This is side green

Farming woes are aplenty, but so are the ways to go back to being a healthy agrarian country. The story of the Indian farmer

This is side green

The fields have been second home for 22-year-old Mohammad Salim of Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh. His father is a marginal farmer who, till quite recently, had been able to support his family of five very capably. Salim, the eldest among three siblings, preferred skipping school and working on the farm much to the chagrin of his father, who repeatedly told him that in the coming years, the farm would not yield much income and he should educate himself for a better future. Teenager Salim chose not to pay heed to his father’s advice as he felt they lived reasonably well and the hearth was always brimming with flavoursome food.

His village was his life; there was enough work to do in the fields; it reaped a good harvest; he had friends aplenty to share secrets; grudges were none, and he felt no need to stretch himself.

Come 2019 and I spot Salim in Chandigarh. He’s moving the paintbrush in his hand at furious speed as he applies a coat of primer to the exterior walls of a house in an affluent locality. The contractor has told him he needs to be quick with plastic emulsions as they dry rapidly, and dawdling work will not lead to the fine finish clients demand.

The other life

“In the past two years I’ve dabbled in a few professions,” Salim tells me. “I learnt the art of DJ and managed the music at weddings, which often took me beyond my village. I also worked as an apprentice with a motor mechanic. It’s the first time I’ve come to a big city, and here I’ve picked up the paintbrush. My sister’s marriage is coming up and we need a free flow of cash,” he says, wistfully adding, “Abba was right, the fields can no longer support our basic needs. Even so, if given a choice, I would happily till the soil, wait for seeds to germinate, and watch new life emerge.”

The story of young Salim is the story of the Indian farmer. Dwindling farm-holdings, repeated crop failure, decreased income and an existence on loans have made the farmer debt-ridden and dented his pride. The only option for many is to sell the land and move to the city as migrant labourers or become daily-wage earners on their own land. Some prefer the ultimate step: taking their life...

Instances of farmers being despicably paid for their harvest after months of hard labour are many. Recently, Pradeep Sharma, a farmer from Barauli Ahir village, Agra, Uttar Pradesh thought he would make a killing after he harvested 19,000 kg of potatoes. However, Sharma was in for a shock when he sold his produce to the government purchase outlet. The profit he earned was a mere Rs 490.

The episode came nearly a month after Sanjay Sathe, an onion farmer of Niphad, Nashik district, earned a measly profit of Rs 1,064 after selling 750 kg onion. He famously donated that amount to the PMO as a mark of protest. During harvesting season, numerous such incidents are reported. Farmers at times have thrown their produce on the highways rather than selling it for a loss. “Earning Re 1 per kg or less is a cruel joke,” says Sukhwinder Singh, who has a 10-acre land holding in Rupnagar district, Punjab. “Almost every year it is the same story. We are left with no alternative but to sell at a huge loss or make no profit at all. For the same produce that we at times earn a few paisas per kg in the wholesale market, the retail-end buyer ends up paying up to Rs 30-40 per kg, if not more. If this is the state of farming in a few years from now, who will produce food?” he questions.

Miles away, marginal farmer Prem Chander of Shahganj, Jaunpur district, Uttar Pradesh, echoes a similar thought. “Farming will soon cease to be a profession for my family. I used to harvest sugarcane. We had enough sugar and jaggery to last the year. Now my sons and I have moved to the city to earn as we couldn’t make both ends meet with fluctuating market prices. I’m thinking of giving my land on lease.”

Farming woes are aplenty. Erratic availability of electricity and water apart, the darkest aspects of the much-touted Green Revolution — now being considered the devil that’s led to the present agrarian disaster — the depletion of soil quality owing to overuse of urea and other pesticides, shrinking water table due to laboratory-produced seed variants that demand increased irrigation, and the expense of buying seeds due to the emergence of modified varieties are adding to the kitty of sorrows.

Further, the lack of consistency in institutional credit and the imbalance between the minimum support price and input costs have led to acute indebtedness.

News these days is abuzz with various government solutions to counter the rising agrarian crisis and these include proposals like loan waiver, interest-free loans, zero-cost electricity and income support schemes, all of which, however, are nothing but short-sighted measures with an eye on the upcoming General Election.

If the plight of the farmer has to be radically improved, such electoral gimmicks need to be done away with, and a long-term strategy that includes a steadfast support network using the current know-how has to be established. The government in power would do well to strengthen the village — the foundation of the country’s economy pyramid — rather than drafting overambitious blueprints to create uber-smart cities that lead to a warped urban existence.

While farmers and their supporters take out silent rallies to register their protest, artists like Umesh Singh, who hails from Bihar and is studying in Hyderabad, use their medium to express agrarian despair. At the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, his installation Uncomfortable Tools is a collection of farming implements belonging to those who were once farmers in drought-hit Bhojpur, Bihar. Like many others from around the country, they discarded farming and went different ways to earn a living.

Preserving seed

“One of the reasons we have landed in this agrarian mess is because we are forgetting to nurture our seeds. Traditional seeds are as much a symbol for life and their well-being as they are a symbol of protest against the proponents of new agriculture who ride on the back of seeds,” says Tehri Garhwal-based Vijay Jarhdhari of the Beej Bachao Andolan.

“Saving the seed is all about valuing traditional knowledge and wisdom that ensured continued survival and well-being of agriculture and dependent communities. It’s about conserving forests, which provide minor produce for people, fodder for cattle, fertiliser for fields and water to springs. Most importantly, it’s about preserving the sociology of traditional agriculture that enabled self-dependence and yet meant inter-dependence within society, lending collective support to individual efforts.

If today we have an agrarian crisis, it’s because we are implementing, or being forced to implement, methods not suitable for our agricultural conditions. We are opting for the modern and disregarding the conventional. We need select and discard from both methods much the way we select our seeds,” he emphasises.

In the hills of Garhwal, the all-important beejunda is sacred. It’s the grain storage container found in most village homes. It is unlike any vessel in modern kitchens. In keeping with the wonderfully typical sustainable living that villages practise, the beejunda is quite simply made out of a dried gourd shell. As the legend goes, it is considered more precious than its keeper’s existence, as it is the preserver of seed — the nourisher of life.

In his definitive work Himalayan Gazetteer, author Edwin T Atkinson writes that during the 1795 AD Garhwal famine — locally still recalled as the Bawani ka akal or famine of the year 1852, according to the Indian lunar calendar — it was found that people died of hunger but did not consume seeds preserved in the beejunda. It conveys what is still heard in the hills: pahar ka aadmi bhukha reh jayege par apna beej nahin khaega... hillfolk will go hungry but never eat their stored seeds. This, in fact, is a cultural practice followed even today by the traditional farming community across the country for whom preservation of seed for the next sowing season is vital.

Across the country, traditionally, each agricultural season would come to a close with the storage of seed. A farmer would select the best crop while it was still standing and mark it for seed collection. It was harvested at the very end, with the aim of letting the seed ripen naturally, and picked just before the pods burst open. Following that, the seeds were sunned for a few more days to remove any trace of moisture and then stored.

While on the subject of storage, it is remarkable to note the diverse ways the country’s farming belts store harvested grain. Not for them the plastic drums or large steel containers, both factory-produced products that are being pushed into villages now. Preservation of grain, however large be the quantity, is carried out in specific structures constructed with locally available material.

“We make a huge circular, raised platform with mud, reeds and bamboo just outside our homes. It’s a solid composition that can withstand all weather conditions, and is resistant to rodents and insects,” explains Umesh Yadav, who has a smallholding in Motihari, Bihar.

In the hills of Uttarakhand, grain is stored in a kutthar, “a room made with timbre that from the outside looks akin to a mandir,” says Jarhdhari, adding, “It is part of the house design and almost all homes in our villages will have one, a definite indicator of the rich harvest in our region.”

That is the way desi or nadan beej, the native seed, has been in circulation for centuries. The hybrid seed, however, is changing the scenario. Besides wiping out a generations-old culture of sustainable farming, it’s also altering taste.

Hybrid flavours

Today in markets around the country, it’s common to find vegetables of uniform colour and shape. But do they have flavour? Till a few years ago, visiting NRIs would always comment how, once back in India, they preferred eating every vegetable available in the local mandi. The reason was that, back in their adopted lands the vegetables looked good but lacked taste, while in India the vegetables were bursting with flavour and each had an inherent sweetness that made them delicious. I stay in Punjab, and winters see quite a few NRI relatives flying in. Over the past few years, I have heard them comment how cereals and greens have begun to taste quite similar to the ones they are accustomed to having. “And that’s not such a delicious thought,” said one settled in the United Kingdom.

The richness of our land was evident in the diversity of what it produced. Quite subtly, the consumer is being pushed to buy everything that looks good and comes packaged beautifully. Never mind the taste.

It’s always been there

Take the case of rice. India has over a thousand varieties of rice. But how many can you rattle off? Give that a thought. The market leader is long-grain basmati, considered the king among all varieties. Hybridisation created Pusa 1121, a Basmati strain with an extremely long kernel that has flooded the shelves. It’s being widely grown in the rice belts of North India. It supposedly cooks well and does not end up becoming sticky. But why is it that to the discerning palate it feels tasteless, almost like plastic? Well, when foodstuff is genetically altered with an eye on the market, flavour does get compromised.

Slowly but surely, the move towards organic growing is beginning to bring taste back on to the table. Cultivators are making an effort to sow desi beej. At the recently concluded 6th Women of India Organic Festival organised by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in Chandigarh, farmers had displayed produce from native seed.

“Take a look at our pulses. They are not uniform in shape or colour. We have used desi beej. Our production cost is thus expensive, but the flavour is unmatchable,” says Malwinder Singh of Green Focus, Sangrur, Punjab. He almost sold out at the three-day festival.

Similar was the case with Bhairab Saini from Bankura in Bengal. He had brought three quintals of aromatic, small-grain rice Gobindobhog, which local visitors were not familiar with. “People bought half kg on day one and soon returned for more. I don’t have a kilo left and lots of people returned disappointed,” he proudly said.

The organic fair brought to light farmer willingness to give another shot to sustainable agriculture. The need of the hour is a concerted effort by both state and central governments to pitch in and make the farm sector technology-driven, and also encourage a judicious mix of conventional and contemporary methods of agriculture.

The first step in this direction is improving the quality of rural life so that a farmer, who gets us food on our platters, does not have to discard his profession or end up becoming a labourer on his own land.

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