Right way to stop farmers’ suicides
Revival of loca irrigation tanks is the key
More focus on dryland farming
Neglect of rural economy suicidal
The tragic stories of farmers committing suicide have come back to haunt the people of Telangana. When they struggled to win statehood they knew that along with freedom from the control of former oppressive rulers would come many difficulties. The new state is critically short of water and power. The state’s fledgling budget takes note of the crisis looming over its poor small and marginal farmers, who are mostly SC and ST and form over half of the farming population. For the first time, the government recognises the importance of local irrigation tanks, and paying tribute to the genius of the ancient Kakatiyas, it plans to revive 45,000 of these small structures over the next five years. Around Rs 2000 crores has been allotted in the budget to improve 9000 of them within one year and increase the land under irrigation in the ayacut regions. It will be of great assistance to small farmers, many of whom have suffered grievous losses by digging deep bore wells without finding water. These long neglected measures by former governments will permit ground-water tables to rejuvenate, and also relieve pressure on the power situation to some degree.
However, while this much-needed measure is welcome, the small irrigation potential which will be created will not help most of the small farmers, or the labour dependant on them. Lift irrigation schemes under Telangana conditions, or technologies such as drip irrigation, can also only be of marginal benefit to the poor. Sensing the desperate struggle for survival waged by India’s small dryland farmers, who are the great majority of cultivators, Dr MS Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution, called for an equally important ‘brown revolution.’
Call for brown revolution
During the 1960s, India went through a period of grave food shortage and up to 10 million tonnes of grain were imported every year from America under their PL480 programme, which permitted rupee payment for the grain. American politicians openly talked about using food-grain export as a political lever against India. The Green Revolution pioneered by Drs Norman Borlaug and Swaminathan enabled India to free itself from impending famine, and regain a measure of policy independence. However while wheat production increased dramatically in the water-rich areas of Punjab, and rice to a lesser extent in the Godavari and Cauvery basins, the new hybrid varieties brought several problems with them. Farmers took to mono-crop cultivation since the government offered minimum support prices for grain. Most of the local more nutritive varieties ceased to be grown, because farmers could get marginally higher yields with hybrids. The heavy usage of chemicals resulted in loss of natural carbon content in the soils, and pest attacks increased since ecological balances were disturbed. Over time wastage of surface irrigation water resulted in salination and loss of cultivable land. Large farmers became very rich and politically powerful, and few politicians worried about the new crisis developing in agriculture. Even economists became bemused by the growing trend in cereal production, and neglected the vital nutritional necessity of providing protein-bearing pulses, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables, and spices for a growing population. No party cared about the fate of poor, small farmers eking out a living by dryland cultivation of these essential crops.
Opportunity for Telangana
After the bifurcation of the erstwhile AP state, Telangana has the most extensive drylands of any state in India. If a new national battle is to be launched to enable dryland farmers to create sustainable livelihoods, it should be in Telangana, and it is here that victory must be won over uncertain monsoons, eroding soils, and past governmental neglect.
Dr T. Hanumantha Rao, Former Engineer-in-chief, Minor Irrigation
Telangana has been formed in the nick of time to avail itself of the unique expertise of two stalwarts who can help our SC and BC small farmers attain sustainable livelihoods and bring rural prosperity to the State. Dr T. Hanumantha Rao, former engineer-in-chief, minor irrigation, has designed his ‘four waters’ model for drylands by integrating engineering with agro-forestry for drylands. In such terrain around two-thirds of the water available is held in the plant-root system, and eventually lost through evopo-transpiration, unless the surface area is cooled by a green cover, and the soil enabled to hold water through properly designed underground percolation tanks. With such specially designed systems, he has helped, as a UN consultant, over 15 water-starved countries become water sufficient and improve agricultural production. Dr. R. Dwarakinath, former vice-chancellor, Karnataka agricultural university, has headed AME India Foundation, another unique group of committed scientists, for 30 years. AME in tandem with FAO developed collaborative farmer field schools in India – recognised as a vital necessity by Mr K. Chandrasekhar Rao, chief minister – and by using ecological ‘least external input’ methods, which husband soils and water, have demonstrated that poor dryland farmers can quickly increase production and incomes even under variable monsoon conditions.
Such new scientific technology, which is actually a development of tried and true indigenous methods, brings to mind the authoritative examination of Indian agricultural practices by a team of British scientists under Dr. John Augustus Voelcker, in the late 19th century. His report to the British government emphasized, as Dr. Dwarakinath does, the excellence of traditional farming systems under which a multiplicity of crops are grown by the small farmer, along with the maintenance of farm animals, for providing local nutritional security.
The 19th century experience of Europe and America has shown that catalyzing local producer associations of farmers is of great benefit for agricultural growth since most individual farmers are too poor to lift themselves out of poverty. Hopefully, the new pro-people Telangana government will quickly encourage such associations to emerge and link them securely with banks to finance growth. Local PRI governmental bodies should also be empowered to take decisions in the local interest, and these could monitor and support farmer associations.
FDI in rural growth sector unlikely
There has been much speculation among top economist circles about inviting FDI participation in rural areas for growth. This is quite unlikely to happen with the level of rural poverty at present, except in pro-corporate thrust areas for using chemicals or GM crops, which can only have a negative impact on dryland agriculture. It would be in the best interests of Telangana’s poor SC and BC dryland farmers that an initial slow growth policy is followed which depends on local consolidation as producer associations, local knowledge, and optimal use of resources such as water and soils. Very soon, the growth curve could curve upwards exponentially as income generated in small hands is compounded for greater production.
The recent budget declared that the services sector accounted for 52% of the GDSP of Telangana, with manufacturing a poor second, while agriculture contributed only 12%.
Disastrous economic policy
This situation is unstable and self-limiting. Even well known economists like Dr. Manmohan Singh and Dr Montek Ahluwalia continued to bask in the growth of the national services sector during the IT boom period. While this may be laudable for mature economies, like that of America, Germany, or Japan, where manufacturing and trade meet the need for goods of a large middle-class population, it is nothing short of disastrous for a poor country, which must manufacture goods for its people. The manufacturing sector can only grow with increasing local demand – and not merely by export promotion. If the majority of its population is rural and poor, their very poverty stultifies further economic growth. Hence a timely attention to the fate of small dryland farmers will have a salutary knock-on effect on the larger national economy. Telangana can create an exemplary example for the Union government to follow. Let us hope that Mr. K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s ‘Grow In Telangana’ will lead the way, and help Mr. Modi’s ‘Make In India’ campaign to become a reality.