Purushothaman, Seema and Vanjari, Raghvendra S. (2022) One Part Farmers: Villages two decades after land acquisition for the Bengaluru International Airport. Working Paper. Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
Intensive cultivation of roses in patches of farmland remaining just outside the airport boundary wall
Constitutional measures to ensure fair compensation and livelihood security to the land losing refugees of development processes, overlook the complexity of ‘public purpose’ – the dominant rationale behind operationalizing ‘eminent domain’ of the state. Popular perception of public purpose as urbanization muffles the de facto social citizenship around plural values of agricultural landscapes. Ignoring the enduring public purposes served by agrarian landscapes aids in underestimating the long-term welfare impacts on displaced farmers. This essay presents the impact of land acquisition for the Bengaluru International Airport on the agro-pastoral communities of Devanahalli. Visible changes in the landscape came with major uncertainties in their lives and livelihoods for over two decades now. The paper aims to contribute to the recent and connected theses around agrarian urbanism and plural values of landscapes, with narratives from Devanahalli. In what was almost a non-controversial choice of location for the airport, people from 11 villages to the north of Bengaluru city lost their land fully or partly, along with their habitat, village community and food cultures. In this study, narratives of representative cases of impact inflicted on different groups were collated and synthesized through short term longitudinal interviews. It showcases prolonged struggles to find secure livelihoods amidst persisting caste and gender divides, weakening cultural fabric and a loss of identity. Together they precipitate one-part farmers in the displaced and scattered people who still find a weak but persistent identity in agriculture. The paper concludes by deriving pointers on avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating potential impacts of projects involving inevitable displacement of agro-pastoral communities.
The history of urbanisation in Bengaluru that changed the face of the city can be viewed through three major waves. The first wave was the establishment of a cantonment area in the year 1807 to house the Mysore Division of Madras Army of the East India Company. The growth of cantonment with the expansion of European regiments in the 1840s further led to more migration to this region and people building their lives around it.
This growth in the northern direction of present-day Bangalore was soon followed by the establishment of the City Market, known today as Krishnaraja Market, in 1921. This became a functional and accessible area for all people in the then Bangalore.
Source: Report of the Bengaluru Development Committee: 14 (1954)
The second wave that came about in the history of Bangalore’s expansion is associated with the establishment of many Public Sector Undertakings in the city. They include Indian Space Research Organisation, Bharat Electrical Limited, and Hindustan Machine Tools, etc. This was followed quickly by the emergence of textile and other industries that further pushed the expansion.
The third and major expansion of Bangalore happened by the 1980s around the Information Technology wave. More and more people migrated to the city that transformed itself from a garden city that was pensioners’ paradise to a buzzing hub of neo-liberal economy thriving on IT and BT, along with educational institutions, long-established markets, public sector units and private industries. This dynamic city attracted investment from other countries and became the fourth largest technology cluster in the world.
Bangalore became Bengaluru in 2014. Today, 12 million people call Bengaluru their hometown. Along with the city population, the land area of the city also increased from 69 sq km in 1949 to 2190 sq km in 2019.
Source: Various Census of India reports.
The video ‘Growing cities and shrinking agriculture’ showcases two case studies around Bangalore – how such a city usurps land and how it fouls the water, both of these impacting agriculture and society in direct and indirect ways. Both these are typical impacts/ aftermaths of any growing city. Let’s look at the cases one-by-one.
Land conversion for the new airport –
Bengaluru International Airport, established in the year 2008 provides a good example for displacing people and land from agriculture and allied activities, for the sake of urbanisation. It was renamed as Kempegowda International Airport in 2013. The airport is spread across an area of 4009 acres of land in Devanahalli Taluk (KIADB). Land acquisition for the airport was carried out by KIADB between the years 1991 to 2001 when 11 villages lost their land either wholly or partially to this project. Two villages of these 11, namely; Arisinakunte and Gangamuthanahalli were completely displaced. From nine other villages (Bhoovanahalli, Doddasonne, Anneswara, Bettakote, Hunchur, Mylanahalli, Begur, Yerthiganahalli and Chikkanahalli), partial farmland acquisition happened.
Our calculations based on the land records data provided by the village accountants of these villages show that 36 percent of the acquired land was village commons and 50 percent were private lands. The rest 14% was from forests and other kinds of land. Loss of private land ranged from one to ten acres per family in the study villages. A compensation of Rs 5 lakh per acre was fixed for the land acquired.
Total area of land acquired
Land Acquired (in acres)
Note: calculated area of 3779 is 230 acres less than the KIADB data of 4009 acres.
Land acquisition included that for the airport operations, industrial property development and special economic zones as a means of financing the airport project between 1997-2001. Coming of the Airport brought with it an ongoing increase in demand for land in the surroundings for upper-class residential layouts and industries. During our field visits, we heard of many new land conversions for setting up industries.
Let us focus on the livelihood and agricultural patterns in the acquired villages and other surroundings of the Airport. People from the completely acquired villages were relocated in another village as a new single hamlet. They were given small housing sites without farmlands. Most farmers from the villages that lost partial agricultural land continue to farm the patches remaining with them. They shifted to cultivating roses from the diverse set of crops that they used to grow – vegetables, paddy, mulberry and ragi. Rose flowers fetch them good income but cause health complications from the usage of excessive chemicals in its cultivation. A few farmers are still engaged in sericulture, growing mulberry in the little piece of the remaining land. A few villages still have shepherds grazing their sheep through the day.
Jobs available for most people are in short-term informal non-farm occupations. Around 130 youngsters from the 11 acquired villages work in the Airport, shops inside the airport campus and some nearby industries. At the Airport, they are generally in gardening, driving, security keeping, housekeeping, loading and unloading.
The compensation money for the acquired land was used by many to build single building apartments for renting out to migrant labour coming to work in the new industries around. Rental income from these tenements has become a new source of livelihood for the well-to-do in the partially acquired villages.
Let us now focus on the two villages that were fully displaced; Arisinakunte and Gangamuthanahalli. Around 140 households were displaced from these two villages. They were given compensation not just for their farmland, but also for the houses lost and also for other assets like wells, trees and livestock owned. People from the two villages were moved to the village commons of a village named Balepura, far from their original village as also from the airport. They received housing sites as mentioned before, depending on the size of their families. This hamlet was named after one of the two acquired villages, as Arisinakunte colony.
For most resettled families, the compensation money was just enough for building a house and/or spending on marriages, health care, buying automobiles, pilgrimage and loan repayment. Hence most of the 140 displaced families have not been in farming since 2001 – 2002. Older people still try to cultivate in the little patches around the colony. Women seem to have no external engagement except a few younger women who work at the airport. Older women search for work as farm labour while others try running small business enterprises like a grocery store, milk agency, etc. A few of them bought one or two cows for supplying milk to the dairy society in the colony. With grazing areas acquired for the airport, milk production has declined drastically in the area. Many say they would like to get back to farming if they had access to a piece of land somewhere in the surroundings.
Even after two decades of land acquisition, displaced people are yet to adapt to the changing landscape, livelihoods and social mix. Farming lost its primacy as the sole or main source of income either as farmers or as wage labour. Still, agriculture seems to be a preferred option among middle-aged villagers (especially women) as a secure and dignified livelihood. They say money comes and goes from their hands, more than the pre-airport times. Individualisation, alcoholism and health issues are more persistent outcomes in their lives.
Wastewater in the river stream
Having seen changes brought out by the expansion of urban infrastructure for and around the airport, let us now turn to the aftermath of Bengaluru’s expansion on the quality of water in its surroundings. We examine this impact of the city through its impact on its’ sole river – Vrishabhavathi.
Originating in the Bull Temple in Basavanagudi in the south-western part and the Kaadumalleswara temple in Malleswaram to the North of the city, Vrishabhavathi flows through localities like Jnana Bharathi, Rajarajeshwari Nagar and reaches Bangalore’s outskirts at Kengeri. Winding around Kengeri and Bidadi, the river enters Byramangala reservoir to join Suvarnamukhi river later, at Kurubarahalli. Both together flow as river Vrishabhavathi and then joins Arkavathy at Ganalu, and flows till Mekedatu to join Cauvery. Before Vrishabhavathi enters the Byramangala Dam, it is intercepted at two STPs.
This river with several temples on its bank had major religious importance till about two decades ago. People used the river water to bathe, cook and drink as well. Villages on its bank used this water for cultivating vegetables, paddy, sugarcane, flowers, mulberry and ragi. Bengaluru expanded and so did the waste it accumulated and dumped. This water body is being treated as a sink to dispose of wastewater from the city’s dwellings, shops, offices, educational institutions, hotels, industries and other establishments. The industries dispose of their effluents into Vrishabhavathi with minimal or no treatment. Its’ water with toxic effluents is no longer fit for human consumption. Effluents from industrial estates deteriorate the living environment and farming conditions in the downstream areas.
Let us take a look around 12 villages among the many that use Vrishabhavathi water for agricultural needs today. The stretch we are going to cover is from Byramangala reservoir to Kurubarahalli to the south of the reservoir.
The first impact of sewage water from the city is the change in crops cultivated. Farmers are now forced to limit their crops to what can be grown with the water: fodder, mulberry, coconut and baby corn. Food crops like paddy, ragi and vegetables have been reduced drastically. For meeting their requirement of staples and vegetables, they are dependent on the Public Distribution System and markets. With the increasing area under fodder as that grows well in the polluted water, dairy farming has taken over as the major source of farm livelihood. Each house around the irrigation channels from Byramangala has an average of 3 to 4 cows. Dairy cattle take away many hours of their everyday life, forcing the whole family to engage in it in some way or the other. Many women stay home just for dairy farming. Milk and mulberry silk are being touted as the two livelihood pillars in this region. Off late, they both suffer from declining quality and price. Baby corn is another crop that is grown by many in this region, on contractual arrangements with retailers and aggregators from the city. Thanks to the absence of food safety tests in the city’s vegetable and fruit shops and food joints, baby corn and other crops grown in polluted water find a regular market.
Though a majority of villagers in this region are engaged in agriculture, youngsters are moving towards the industries in Bidadi and Harohalli region. Thus, while polluting the water bodies, industries also pull agricultural labourers from their surroundings.
The sewage water has not only impacted farming in this region but also has given rise to health issues like skin rashes, allergies and diseases spread by mosquitoes. Socio-cultural impacts are also common. Villagers hesitate to offer drinking water to visitors, they no more do the customary river worship and young men complain about the difficulty in getting brides to come and live here.
Despite some conflicts and protests about this issue, efforts from the concerned government departments have not been effective so far. A new dimension has been added to the pollution issue in terms of a diversion of Vrishabhavathy water after effective treatment. There has been a diversion of water from the Byramangala dam and further talks of water treatment, but farmers were not informed about the same. Lack of convergence among various government departments has left the farmers in this region perplexed. If they will have to trade off their available access to (polluted) water, is haunting the farmers of Byramangala.
These two impacts of Bangalore acquiring rural land for its airport and dumping city sewage in Vrishabhavathi are typical examples of what an expanding city can do to farming in the peripheries. The impact doesn’t confine to the land, water and people in the peripheries, but also on the people living in the cities, since they end up consuming the produce from the city peripheries – like milk, coconuts, baby corn all with residues of toxic heavy metals.
Lack of dialogue between consumers in the city and producers of their food is hampering possible harmonious integration of the city’s expansion with rural livelihoods.
Urbanisation process should involve collective informing and deliberating processes for urban and rural societies on their mutual impacts. If consumers and producers feel responsible for the impact of extracting land and dumping waste as also of producing unsafe food respectively, the process of urbanisation could be smoother and more rewarding to the larger society.
For more information about the two case studies discussed in this blog please visit –
One-part farmers – villages two decades after land acquisition for Bengaluru Airport (forthcoming)
(The video is an output from the project titled “Ecosystem Services, Agricultural Diversification and Small Farmers’ Livelihoods in the Rural-Urban Interface of Bengaluru” implemented at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru under the Indo-German Collaborative Research project (FOR2432). Financial support from the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India is duly acknowledged.)
The late 1990s witnessed severe distress in parts of agrarian Kerala due to a steep fall in commodity prices and crop failures leading to indebtedness. ‘There is no alternative but to sell cheaply’ was the slogan that echoed across countries in order to survive in a globalised world. Various organisations emerged to support farmers through protests against neoliberal policies of free trade, but that did not solve the dilemma. Free trade is still considered as a universal good though some refer to it as “socialism of the rich”.
Responsible consumers in search for innovative alternatives in post war USA and Europe concerned about their own health as also about farmer producers had begun working towards making trade relations fairer. Different strands of Fair Trade movement came together around the 1980s and the current form of the movement emerged. Consumers partaking in such movements were willing to pay fair prices to farmers if the products are safe to consume and sustainable in production practices, especially in nurturing biodiversity. This is a small note based on my experience with a grassroots organisation that explored this possibility – Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK). Established in 2005, FTAK is currently working with thousands of small farmers in the Malabar districts of Kerala, to address the adverse impact of fluctuating market prices.
The working principle of FTAK is Fair Trade plus – Biodiversity, Food security and Gender Justice. The organisation promotes homestead farming as well as regenerative methods in order to ensure integrated development among farming communities. Various social, environmental or sustainability standards including organic certification have been adopted to enhance the intrinsic quality of the produce so as to meet the requirements of a wider set of consumers. The organic agricultural produce from certified farmer members of FTAK are procured at panchayat level and sold via its partner organisation (Elements Homestead Products Pvt Ltd) to exporters as well as local customers. A minimum price is assured to farmer members of the Alliance based on factors like average estimated labour wages, cost of inputs and prevailing market price.
While encouraging certified organic farming, FTAK was conscious of the prospect of indirectly driving monocropping of cash crops like coffee, cashew and spices. Considering this risk, FTAK regarded crop diversity and food crops as mandatory requirements for membership in the Alliance. Beyond improved incomes and nutritional security, farmer members of FTAK acknowledged intangible benefits like collective identity, work satisfaction, hope, confidence and reliability of farm income. Women’s participation, knowledge sharing, as also management of seed banks and procurement depos are ensured by SHGs organised by the Alliance at panchayat level.
“Men used to handle cash flows, selling output and buying inputs, while women did invisible agricultural activities. After joining FTAK, we got a chance to learn and experiment with activities usually handled by men. Group farming and running depots gave us confidence”. – Woman farmer, Wayanad
Amidst the pandemic of Covid19 and ensuing lockdown in 2020, FTAK members experienced high levels of insecurity due to disruptions in export of coffee, cashew and other cash crops to fair trade markets in Europe and other countries. During this period, even though FTAK could procure crops from farmers at reasonable prices, it faced immense difficulty in selling these produce abroad. Dependence on external markets appears tough to be sustained consistently in the long run. Nevertheless, the presence of FTAK was a great relief for farmers as FTAK identified local markets for both inputs and outputs. FTAK also facilitated weekly procurement of vegetables and connected farmers with urban consumers. Nearly 3500 farmers took part in a march organized by the Alliance in three Malabar districts for seed exchange. Alliance has started conducting meetings of district level executive committees through online platforms.
FTAK has been successful in helping small farmers receive ‘less unfair and more predictable prices’ for their produce compared to the prevailing market trend that is often influenced by volatile changes in weather and international trade. Reaching the next milestone of reliable markets that offer stable and fair prices would require moulding responsible customer communities who value the multi-functionality of small-scale regenerative agriculture. Removal of internal barriers, a watchdog to see that smallholder interests are not sacrificed in international agreements and transparency in price determination of agricultural produce are changes that can complement grassroots interventions like FTAK, in bringing systemic changes to small farmers’ plight.
*Anu Priya Babu is a student at Azim Premji University, Bangalore pursuing MA Development.
Mandya’s agriculture attracts media attention for three reasons – its dispute with the neighbouring states on sharing Cauvery water, farmers’ agitation for release of payment against cane procured by factories, and farmer suicides. This year’s pandemic and lockdown posed a new crisis for the illustrious farmers of Mandya. We wanted to see how this played out amidst other challenges that we’ve been keenly following.
Amidst the challenges posed by Covid, a tribal forest village in Madhya Pradesh seems to have reinforced the realisation that farms, forests, village commons and collective knowhow together buffer tribals against vulnerability
By Seema Purushothaman, Saurabh Singh & Sheetal Patil
Any work that can pay us is considered as ‘livelihood’. Livelihoods that pay better are more attractive to most of us. Whether they actually enhance the quality of life in a sustained manner, seems to be a moot question. Some livelihoods trigger large scale disasters, while others slowly harm human health and yet others divert people, resources, and institutions away from life-supporting livelihoods. In the present circumstances of a virus-induced pause in all economic activities and livelihoods, it will be worthwhile to look at the interfaces of life and livelihoods.
Virus spillover from animals to the human body has been a result of our interference in natural landscapes and making merchandise out of wild animals and their body parts. To be able to buy anything anywhere, anytime, and doing anything to earn the money needed for that, is a legitimate goal in the present times. What some communities living close to natural landscapes would have harvested occasionally, started making regular appearance in markets, for consumers far away. Communities with functional institutions to know and manage their social-ecological systems are supposed to be aware of the potential impacts of indiscriminate extraction and trade in natural resources. But fading social institutions and value systems even among such communities made space for universalised materialistic view of livelihoods. Once market invasion into such an institutional vacuum became the norm, many livelihood options built on specific aspects of nature became just money earners.
Nature- agriculture- food- health- livelihood- wellbeing, is an organic flow that is obvious and easy to comprehend. Nature is slightly modified for agriculture in order to support a healthy meaningful life that includes pursuing livelihoods as also tending nature and society in some way or the other. However, we generally host an atomized understanding of each one of these links interconnected as a single thread. Nature comes to our mind as wilderness in some distant mountains, farming as an occupation of the unskilled, food as what market can provide irrespective of seasons and locations, and health as ensured by capital seekers in the sector. Such segregated notions are instrumental in breaking the chain between human well being and nature, though it may not be visible right away, as in the case of wildlife trade. This short-circuiting of the chain of life by profit chasers and consumers co-opted livelihood seekers too in the process.
Agriculture, as critical connect between nature and human well-being, was an occupation that harmonized life and livelihood. Making it just another enterprise meant measuring it exclusively in terms of monetary outcomes. Fading cultural-ecological institutions including the know-how and skills around agriculture facilitated this paradoxical makeover of a creative occupation on which the lifeline of humanity is rooted. Donning the mantle of an enterprise, it started to be life-threatening for both consumers and producers through mindless practices at various stages. Despite transforming from a culture to a business, it also became non-remunerative as a norm than exception. Indebtedness as well as weakening health of ecosystems and society came to be the trademarks of an occupation that could play an affirmative role in the longevity of human civilization.
Since this year’s Ugadi – the new year day of the lunisolar calendar – 24th March 2020 – life and livelihood appear to be at loggerheads with each other, in other ways too. Workers especially those in the unorganized sector, had to stop their work so as to save human life from the Covid-19 pandemic brought out by a zoonotic pathogen. Most workplaces fell silent. Some with secure jobs could continue to get paid, but a huge majority of those precariously employed in the informal sector lost their daily earnings.
‘Blue sheds’ as they are referred to are the shanties where migrant workers stay in Bengaluru.
Is this trade-off between life and livelihood inevitable even during a pandemic? Estimates show that, of the informal sector workers (more than 90% of workers in the country), those in urban areas suffered more losses than their peers in the rural (APU COVID survey, May 2020). Large chunk of the unorganized sector workers are small and marginal landholders. To these workers, agriculture is not just part-time self-employment, but also nutritional autonomy and social security. For them, agriculture would have been a reliable basic needs provider , if market for their small surplus could be assured, along with safe and productive complementary employment in the neighborhoods. With some control over one’s own basic well being within reach of one’s village, and with functional institutions in health and education, the conflict and resultant out-migration would have been minimal.
An interior hamlet from where smallholders migrate to insecure jobs and abysmal living conditions in some distant city
The financial burden from an exclusively market-oriented small-scale farming and inadequate public health care system made migration a norm, diverting labour force towards building urban infrastructure and lifestyles. The precipitating question was that of food, and imports proved easy and often cheaper too. Whether imported food is unsafe for consumption or nourishing in their impact on the human body and whether they undermine farm livelihoods, are questions never asked in food security discourses. Food produced in ways unknown to the consumers (that include most farmers) travel far and wide, making the nature-well being nexus out of sight, for most of us.
The book – City and the Peasant:urbanization and agrarian change in southern India (Seema Purushothaman and Sheetal Patil, Springer Nature, 2019) reveals the fact that urban informal sector is not an aspirational workplace for rural migrants. Contrary to the common notion, it doesn’t even improve the quality of life of farmer migrants, as the book finds in Karnataka. While the urban informal jobs came to a grinding halt in this era of the pandemic, farmers continued their work, though earnings suffered as consumers and production landscapes are far from each other. Public food Distribution System was a savior in most places (APU COVID survey, May 2020; Dalberg, April 2020), keeping hunger at bay from farm households, but much short of ensuring nutritional security.
The above is not a tirade against enterprise and trade altogether. Humans have always tried to know, interact, and transact with new places, products and people. It will always be the case; even though we are increasingly protective of the political and cultural boundaries. Virus crossed all borders and not one could we close by choice. The profound and fundamental emerging fact is that ignoring nature’s value chain is suicidal for humanity.
With economic feedback loops set in motion, all human activities including disaster mitigation tasks, reinforced cumulative production processes and profiteering within and across borders. The cycle of depletive extraction, wasteful consumption, and pollution spurred economic growth, until a black swan event like COVID-19. After all that din about marketization and globalization for the sake of livelihoods and poverty reduction through economic growth, the entire economy has to focus on a singular purpose- of saving human lives, simultaneously hand holding enterprises ravaged by the pandemic, for a notable time from now. About INR 20 lakh crore or 10% of India’s GDP has been earmarked for overcoming the economic loss. After all, only when human life is thriving, would livelihood generation make any sense.
The pandemic is mauling the so far mutually reinforcing capital – livelihood cycle, though all efforts are being made to be back soon on the self-defeating track. Economists are urging governments to mint more money and reduce the interest rate. The government is urging corporate bodies and civil society to spend more in humanitarian responses as wages, food, and medical care. Some announcements on ‘being vocal about local’ and some move to ensure wage security (though dilution of labour laws also are reported) provide hope of fresh thinking. But a clear paradigm shift to an economic cycle with a shorter radius and bearable turbulence that could make the nature-well being nexus explicit, is not in sight.
The one simple and obvious lesson from the small but mighty virus is that modern superstitions like economic growth as the panacea for all problems and consequent belief in money as the only measure of livelihoods are hard to phase out, than age-old social evils. Diligent economic growth built on resilient social-ecological systems may be a slower but steadier companion to a healthy human race. Then, livelihoods will let us nurture nature and civilization, and may not cost lives.
Forthcoming posts will cover lived experiences and strategies of smallholders from different parts of Karnataka, in surviving the crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. Till then, as always, we welcome your feedback and comments.
The general narrative is that increasing unviability of small scale farming is forcing people out of agriculture into other forms of livelihood and migration. Is this happening, and what can we do to mitigate this?
This is mostly true and partly false. It is true because many farmers migrate out of villages and work as manual labour in the urban informal sectors like construction. The statement is partially false because popular narrative exclusively attributes unviability to the size of farmland.
Historically, farms in many countries including ours have been small to medium in size. India has 125 million (86% of total holdings) small and marginal landholders (upto 2 hectares) who cultivate 74 million hectares of agricultural land (47% of the total operated area), producing roughly 40% of the food needed by the nation.
Studies indicate that a typical farm family needs 2 hectares to avoid poverty. In the dry areas of India, average landholding is of this size or larger, and in the wetter, urbanized or undulating geographies, it may be less than two hectares, depending on the cropping pattern. Even though land inequality is a pressing issue, that is not the only reason for unviability of farming.
What else could be contributing to agrarian distress? Common response from farmers is “if our crops yield well, there is no demand for the produce and if prices are high, crop production is meager due to adverse weather or pest attack”. Mitigation of farm distress lies in addressing this issue. Notable is the associated fact that mitigation of farm distress also needs other rural sectors to change in tandem, as described below.
The situation stated by farmers not only makes farming an unreliable source of income but also makes credit defaulters out of self-reliant farmers. This is because crops grown exclusively for the market need borrowed capital when the produce market is uncertain and operated by unseen strings of international trade and global weather changes. Having allocated a major part of fertile soil for commercial crops, land available for producing food for the family is negligible. Hence food for the farm family is mostly sourced from the public distribution system which is nutrition and palatability wise, poor. Thus health problems of the farm family accentuate when public health care is inadequate, making them avail further loans for medical expenses. Added to these two reasons are the customary expenditures during occasions like festivals, marriages and deaths. These customary expenditures have to catch up with the urban lifestyle popularized in television shows. Loans are again sought from local lenders or relatives for meeting these aspirations too.
Debts payable to private sources are tough to be waived by the government. To repay these loans availed at high-interest rates, smallholders have to leave their villages abandoning cultivation for many seasons. This is mainly because non-farm employment opportunities do not exist in rural India. Most industrial estates are around major cities and Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is inadequate for all the needs of a farm household including those mentioned above. Life of a migrant in the city is uncertain unless her skills match with those needed by expanding urbanization. Even after trying out commercial agriculture and migration, some farmers still do not manage to pay off debts and often try to end their lives. Thus the vicious cycle of indebtedness among smallholders is reinforced by the co-existence of risky commercial farming, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, lack of non-farm rural opportunities and expensive social commitments.
These closely intertwined issues call for a multi-fold approach. As the society and economy change over time, small farmers need to make informed choices, be it in farming, food habits, health care, children’s education, non-farm engagements or social customs. There is an obvious lack of integrated effort to support adaptive skilling of farmers in all these aspects of rural life.
The remaining part of this note is about the needed strategies in the above direction. These strategies are trying to adapt the concept of ‘Sustainable Intensification’ to the Indian context. This needs shedding of two notions 1. that the small pieces of land in possession of farmers can produce and sell enough to sustain all needs and wants of the families 2. that farmers can get rid of their land and enter a lucrative and secure non-farm livelihood. If these are true, what can be done to sustain small family farms? Below listed ten points capture the essential, mutually reinforcing and synergistic steps in that direction.
Produce crops/ animals having assured minimum demand
Grow these crops and animals while minimizing cost
Maintain debts proportionate to the scale of operation and income flow in the family
Maintain soil fertility to reduce operational costs (there are indigenous and low-cost ways to do this)
Protect agroecology. Grazing areas, sacred groves and forests, as well as water commons like lakes, wells and streams, are crucial to agricultural production in general and smallholders in particular .
Orient rural governance to the linkages between agroecology and rural livelihoods. Panchayat bodies need to exercise caution and hold consultations with farmers while converting common resources into other uses like quarries, mines and buildings. Agroecological orientation in rural land-use planning can also help prevent avoidable landslides and other disasters. Rural land use should have a clear focus on the above-mentioned linkages and clear roles for local institutions.
Facilitate diverse domestic marketing options: local bazaars, regulated markets, urban niche markets. Food supplied in schools and hospitals could be sourced from local farmers, under the supervision of a group of committed locals including panchayat members and officials. Such fostering of linkages between farming and local demand has been successfully tried out in parts of Brazil.
Support small scale local value addition units. Large scale factories or processing units often are ineffective in procuring and aggregating small surpluses from many small farmers and become reliant on state support (e.g. sugar mills) or import of raw materials (e.g. fertilizer industry, large rice mills, fruit processing units).
Non-farm (but agriculture-based) jobs. If points 7 & 8 are materialized, then non-farm jobs will be available in the locality, simultaneously enhancing demand for local agricultural produce.
Wage labour in farming will also be a local occupational alternative if small farming thrives and uses less of external inputs purchased from the market. This can ensure the demand and supply of manual labour at reasonable wages, in farmlands themselves.
Employment guarantee schemes of the state can take care of protecting land and water commons (for meeting agricultural needs mentioned in point (5) above).
Adaptive skilling of farm families and the community
Villages have lost their traditional deliberative institutions while agricultural skills are on the way out. Recrafting these institutions mitigating the caste and gender divides would be both the process and outcome of adaptive skilling. Adaptive skilling helps foster social institutions that can revive agricultural acumen. It can also help in weaning farmers of external dependence during various steps and processes in farming. For instance, collectives engaged in discussing the pros and cons of new introductions into farming. This requires in-situ agricultural knowledge generated by participatory experimentation to revive self-reliance as well as dignity associated with farming. At present, local input traders and sales agents of agro-input industries tap the slack social environment in rural India. Heavily advertising their products in the locality and extending small sops to deskilled farmers, input traders and corporates get them hooked to costly and damaging use of industrial inputs.
Local research institutions need to be part of adaptive skilling efforts and committed to exposing the potential risks associated with any new crop/animal variety, input or technology that is being disseminated. Multiple local experiments in farmers’ fields for multiple seasons should be a prerequisite for any new introduction. Many a time, new technologies make farmers dependent on newer and newer technologies. This not only makes them indebted but also turn their experiential learning redundant.
Thus, though the size of operational land is a factor, there are other important confounding factors that contribute to farm distress. Addressing these will be instrumental in reducing distress even with the current size of farm holdings.
 Village commons provide the following for small farms:
Biomass needed for green manure, mulching material for soil, fodder, nutritional supplements in the form of berries, fruits and leaves, apart from the raw materials for auxiliary livelihoods like making brooms, baskets, plates, mats, etc.
Common water sources are crucial for animal care and fish protein apart from recharging private wells.
Well stocked land and water commons together help to ensure minimum soil moisture
 We run a short orientation program for panchayat members in North East Karnataka on agroecology.
 ‘Natural Farming’ movement is accomplishing this in some parts of the country, with regard to input use.
 Adaptive Skilling through Action Research (ASAR) is on-going action research in these lines. ASAR is currently a collaborative (with PRADAN and adivasi researchers) pilot project in three villages of central India’s tribal belt.
(Raghvendra Vanjari, A R Shwetha, Sheetal Patil, Seema Purushothaman, Dhanya Bhaskar)
Sprawling lawns are inviting spaces. Neighbourhood parks, golf clubs and airport surroundings spread these green carpets amidst concrete jungles. While wealthy use it to play golf, urban poor use lawns in parks for an afternoon siesta. Hospitals, educational institutions, spiritual centers and real estate developers – all proudly display green lawns in their pictures. That the apparently soothing greenery often comes at the cost of fertile topsoil and water in agricultural lands and that these carpets may just be green deserts in reality, are facts conveniently overlooked.
(Image source: Creative Commons)
Lawns can be established by planting grass slips. But this takes time to establish and spread a green cover uniformly over the soil. There are different grass species requiring different levels of care and inputs to maintain uniform green cover throughout the year. Urban impatience, affluence, and indifference towards the impact of their actions on others and other landscapes ensure demand for quick but extractive green carpeting. Thus, transplanting readymade mats of grass grown elsewhere is the norm followed in most lawns we see.
Rural peripheries of North Bengaluru caters to the demand for manicured landscapes in its urban neighbourhood. Farmers in the villages of Doddaballapura and Devanahalli taluks grow Mexican lawn-grass extending to hundreds of acres. For around 10 to 15 years now, the not-so-humble lawn-grass has been holding on to the farmlands of these villages, with its shallow roots. It has displaced finger millet, pulses and even paddy from these farmlands, apart from clearing the land off bushes and trees. Village grazing lands are also often encroached for cultivating this grass. Unlike conventional crops grown or newer plantations of eucalyptus and acacia, lawn grass requires high-intensity input use.
Lawn grass, both in the farms and where they are established, generally is doused with chemicals for plant protection and enhancing vegetative growth. Rarely do we notice the absence of the usual suspects on this grassland – grasshoppers, crickets, ants and other insects. Ignorance is of course bliss. Despite the chemicals and sewage water pumped in, lush green lawns are loved spaces – children play, youngsters hold parties, elderly walk on and pets run around.
Maintaining turfgrass demands garden labour for planting, manuring, weeding, edging , scarifying , mowing and watering continually. Labour from the surrounding villages, especially women, are engaged in large numbers in turfgrass farms. Activities in these farms continue round-the-year, in cycles of 3-4 months’ duration. This, women grass workers acknowledge as a boon compared to the highly uncertain and hard jobs they were engaged in.
Cultivation of Mexican grass is undertaken by local as well as migrant farmers from neighbouring states. The average size of these farms range between five to 10 acres; though patches as small as half an acre are also used at times. The trend is to take land on lease from large holders at an annual rent of INR 60,000 an acre with bore well. Lease rate is INR 40,000 for unirrigated land, where the lessee digs bore wells and/or arranges to bring water from elsewhere. They spend large sums of money to pump out waters lying deep beneath the ground. Each farm has one or two bore wells connected to sprinklers. This grass requires water every single day without fail, except during monsoons. Farmers also have to spend on small equipments for pruning, weeding, spraying and harvesting.
Thus, turfgrass farms require an initial investment of around INR 1.5 lakhs to INR 2 lakhs an acre, including land lease charges if any, setting up irrigation facility, buying equipment etc. On the whole, the cost of cultivating a square foot of lawn grass (including soil, inputs and labour) is about rupees five. Square or rectangle shaped grass sheets harvested with soil are sent to Bengaluru or to the neighbouring states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, for INR 10 to 12 per square foot. Buyers from the neighbouring states visit lawn farms and do on the spot purchases in large volumes. A farmer receives nearly INR 2 -3 lakhs an acre as net income, after every harvest, once in four months.
Lawn grass harvested along with two inches of topsoil depletes the soil after about three to six harvests. As the soil begins to deplete, fresh soil, usually dug out from nearby lake beds is supplemented. The soil from lake beds is supposed to be procured from the Gram Panchayat, at around INR 500-1,000 per truckload. If silt from the lake bed is not available, turf farmer spends anywhere between INR 2,500-6,000 per truckload of soil from excavated construction sites. An acre of turf grassland requires nearly two to 2.5 truckloads of soil to be supplemented every year.
Mallappa of Doddaballapur taluk started cultivating Mexican grass 15 years ago. Other farmers in the area found this lucrative and followed suit, despite knowing that their water and soil resources, along with food crops will be traded for short-term economic benefits. Health hazards to workers (mainly women) while handling chemicals and concentrated poultry manure, also cause worry. “We have already damaged our land. If we continue this, in the next 10 years these farmlands will become deserts”, he opined. For him, this is business, not agriculture. It is but another story of (rural) development – deceptively green.
 Edging is a process of sharpening the edges of the lawn
 Scarifying is the process of cutting and removing the debris (moss and dead grass) from the lawn
(Acknowledging financial support from Department of Biotechnology, Government of India for the project ‘Ecosystem services, agricultural diversification and small farmers’ livelihoods in rural-urban interfaces of Bengaluru’ as part of Indo-German collaborative research project FOR2432)
Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is a major scheme through which development activities are implemented at the Gram Panchayat (GP) level. In the year 2010, everyone in Honnethalu GP of Shivamogga district in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka was expecting the newly elected GP members to use the scheme to fulfil their election promises.
Honnethalu GP office
Even before the newly elected body took office, the Shivamogga Zilla Panchayat (ZP) had prepared a plan of planting 1.25 crore saplings as part of its massive afforestation campaign through MGNREGA. Thus, the administrator for Honnethalu GP, appointed by the ZP during the time of GP polls had already accepted the target of planting about 65,000 saplings in the GP, before the end of the rainy season in 2010. The implicit rule was to achieve the afforestation targets first and then think about other works. I was recruited as Panchayat Development Officer (PDO) of Honnethalu during this period.
Planting such large number of saplings in the Western Ghat area through MGNREGA was difficult. The GPs were already in the midst of forests and villagers weren’t amused to be involved in planting more saplings. The idea of afforestation was good in principle but was in conflict with local ecology, priorities and interests.
However, there were additional complexities. First, there was just not enough saplings of local varieties. Close to 80% of the sapling supplied were Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis). Mono-species planting of Acacia auriculiformis (also Eucalyptus and Acacia mangium) has been highly controversial. While these trees grow fast and provide paper pulp, firewood and timber, their effects on local environment is deleterious. It is argued that such plantations destroy local biodiversity of flora and fauna as well as deplete the ground water levels in the region. Hence, while prioritizing afforestation was commendable, the way in which it was implemented gave serious doubts on the usefulness of such a massive attempt.
There were justifications other than afforestation, for choosing the species. The forest department officials knew that villagers cut Acacia trees in forest department’s lands for timber and firewood but were less worried about it because the ‘actual forests’ remained untouched. They believed that the scheme really serves the people by creating ample availability of Acacia in the vicinity of villages so as to preserve the diversity of the Western Ghats.
While I was still conflicted on the usefulness of Acacia, I was still responsible for achieving the magic figure of 65,000. With lack of community support, even half the target had not been reached and I was worried. This is when the GP members came up with an ingenious idea to provide saplings to individuals so that at least half an acre of their land could be planted with Acacia. The GP members explained that the plantation would be promoted as ‘free fixed deposits’ for farmers. Each farmer gets 200 plants and 20 days of work under MGNREGA and this investment from the GP would fetch anywhere between Rs 3 lakhs to Rs 5 lakhs in the next 8 – 10 years for the individual. This made complete social and political sense! The GP members enthusiastically identified close to 100 families who would benefit from this initiative. A temple complex which could accommodate close to 15,000 saplings was also identified. The ZP gave permissions to grant saplings to individuals and temples. Lo and behold, the afforestation scheme was a big hit. People came in autos, cars and even trucks to lift the saplings from the GP premises to their households. Those who did not have lands planted the saplings in their backyards.
Acacia planting in the rains
By December, the afforestation targets were reached and other works preferred by the villagers were taken up. This was a classic case of a government scheme, meant to be planned and implemented bottom up but enforced from above. Honnethalu ended up as one of the few GPs to reach their planting targets as well as spending the highest amount on unskilled labor in the block in that year. However, the question still remains: is this really afforestation or rural development?
(Note: Government of Karnataka faced considerable resistance against large scale planting of Acacia and Eucalyptus from environmentalists and local communities. Since 2011, it has banned planting these varieties in government and public lands.)