‘Rear-view Mirror’ – on Development in Agriculture

It remains a big question that, while India’s 60% of population depends on farming as main source of income, how has public investment helped its primary stakeholders? Innovation and technological advancements in any sector are considered to be elevating economic and social status of its end users. Ironically, this is not entirely the case with agrarian sector in India; specifically with respect to small holders, millions in number. Although, there is no comprehensive analysis of efficiency or of net benefit from public investments (both material and non-material); an imperfect picture is emerging from stories we covered in the last series “Voices from the Margins“.

Looking back, innovation and technological advancement in agriculture wasn’t that recent in our country. With almost a century old large scale irrigation projects, huge tracts of land are under irrigated cultivation, though lesser than many similar countries. Then came green revolution with its magic of seeds and inputs, making this country as a whole, self-sufficient in food’ or calories. Later, it was modern technology in the form of implements and machinery that supposedly made farmer’s work easier. No doubt, all these efforts could uplift farmer’s social and economic status in some pockets. However, the core question of whether innovations were introduced in the right place and at the right time remains. Also the appropriateness of implementation process itself. They point towards the nature of impacts of innovations on small farmers that is sparsely explored.

The series – ‘Rear-view Mirror’ – brings together stories on certain schemes and programs for farmers. They will unveil lesser heard realities in small scale agriculture around introduction of irrigation, improved seeds, synthetic inputs and machinery .

Following is the first story in this second series. it is about a canal irrigation scheme and subsequent introduction of an improved variety of seed in the northern part of Karnataka state.

The other side of development (Krishna Kothai)

This is a story from an irrigation network constructed against Malaprabha river in Belgaum district of Karnataka State. The network was supposed to irrigate a large area of agricultural land in Dharwad, Bijapur and Belgaum districts of the State. Earlier, lands in these areas were totally rainfed. Droughts were of common occurrence. Farmers of whom majority were small holders, were ‘conditioned’ to face the situation as in any dry zone of   the country. Though the area is drought-prone, soils are very fertile. They are deep black cotton soils. These soils demanded very careful irrigation, as excessive irrigation would harm the soils. Hence these soils are often described in soil science as the most problematic soils.

Under such an ‘agro-ecological’ context, Government constructed the said dam with required irrigation network. Farmers of the area were elated as their parched lands received irrigation. At the same time,  a long staple cotton variety by name ‘Varalaxmi’ (Vara = boon)  was released from Dharwad Agricultural College which, on an average, would yield four times more than it’s local counterparts (Laxmi, Jayadhar, Suyodhar etc) with a very high cost of cultivation. Farmers thought that they have struck bounty with irrigation and a high yielding variety of cotton!


As the cost of cultivation of Varalaxmi cotton was very high, farmers borrowed loans heavily from various sources. Institutions also lent abundantly thinking that irrigated high yielding crops such as Varalaxmi would bring lot of money and repaying capacity to farmers. In the initial couple of years, farmers   got money which they had never dreamt in their lives.  The traditional varieties of cotton and other crops of the area were given up. Small farmers and big farmers alike, went in for Varalaxmi  cotton. They  refused to grow field crops such as jowar and wheat, even for their household consumption. Farmers would say that they would purchase grains from the market and would use land for minting money with  Varalaxmi cotton. The roar of tractors and buzz of power sprayers and dusters filled these villages. A large number of fertilizer and chemicals shops suddenly appeared. The whole area wore the look of busy market place.

Farmers, who made some money went in for lavish lifestyles, purchasing four-wheelers, visiting cities, staying in hotels, spending in bars and arrack shops. But the euphoria did not last long. The price of Varalaxmi cotton suddenly crashed. Farmers, especially small farmers were totally confused. They had huge loan burdens. They could not accept this shock which was totally alien to them.

As mentioned elsewhere, the soils of the area demanded careful and scientific irrigation management. Excessive irrigation would spoil the soil. Instead of providing protective irrigation (which was new to them), farmers inundated soil with water while  cultivating crops. The harmful effects of excessive irrigation were visible very soon. Most  fertile natural soils of the area, started becoming saline-alkaline- making land less productive.

Cotton farm (dry)

On one side, the new enticing crop variety had pushed them to a debt-trap, from where they could not escape. On the other, their ‘bread earner’ fertile land was becoming barren!

Net result of this double whammy was that, farmers, especially small farmers started migrating to far off places. They murmured: “irrigation and varalaxmi instead of bringing’ boon’ to our lives have brought relentless ‘pain’. We were comfortable earlier, cultivating rainfed local varieties. Though yield was less, our land, crops, rains, never made us flee this village”!

(krishna.kothai@azimpremjifoundation.org )