Can Fair Trade Movements Help Small Holders? – Anu Priya Babu*

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.

Fair Trade Alliance Kerala (FTAK)

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.

How farmers in Mandya are faring in the aftermath of COVID-19 and lockdown

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.

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Tackling Covid: Overcoming pandemic despair

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

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Life and Livelihood – what a virus taught us (by Seema Purushothaman)

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.

Life, livelihood and virus - Migrant camp‘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.

Life, livelihood and virus - Asar village - JanaAn 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.

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 – 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”!

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