Distress among smallholders of India – is size the culprit?

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[1].

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.

  1. Produce crops/ animals having assured minimum demand
  2. Grow these crops and animals while minimizing cost
  3. Maintain debts proportionate to the scale of operation and income flow in the family
  4. Maintain soil fertility to reduce operational costs (there are indigenous and low-cost ways to do this)
  5. 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 [2].
  6. Orient rural governance to the linkages between agroecology and rural livelihoods[3]. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. Employment guarantee schemes of the state can take care of protecting land and water commons (for meeting agricultural needs mentioned in point (5) above).
  10. Adaptive skilling of farm families and the community
    1. 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.[4] 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. 
    2. 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.[5]

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.

[1] Data from Agriculture census 2015-16

[2] Village commons provide the following for small farms:

  1. 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.
  2. Common water sources are crucial for animal care and fish protein apart from recharging private wells.
  3. Well stocked land and water commons together help to ensure minimum soil moisture

[3] We run a short orientation program for panchayat members in North East Karnataka on agroecology.

[4] ‘Natural Farming’ movement is accomplishing this in some parts of the country, with regard to input use.

[5] 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.

The Other side of Development IV – Green Carpet or Green Desert?


(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.


Lawn from CC

(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 [1], scarifying [2], 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[3] 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[4] 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.

[1] Edging is a process of sharpening the edges of the lawn

[2] Scarifying is the process of cutting and removing the debris (moss and dead grass) from the lawn

[3] 43,560 square feet makes an acre

[4] Name changed

(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)

The Other side of Development –III ‘Afforesting’ a Forested village – story of a rural development scheme (Sham Kashyap)

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

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

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.)


The Other Side of Development – II Technology and Livelihoods versus Culture and Diversity? (Krishna Kothai)


Bullocks have always been an integral part of Indian agriculture. They are important as source of power (-for farm operations and transport) and manure. The symbiotic relationship between bullocks, agriculture and the agriculturist has been very unique and distinct. They (bullocks) are much more than a source of power and manure. They were loved and even worshiped. In a typical farm household in North Karnataka, bullocks are tied in the front portion of the house while the family stays in the adjoining portion. Bullock pairs used to be given names (much like children) as Rama-Laxmana, Lava-Kusha, Basava-Allama, Raja-Raya, Hara-Nandi, after heroic characters from history and mythology. When a bullock dies or succumbs to some injury, family members experienced pain and agony.

Hurusgundige - Child & Bull_20150423

Basava Camp -water for bulls_20150422

With the dawn of modern agriculture, mechanization was introduced to increase efficiency and reduce labour requirement. Farmers were given loans and subsidies to purchase various agricultural machines including tractors. In the late 1970s, there came a World Bank aided tractor scheme, where in farmers were given loans to purchase tractors at an interest rate of 9.5%.

Branches of nationalized banks in North Karnataka were given targets to finance tractors. National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD from 1982; till then Agricultural Refinance and Development Corporation) laid down certain eligibility norms for farmers to avail loans. It was considered that the existing animal power will be replaced by tractors. It was also defined that a tractor should have 1000 work hours per year (including work on the applicant’s farm, co-applicant’s farm as well as other work like transportation on hire). Those were technical calculations to verify if the project can be economically viable and if farmers can repay the loan with interest in addition to saving something for maintaining the machine. Benefit-Cost Ratio (BC Ratio) and Internal Rate of Return (IRR) proved that the scheme is highly viable.

Bank branches especially in the northern districts of Karnataka went in for tractor financing in a big way through endless propaganda. The whole area started roaring with the noise of tractors – Ford, Eicher, Mahindra, Kirloskar and Massey Ferguson were common sight. There was great amusement amongst the rural communities. Driving a tractor was fun for the rural youth. Loud speakers were fitted to the tractors and their noise filled the air, announcing prosperity and joy.

 Bull plough1


The amusement and fun did not last long. First year with great difficulty tractor owners managed to pay loan installments. From the second year onward, it was very clear that tractors were not bringing the expected returns. BC ratios, IRR and other calculations had hidden something. There were more number of tractors than what the area demanded! Each tractor could not log in the required number of hours for the credit financials to work out.

On displacing animals by tractors that the bankers had calculated, the story was different. When asked by the loan recovery officers as to why their bullocks are still being maintained, reply was straight forward – “Who told you that we will sell our bullocks? How can you think of such proposals? If you want, please take your tractor away.  Do not advise us to part with our animals, they are not machines, they are an integral part of our life

How do you measure this bondage? Pairs of Hallikars, Amrith Mahals or even non-descript bullocks are rather valuable for small family enterprises built on agro-ecological resilience. Can technology and financial viability be so unimaginative that they can’t find opportunities in such cultural-ecological linkages?

  Bull plough 20150417_151720


‘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 )


Orchestrating the exit

This post concludes the series – Voices from the Margins.

The exclusive sign of success in a society steadfast in growth-centric development and urban centric growth appears to be one’s distance from soil. Family farms (farms run mostly by family labour) in India present a dismal picture with worsening cash flow both to and from them. The only surviving ones are either farmers close to big cities, growing exotic crops or animals or rural farms with reliable non-farm income. Nevertheless, as rural non-farm livelihoods like those from forest produce, arts, crafts, weaving, leather and metal works vanish in the glitz and glamour of globally connected industrial production, family farms emerge as the universal eco-cultural livelihood of Indian villages.

Village commons are crucial for small holders to survive, graze livestock and maintain soil fertility. Increasing privatization of commons for powerful organizational entities (than distributed either to the landless or to those displaced by dams, wildlife sanctuaries, airports, express ways, industrial estates or special economic zones), constrain the cash strapped family farms. Thus whether rain-fed or irrigated, rural landscapes witness an exodus of its people – either seasonally or for good. Those who continue in the production landscapes, more often than not, struggle in distress.

farmer with local cows

Though urban India constantly encounters these farmer migrants as casual labour, it neither notices nor recognizes them as producers. Only if land could speak, it could tell the story of how our society knowingly and unknowingly is engaged in cleansing the last ecocultural livelihood of millions. Why else do we pitch food policies and farm policies against each other? Can consumer priorities be against or away from the interest of family farms who are vulnerable consumers themselves?   Do we think of these producer –consumers when we hurriedly nod for shipments from distant shores? Spread across diverse agro ecologies, family farms produce anything from coconuts to walnuts; coffee to apples; spices to vegetables; pulses and oilseeds to staples like millets and tubers.

We overlook their potential to provide goods and services at competitive costs. Despite being a functional democracy, we make the goods and services provided by millions of family farms cheaper and those they need costlier.  Soaring cost of production, crop loss and price volatility, alongside unaffordable medical expenditure are tearing apart our agrarian economy as the stories in Voices from the Margins portray. Living our lives as exclusive consumers, we are oblivious of the connectedness between our own health, the food we consume and the livelihoods in producing our food. Is it too difficult to see that orchestrating distress in small family farms goes hand in hand with our own ill-fare?

farmer in dryland

Many believed that as small farm units become unviable, families can move out of rural India towards urban opportunities. Scores of migrant workers in Indian cities prove that it is not a viable move both for them and the city.

Hope? In the era of social networks, revitalizing positive sociocultural institutions for sustaining diverse skills, knowledge, food and agroecology must be an opportunity. Start-ups are not difficult to be founded by sourcing local farm products or employing local human resource without mining natural resources, displacing people or polluting the landscape.  A thoughtful and humane society will try to unlearn some of the irrelevant science and economics copy pasted from alien geographies and societies. A decentralized democracy in such a society will try and meaningfully link production and consumption; for instance linking school and hospital feeding programs with local farm products under community monitoring. It will evolve practice, knowledge and governance for integrating societal well-being with livelihoods; offering a lesson or two for others to learn from.


youth in farm (without date)

Unless we harness the promise that top soil and agrarian communities together extend, 21st century India will be known for driving to extinction, a potentially vibrant ecology, culture and livelihood called small family farms.

Next set of posts in this blog will be on some practical problems encountered in pursuing the above.

Rural = Farming?

Farming though predominant, was only one among the many mutually reliant rural professions.  Rurality used to be reflected in unique skills and artistry. Farmers, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, musicians etc closely interacted and formed the rural society. Though marred with caste disparity, this skill rich society meant local self-reliance. Such diversity is fast disappearing, with farming as the only rural character, albeit in a vulnerable state. Despite surrendering to the mainstream market economy, the woes of both farmers and non-farmers remain unabated. Was deskilling the rural society a necessary cost towards socio-economic change?

Yankappa belongs to a family of musicians near Yadgir. He is a seasoned tabla player like his father and forefathers. Though he loves to play percussion instruments, that cannot earn him a livelihood anymore. He accuses television for shifting people’s time and taste away from local events with folk songs. Last year, Yankappa earned a paltry 20,000, playing tabla.

folk singers -2

Though not too comfortable to take up farming as their major occupation, this family of five tries to cultivate cotton in three acres of dry land -including one acre of leased land- and also engage in wage labour. While three acres of input intensive cotton farming earned him 1.03 lakhs, its’ expenses crossed 1.5 lakhs. Wage income of about 60,000 helped the family survive. Yankappa sounded desperate talking about his unpaid loan of 1.3 lakhs taken from other villagers and the co-operative bank as well as the 30 grams of gold that they lost to a money lender.

Puttaswamy and his wife belong to the community of nekars (weavers). Their village in North East Karnataka is known for skillful nekars.  All 200 households in the village used to be involved in weaving. But they could not compete with machine made cheaper cloth. Now there are only 50-60 families of weavers, mostly contracted by Khadi Gram Udyog (KGU) in Kodekal. Most moved to other occupations though working as agricultural wage labour or construction labour was too strange for many among them.

Puttaswamy and his wife still engage in weaving, taking orders for two-three sarees every month from local women. His wife mostly works on charaka while he does all other things required. For the past 5-6 years, they both have started working as handloom weavers with KGU in Kodekal. All materials and equipments are provided by KGU and even lends them small amount of money in crisis. They can avail credit from KGU in exchange of work.

Khadrapore - Mallamma

Puttaswamy also diversified. He has a petty shop selling small daily need things and also leases out an acre of their dry land. His share of red gram from the rainfed leased land is usually just enough to be used at home. That year (2015) they earned 11,600 from selling red gram, about 14,400 from weaving, and 18,000 from the petty shop. Thus even in a good agricultural year, this two member household finds it difficult to repay the loan of half a lakh taken to repair their house and also to meet cultivation expenses. Yet, Puttaswamy feels he is respected for his weaving skills and would rather stay back in the village as long as the basket of livelihood options – weaving, leasing farm land and the petty shop – helps them survive.

Belief systems in the time of distress

Sunset (post 7)

Sun was setting across the river Krishna, as we sat in Hanumanthappa’s field, chatting with him and Kaveri, – his daughter of six years. Fifty five year old Hanumanthappa cultivates three acres of land inherited from his father and also share crops another acre from his neighbour. Both pieces of land lie close to the river but are rain fed. He grows lentils, sunflower and cotton for more than seven years now. Earlier it was sorghum and groundnut mostly.

This crop change meant a change in his family’s food pattern. For some years now, they eat more of rice every day. Rice is cheaply distributed by the government. It made sense to eat rice and raise crops for the market instead of cultivating jola for their daily roti. The cost they had to pay for this shift, Hanumanthappa says, was in terms of health, stamina and medical expenditure. Annual food related expenditure for the family also comes to more than 60,000. He spends around 66,000 annually on agriculture. A good crop fetched him slightly more than 1.16 lakhs that year. This is pretty much what the family has, to tide over the whole year, without much wage income. Two local breed bulls and a cow serve the family with draught power and milk, but not cash income.

Girls in field carrying lunch (post 7)

Hanumanthappa has two overdue loans – agricultural loan taken from the Grameen bank (Rs. 35,000) and another Rs. 40,000 taken from a neighbour. When we met him, he was all set to realise the irrigation dream, installing a pump set in Krishna’s overflows next to his land, availing a new loan from a village money lender. This will take his total debt above 1 lakh, excluding interest. Towards the end of each agricultural year, he is left with nothing to repay loans. Hanumanthappa tries to rotate borrowed money to meet various expenses.

Talking about expenses, he mentioned two wives and their children staying with him. Kaveri hastily added that the first wife stays in the next room and she goes there to sleep. She was talking at ease about her father’s wives. We weren’t clear if he had two or more wives; though didn’t spare time in clarifying. Hanumanthappa explained how he needed to marry more than once – just for a son. To our questioning look, he responded – everyone needs a son for their funeral rituals. By his first wife, he already has two grandchildren while his youngest born – the son of the family – is a toddler. One of his married daughters is back to live with her parents, along with her children. There are four adult women in the family who labour in the farm and house. Family of five adults and four to six children (including toddlers) dependent on a rocky rain fed four acres along with their cattle, live in a shaky congested house.

Hanumanthappa lamented that with new seeds and new inputs, neither their grains nor chicken taste well and fail to give them enough strength to work on the stone filled land. While resenting the dietary change, he upheld the hardships the entire family goes through to ensure customary heirship for after life rituals.

Gundalli cotton and lake

Voices from the Margins – II Culture, Customs and Farm Livelihoods

In the first part of Voices from the Margins we saw women who appeared courageous and vulnerable at the same time. For men in farming, the picture is not all that bright either. They deal with a multitude of social changes while struggling to sustain their families – change in technology, food, consumption habits as well as family and social relationships, to name a few. Simultaneously, economy and culture in a globalised world alter the perceptions and aspirations of farm families too. In the second part of Voices from the Margins we bring two posts on how cultural practices and social customs in the 21st century often represent and accentuate distress among small holders.

In rural Karnataka, as elsewhere in India, agricultural decisions are often taken with religious interventions. On the new-moon day just before the onset of monsoon many villagers travel to witness the pronouncements by soothsayers on what to sow in their land.  Beginning of the harvest season, local deities are generally offered that season’s best harvest. This you will see during winter months in the temples of North-East Karnataka when temple roofs and pillars will be adorned with panicles of sorghum and small bundles of kapas. With new crops in the fields and unknown risks, these offerings now are prayers to guard against disasters like price crash and pests.

offerings at the temple

It is common to see small family farms trying to emulate agricultural strategies followed by large holders or intensive agribusinesses, despite having very little information on hidden risks. Notwithstanding the risks faced in agriculture, farmers contribute significantly to village festivals. Apart from contributions to the temple jatre, most spend two to three times of their average monthly income on annual rituals for their family deity. Rural families owning large extents of land or with considerable non-farm income often set the tone for such customary expenses too. This influence is seen in the way small holders spend on weddings, funerals, gadgets, alcohol etc. Influence of commercials appearing in all kinds of media makes this race faster and universal than it was a generation ago, despite the fact that this generation of small holders apparently are less endowed with resources and more vulnerable to distress situations.

alms seeker-dyvasandra

Gangamma jatre in Reddihalli of Bangalore Rural district is a cultural event both binding and burdening the farmers.  This jatre is celebrated every three years if rain fall is normal, otherwise every five years. Expenditure (in 2015 -16) of farmers in this village during the jatre ranged from Rs.5,000 to Rs.15,000 with some spending more than Rs.50,000.

Gugle_animals fair

The jatre in Allammaprabhu temple near Kadrapur in Yadgir, is famous for its cattle fair. The Gram Panchayat organises the jatre with donations from villagers. Bustling with people and animals, it showcases bulls from all over the region. In the new format of this jatre, festivities extend to competitions with heavy prize money, like bulls pulling heavy stones. Scores of people from surrounding villages cheer the competing bulls, while media reports critique the treatment meted out to animals. Farmers in these vast dry lands often invest huge amounts in buying and keeping specially chosen breeds of bulls that can pull heavy weight.

  Stone dragging competition 3

A proverb in Kannada – ವೇದ ಸುಳ್ಳಾದರೂ ಗಾದೆ ಸುಳ್ಳಾಗದು (Veda sulladaru gaade sullagadu) – reposes faith in local wisdom, asserting that while even Vedas may err, the gaade (proverbs) won’t. But as the interplay of money, technology and policies traverses national borders, along with the ‘localness’ of culture, conviction and reliance on local knowledge systems also diminish. While disappearance of old social negatives (like exploitation of certain social groups) and emergence of new positive social institutions will be a welcome change, often the reality in rural India is the persistence of old negatives and disappearance of positive institutions that nurtured human values, creativity and ecological wisdom.  Amidst the changing cultural milieu of agrarian landscapes and a social structure weak in values and norms, small holders with little information on the invisible claws of the market economy, often end up taking disproportionate financial risks with disastrous consequences.