow farmers buy quality input materials of their choice and provide subsidy on them. Also we should be compensated if we suffer losses for various reasons,” said another farmer.

He added that the government should provide crop insurance to farmers and provide 100% rebate on premium. “That is the only way people’s interest in farming can be restored and kept intact,” he said.
In 2000, at least 14.43 lakh operational holders were cultivating 9.62 lakh hectares in Kashmir, but the numbers have fallen to less than 13 lakh operational holders on 9.23 lakh hectares. The low production in the sector has also cast its effect on the state’s economy. The share of the agriculture to the state gross domestic product has witnessed a steep fall from 56% in 1970 to 19% in 2013.

According to official figures, the state’s food grain imports have grown substantially from 50,000 metric tonnes in 2002 to 7,60,000 metric tonnes in 2016. While J&K’s annual food grain production hasn’t grown beyond 19 lakh metric tonnes, the demand has already crossed 26 lakh metric tonnes.

In 1980, the gap in the production was just two lakh metric tonnes (23%). The production is largely attributed to that of plains of Jammu region where holdings are much larger than Kashmir, which means the conversion and lack of interest in farming is primarily hitting the Kashmir Valley.

The worry, as per the latest economic survey, is also that the yield of principal crops – rice (staple food), wheat and maize hasn’t seen significant improvement despite introduction of advanced technologies.Experts say the major weaknesses of the sector is stagnant yields, which are lower than most of the states and less per hectare yield compared to all India level. “Sudden impact of climate change over past few years has only added to the misery of farming community”, it added.

It is not just that the farmers are facing losses but availability of finances through Kissan Credit Card scheme has rendered them debt ridden. “Many farmers have spent the loan on marriages of children or other similar liabilities, which make it impossible for them to pay back the bank loans,” says an official at a local bank. “It is high time the government comes to their rescue,” he adds.

What is more worrying is that the younger generation is completely averse to taking up farming owing to lack of dividends.

“It is not advisable to pursue farming in Kashmir. It not only drains you physically but also makes you poor. We don’t want to follow the path that made our parents suffer,” said Sameer Ahmad of Pulwama.

As a result, across Kashmir’s rural landscape, young people are seen driving tourist cabs, taking up small jobs or setting up petty shops.

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