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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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.