by Swayam Sampurna Nanda
After seven decades of independence, the situation of farmers is still pitiable in the world’s largest democracy. Their sufferings have been subtly ignored by the apathetic government and bureaucracy for years. Can we afford to avoid the concerns of poor farmers who have been feeding over 1.30 billion population of the world? Who is responsible for their struggle? What went wrong? These questions need efforts to understand.
Until recently, farmers taking to the streets to protest has urged people to think about the loopholes in the ailing agricultural sector in the country. While the Government of India claims the three farm laws would liberate farmers from the tyranny of the middlemen, farmers vehemently oppose the proposal as they fear it could further worsen their situation.
Due to the increased cost of cultivation big farmers often switch over to other viable economic activities, but small-scale farmers are forced to cultivate paddy. To supplement farm income, they lease land but that is followed by the rising cost of cultivation and decline in profitability. Therefore, severe economic hardships due to abysmally low income push these poor farmers to the edge.
Over 10,000 farmers committing suicide across the country suggests their struggles to be substantial. It is true that numerous schemes and laws have been launched by the government to promote farming, but on the contrary, farmers are committing suicide with utter disappointment and despair. The government should stop adopting a trickle-down approach for designing unfriendly agricultural policies that help corporates but alienate poor farmers, warns agriculturalists.
As the sector becomes hugely unprofitable, between 1991 and 2011, around 1.5 crore farmers gave up on agriculture. While most of them became landless laborers, lakhs of them went to other villages and cities in search of jobs where their hopes were abruptly led down. Lakhs of farmers committed suicide in the meanwhile, making it a crisis of humanity that needed to address and worked upon.
The situation of farmers in Odisha is not satisfactory either. The state government sails on the same boat like the apathetic central government. With a series of unsuccessful schemes, the Naveen Pattanaik’s government is miserably failing to improve the socio-economic condition of small-scale farmers in the state.
Take, for instance, the Potato Mission was launched in 2014-15 in a bid to achieve self-sufficiency in tuber production and enhance storage capacity in a 4-year timeframe. Due to poor planning and coordination and faulty monitoring, the mission was suddenly ended in March 2018. Lack of quality seeds, staff crunch, and unfavorable weather conditions collectively worked against the target of producing 85,000 tones in the stipulated period. Officials in the district horticulture department expected a bumper crop in 2014-15 with a coverage area of 1,300 hectares (ha), whereas only 600 ha were cultivated on the ground.
Kalia scheme is yet another initiative by the state government which disappointed at benefiting a large number of share-croppers due to poor record-keeping. When the Centre was providing Rs 6,000 per year as minimum support to farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sammann Nidhi scheme, the Odisha State Government curtly halted the disbursement of around Rs 4,000 to the beneficiaries under the KALIA program. Earlier a data of 35 lakh farmers were provided which was later changed to 21 lakhs, reflecting the inaccurate enumeration by the state government.
At the time when farmers are fighting to maintain the sanctity of Minimum Support Price (MSP), the Odisha government has neither provided the data on the projected yield rate of paddy per hectare nor the anticipated cost of cultivation estimates of per quintal paddy to be produced during the Kharif Marketing Season (KMS) of 2020-21, according to the Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices (CACP). The CACP before estimating the MSP for a crop, consult with all the states, whereby states share their projections on the cost of production of a crop for a particular season (Kharif or Rabi) with the commission.
This shows the hypocrisy of the state government where on one hand it has passed a Cabinet resolution pleading the Centre to hike the MSP for Paddy and other 22 crops, while on the other it abdicated the responsibility of presenting factual data on the cost of production and yield rate of paddy to CACP.
In the backdrop of Delhi’s protest, farmers under the banner of Paschim Odisha Krushak Sangathan Samanway Samiti (POKSSS), stacked their paddy produce on roads of Western Odisha, demanding for decentralization of the token system for procurement of crop in the state-run market yards.
The Odisha government has decided to procure 19 quintals of paddy per acre of irrigated land and 13 quintals of rain-fed fields. Currently, the tokens are being generated from Bhubaneswar whereas in a decentralized procurement system, the Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies (PACS) is responsible for generating the tokens for selling of the crop in the market yard.
The deplorable situation of agricultural wage labourers
Several research studies have revealed that agriculture workers in Odisha are among the lowest wage earners in comparison to other states. The agriculture sector in the state continues to be a low productive sector, argues civil societies working on the issues of sustainable agriculture in Odisha. It is a matter of concern that despite employing more than 60 percent of the state’s total workforce, the agriculture sector contributes a meager 26 percent to the gross state domestic product.
There are various factors responsible for low productivity in Odisha’s agriculture sector. Such factors include; excessive application of chemical inputs, aggressive mono-cropping, poor water harvesting structures, patchy implementation of MSP, lack of training, and exposure for farmers to agroecological methods.
Lalit Mohan Garnaik, Dean, OUAT, points out a climatic change to be one of the major reasons for the decrease in the rate of cultivation activities in the state. The low-profit margin in agriculture demotivating youths of the state to looks down upon agriculture as a career amid all the prevailing uncertainties.
Poor irrigation facilities
While irrigation is believed to be the lifeline in agriculture, most farmers face acute water problems leaving vast lands uncropped for the rabi reason. To make the situation worse, supplementary irrigation during Kharif is not sufficient either.
The state government had failed to meet the target of providing 35 percent irrigation facilities to the agriculture sector in 2013-14. Only 30-40 percent of agricultural land is irrigated in the state. Thus, most farmers depend on rainfed water for cultivation. The irrigation systems such as canal and lift points are almost defunct. Meanwhile, most of the Pani Panchayats are not functional in the absence of a sufficient water supply.
The apathetic attitude of the government is refraining the farmers from cultivating their land. Measures like cheap rice schemes are acting as a catalyst, resulting in a decline in overall agriculture productivity in Odisha. For the record, the state government is offering 25 kg of rice at Rs.1 Per kg every month to six million families.
The agricultural sector’s contribution to GSDP was as low as 15.96% in 2019. As per an agriculture census conducted during 2005-06 and 2010-11, the number of small, medium, and large-scale farmers has dropped by 460,000 during the period, showing that the farmers are gradually shying away from their traditional occupation due to several constraints like lack of irrigation, non-availability of the workforce, low market value and inadequate government support.
A ray of hope
In spite of the numerous challenges in the sector, there is a ray of hope that agriculture could be profitable. Empowering small-scale farmers through agroecological farming models could show the way. Small-scale farm activities hold immense potential to empower farmers in the long-run. There are many successful case studies from the state where the lives of such small-scale farmers were transformed with the initiatives of civil societies.
Take, for instance, Harsha Trust, a civil society working in Odisha with a vision to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in the underdeveloped areas of the state. Several farmers empowered by Harsha Trust on sustainable family farming are happily sharing their experience.
With the support of the Harsha Trust, Wendi Hiroca from Dakulguda village of Rayagada district rejuvenated around 1.5 acres of her agricultural land through the Wadi program. Under this effort, Hirco planted cashew, litchi, mango, and cultivated millets as well as vegetables under inter-cropping and mixed-cropping methods of farming. While it took four years for the trees to bear fruit, Hirco managed to earn sustained income from vegetable cultivation, making a profit of approximately Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000.
Similarly, Harsha Trust facilitated Rukuni Majhi of Kalahandi district to develop an acre of WADI patch. Majhi planted cashew, litchi, and mango trees along with other inter-cropped vegetables. Later, Harsha Trust helped them build an irrigation structure consisting of a ring well and a solar pump that enabled the Majhi to grow high-value crops like broccoli, capsicum, and green pea. Besides, Majhi is also cultivating millets and pulses by adopting integrated soil management practices. He earned an additional income of about Rs.15, 000/ from his Wadi last year.
Meanwhile, there are several other farmers who have demonstrated innovative and low-cost techniques to ensure a sustainable way of natural resource management and reinforce cold storage for perishable agricultural harvests.
Padmalochan Soren also known as the ‘Mountain Man’ by the people of Khumakuta village in Oupada block under Balasore district. He used to survive by hunting wild animals till he got arrested by the authority. After getting released from jail he switched to full-time farming. Soren along with other villager dwellers has initiated a plantation drive covering vast areas of the forest land cultivating brinjal, cabbage, drumstick, and Singapore banana on the mountains.
Likewise, Phagu Minz of Bhatipada village in Balishankara block of the tribal-dominated Sundargarh district has come up with an innovation called ‘Sabji Cooler’ as a solution for storing vegetables and eliminating the risk of wastage. This is a part of an experimental project by the district administration and 49 other small marginal farmers in Balishankara, Tangarpali, and Kuanrmunda blocks have got these coolers at free of cost.
The testimonials from successful farmers like Hiroca, Majhi, Soren, and Miz appropriately demonstrate the potential of sustainable integrated agroecological farming methods in terms of addressing the food and nutritional securities of the farmers. However, there are still pressing areas for work.
The state government should promote rainwater harvesting structures across the rural and tribal areas in a bid to provide adequate irrigation water for the farmers around the year. Top priorities should be given to areas facing severe water shortages in the state. Farmers should be trained and actively involved in designing such rainwater harvesting projects. The public-private partnership model has the potential to scale up successful irrigating projects across the state. Hence, the engagement of like-minded stakeholders and institutions is critical to ensure long-term sustainability of such programs.
Srinibas Das, block coordinator, Odisha Livelihood Development Mission, Government of Odisha, suggested, “Involvement of local community, relevant government departments, policymakers, civil societies, research institutions, and international development agencies could reinforce the agriculture sector.”
The government needs to ensure that all subsidies should go straight to the farmers along with capital investment to pull farmers out of their vicious poverty trap. Meanwhile, all the input cost of materials should be regulated for the farmers to make better choices; wherein in the case of pesticides, it is important to bring alternatives that are not only more effective but also environment-friendly.
More number of markets and mandis should be set up and regulated well in the interior pockets. Adequate investment in irrigation and technology is crucial to promote sustainable and profitable agriculture. Comprehensive farm insurance schemes are imperative in a state like Odisha where drought and other natural calamities have a long history. Agriculture insurance is crucial for the farmers to feel motivated even if something goes wrong with their investment as they would be assured to get compensation for the failure of agriculture.
As Jawahar Nehru rightly quoted, “Most things, except agriculture could wait,” it is high time for the State and Central Government to address myriad challenges faced by the country’s poor small-scale farmers. Considering the massive farmers’ protest in Delhi, P Sainath appropriately suggested, “If you cannot bring down the production cost, there is no hope. There is a need to remove corporate control over inputs and adopt agroecological methods.”
About the Author
Swayam Sampurna Nanda is a Bhubaneswar-based freelance journalist