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Posts Tagged ‘farming

A new agenda for India’s agriculture

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Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Three weeks before the presenting of annual budget 2015-16 to the country (that is, us Bharatvaasis) and to the Parliament, the NDA-BJP government needs very much to recognise and respond sensibly to several truths. These are: that most Indian households and families are rural and agricultural, that the macro-economic fashion that has been followed since around 1990 elevates a uni-dimensional idea of economic ‘growth’ above all other considerations, and that several important factors both external and internal have rendered this idea of ‘growth’ obsolete.

Concerning the interaction of the three points – there are 90.2 million farming households households in Bharat – the analyst and commentator Devinder Sharma has reminded Arun Jaitley, Jayant Sinha, Rajiv Mehrishi, Arvind Subramanian, Ila Patnaik, H A C Prasad and other senior officials of the Finance Ministry that there is a continuing crisis which needs specific attention.

Sharma has outlined eleven points for the Ministry of Finance to take note of in its preparations for annual budget 2015-16 and I have summarised these points hereunder, and added four adjunct points to elaborate his very thoughtful advice.

Called ‘An 11-point agenda for resurrecting Indian agriculture and restoring the pride in farming’, Sharma has said: “Indian agriculture is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis. It is a crisis primarily of sustainability and economic viability. The severity of the crisis can be gauged from the spate of farm suicides. In the past 17 years, close to 3 lakh farmers reeling under mounting debt have preferred to commit suicide. Another 42% want to quit agriculture if given a choice. The spate of farmer suicide and the willingness of farmers to quit agriculture is a stark reminder of the grim crisis.”

Item 1. Providing a guaranteed assured monthly income to farmers. “Set up a National Farmers Income Commission which should compute the monthly income of a farm family depending upon his production and the geographical location of the farm.”

Item 2. No more Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy. This has historically been used to ask about its impact on food inflation. “Move from price policy to income policy. The income that a farmer earn should be de-linked from the price that his crops fetch in the market.”

Item 2.5. About 44% of agricultural households hold MGNREGA job cards. Among agricultural households, depending on the size of land held, non-farm income is significant. The need is to strengthen rural employment sources and income reliability as a major plank of local food security.

Item 3. Strengthen immediately the network of mandis (market yards) in all states and districts which provide farmers with a platform to sell their produce. “Leaving it to markets will result in distress sale.”

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Item 4. Provide a viable marketing network for fruits and vegetables (horticultural produce). “I see no reason why India cannot carve out a marketing chain (like the milk cooperatives) for fruits, vegetables and other farm commodities.”

Item 4.5. ‘Market’ does not mean ‘mandi’. The thrust of the ‘reform’ demanded in the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Acts is to “remove deterrent provisions” and “dismantle barriers to agriculture trade”. This effort will ruin smallholder farmers and must be halted.

Item 5. Cooperative farming must be encouraged including with legal support to make cooperatives more independent and effective. “Small cooperatives of organic farmers have done wonders” which be replicated for the rest of the crops.

Item 6. Villages must become self-reliant in agriculture and food security. “Shift the focus to local production, local procurement and local distribution” throughout the country for which the National Food Security Act needs amendment.

Item 7. Green Revolution areas are facing a crisis in sustainability. “With soil fertility devastated, water table plummeting and environment contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertiliser, the resulting impact on the entire food chain and human health is being increasingly felt.” We need a country-wide campaign to shift farming to non-pesticides management techniques.

Item 7.5. The agro-ecological approach to cultivation under decentralised planning (panchayat cluster) must be promoted. This has long been identified as the primary rural guide: “In the Indian development strategy, self-reliance has been conceptualised … in terms of building up domestic capabilities and reducing import dependence in strategic commodities” (from the Seventh Five Year Plan, 1985-90).

Item 8. Agriculture, dairy and forestry should be integrated. “Agricultural growth should not only be measured in terms of increase in foodgrain production but should be seen in the context of the village eco-system as a whole.”

Item 9. The government must not yield to pressure exerted via free trade agreements signed and stop food imports. “Importing food is importing unemployment.” The government must “not accept the European Union’s demand for opening up for dairy products and fruits/vegetables by reducing the import duties.”

Item 10. Climate change is affecting agriculture. Don’t look “at strategies only aimed at lessening the impact on agriculture and making farmers cope with the changing weather patterns, the focus should also be to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.” Reduce chemical fertiliser/pesticides in farming.

Item 10.5. The area-production-yield metric for agriculture is as outdated as ‘GDP growth’ is to describe a country. By adopting the principles of responsible and ecologically sound self-reliance, the whole system demands of agriculture need to be assessed with district planning being incentivised towards organic cultivation (expressly banning GM/GE).

Item 11. Localise the storage for foodgrains. In 1979 under the ‘Save Food Campaign’ grain silos were to be set up in 50 places. Localised and locally-managed foodgrain storage must be at the top of the agenda.

This is an agriculture and food agenda for the NDA-BJP government, to guide the strategies and approaches so that India does not compromise its food self-sufficiency, self-reliance (swadeshi) and return our farming households to dignity and self-respect.

Six out of 10 are farm households in rural India

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An agricultural year begins at the beginning of July and ends on the last day of June the following year. What we know now, thanks to the data provided by the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households, carried out by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) is that in the agricultural year 2012-13, rural India had an estimated total of 90.2 million agricultural households.

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_1These agricultural households were about 57.8% of the total estimated rural households. Uttar Pradesh, with an estimate of 18.05 million agricultural households, accounted for about 20% of all agricultural households in the country. Among the major states, Rajasthan had the highest percentage of agricultural households (78.4%) among its rural households followed by Uttar Pradesh (74.8%) and Madhya Pradesh (70.8%). Kerala had the least percentage share of agricultural households (27.3%) in its rural households preceded by other southern states like Tamil Nadu (34.7%) and Andhra Pradesh (41.5%).

The NSSO’s previous such survey (the ‘Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers’) was conducted in 2003. The differences between the two, a decade apart, have been explained by the NSSO. First, such surveys aim to gather an assessment of the situation of our farmers and farming households.

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_2This assessment determines a standard of living as measured by consumer expenditure, income and productive assets, the indebtedness of farmers and farming households, farming practices and preferences, what resources are available to them, their awareness of technological developments and access to such technologies. The survey for the 2012-13 agricultural year also collected information on crop loss, crop insurance and awareness about the Minimum Support Price (MSP).

Second, the big difference between the two surveys is that the new survey has dropped the criterion of land possession for considering a household agricultural. “Recognising the fact that significant agricultural activity can be conducted without possessing any land, the definition of ‘farmer’ and ‘farmer household’ followed in NSS 59th Round was critically reviewed and the land possession as an eligibility criterion was dispensed with, replacing it with the concept of ‘agricultural production unit’ as one which produces field crops, horticultural crops, livestock and the products of any of the other specified agricultural activities,” is how the new survey (called the 70th Round) has explained its decision.

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_3I find this puzzling and an aspect that needs careful probing. We know, from a close scrutiny of the Census 2011 data at the district level, that the number of people and households engaged in cultivation and farming has dropped when compared to the last census, in 2001, and the previous census, in 1991 (as a percentage of the rural working population but in several cases as absolute population numbers too).

What reason could the NSSO have had to amend the definition it used ten years earlier? “With a view to keep the large number of households with insignificant agricultural activities out of survey coverage, it was decided to have a minimum value of agricultural produce for a household to qualify as an ‘agricultural production unit’,” the NSSO has explained. I cannot follow this reasoning. Are urban households which make negligible contributions to the local gross domestic product to be kept out of surveys that ought to assess their conditions – such as those with pensioners and informally employed people who get by on job work?

RG_NSSO_agri_households_201412_4If this is the basis for exclusion, what qualifies a household for inclusion in the survey? The NSSO has considered average Monthly Household Consumer Expenditure (MHCE) for “home grown consumption of some specific items” and adopted a cut-off value amount of 3,000 rupees worth of annual agricultural produce. The activities which provided such value are given as “cultivation of field crops, horticultural crops, fodder crops, plantation, animal husbandry, poultry, fishery, piggery, bee-keeping, vermiculture, sericulture etc” with such a household “having at least one member self-employed in agriculture either in the principal status or in subsidiary status during last 365 days”.

This cut-off value amount needs investigation. So does the idea of an ‘agricultural production unit’. And the NSSO for this survey has also excluded households which are entirely agricultural labour households, those households receiving income entirely from coastal fishing, as also the activity of “rural artisans and agricultural services”. Nonetheless, these data are important and useful for our understanding of the changes that have taken place in the food and agriculture domain.

Written by makanaka

December 22, 2014 at 16:16

Industrial farming versus the peasantry

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Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

The October-November 2010 issue of Himal Southasian is out and includes a contribution from me. The issue is themed on agriculture and ruralscapes in Southasia (that’s how Himal spells it, one word). Here’s an extract from my article:

India’s government and its agricultural research establishment are forging new compacts with the private sector food industry. Their reasons for doing so are the breakdown of agricultural extension and the need for food infrastructure. Yet low-input organic farming yields sufficient produce in tune with local conditions, and is well suited to smallholder rural farming households. This benefit is opposite to the ‘agritech’ demands of food industry powers in India, and at risk is the farm livelihood of the country’s massive majority of farmers.

In July, India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country’s food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an ‘industry meet’ put up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), assembled to discuss four issues: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and ‘value addition’.

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is ‘no longer appropriate’. Instead, he urged the adoption of public-private partnerships, through which public-sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can ‘leverage valuable private resources, expertise or marketing networks that they [the farmers] otherwise lack’.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated area, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small and marginal cultivating households into programmes and schemes, so that these small-scale farmers become ‘consumers of technology’ rather than being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

How the price of tomatoes is determined

These sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge and soil conservation. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the National Agriculture Research System and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food?

The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India’s organic farming systems. These grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities.

There’s more in the full article which can be found here.

Woodfuel in the Western Ghats

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Goatherds in Chikodi taluka, Belgaum district, Karnataka

Goatherds in Chikodi taluka, Belgaum district, Karnataka

The woodfuel-and-dungcakes energy mix for rural India is alive and well in the hills of Maharashtra’s Deccan. The indications are that a combination of factors is at work. There’s less income for smallholder farming households, those farming families which have earnings have seen their monthly household budgets squeezed by rising food prices, and energy costs at least the same or more. That’s why I’ve seen in November and December – when early mornings and nights are cool to chilly, and heating at home is needed – more evidence of woodfuel use.

If you ask the energy planners and econometricians, they’ll say that fuelwood markets are important and have a great influence on shaping demand. As a rule this is likely to be true, but what we’re seeing here has resulted from a variety of volatile conditions. Let’s look at some of the alternatives that rural households in the hills use. A cylinder of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) costs about Rs 325 in a town in western Maharashtra (the 14.2 kg domestic cylinder). A sack of coal costs about Rs 300 to Rs 350 (20-25 kg) which will usually include the cost of transport (it’ll be carted along with other goods on the roof of an old jeep, in a tempo or lorry – state transport bus conductors are not partial to letting these sacks on board any more).

From the planners’ point of view, market conditions for wood are highly distorted due to government policies on fuel, energy and forests. That’s why discussing both demand and supply in the context of prices and market conditions is important, because in isolation the terms ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ for rural energy mean next to nothing.

It’s important too to a rural household that wood is a multi-use material. For instance, for eucalyptus, the thickest portion of the trunk can be used as timber, if the girth of the trunk, with bark, is more than 70 cm. Poles are used for scaffolding support and as roofing material. The dimensions of logs for use as poles are 3 to 6 metres in length, and 30 to 70 cm in girth (cut pieces of similar girth but shorter are used as pulpwood in paper mills). All smaller pieces, twigs, bark, and roots, which cannot be used elsewhere, are used as fuelwood. Thus there is no single wood market in a town or peri-urban settlement. I’ve found it safe to say that the set-up and behaviour of each market differs from others depending upon the range of species available, and the purposes for which each wood species can be put to use.

Hillside grasses, ghat in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra

Hillside grasses, ghat in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra

All that said, the main point here is that the price of fuelwood has risen in the hills of Maharashtra’s Deccan. A buyer will now pay Rs 60 for a ‘maund‘ of ‘jungli‘ wood and Rs 80 for a ‘maund‘ of babul wood. Now a ‘maund‘ is around 37 kg, so that makes a metric ton of ‘jungli‘ wood worth about Rs 1,620 (without complicating the matter with discounts for weight) and a metric ton of babul wood is worth around Rs 2,160. That’s a pretty steep annual growth rate because at the start of the 2000s – according to those who know about these things in Kolhapur, Satara and Pune – the price of a ton of ordinary wood was around Rs 1,300 and they also said that the price then was twice what it had been (around 700/ton) a decade earlier.

This is both worrying and curious. Worrying because it means that sources of energy among some sections of the rural population are defaulting to the woodfuel-dungcakes mix. Worrying also because it means that natural and protected forests, orchard and scrub are being scoured for woodfuel. Curious because we are in 2010 going to be less informed about the relative importance of the three major biofuels to rural households: has the animal population grown in the last decade? have the growing number of bio-gas plants installed during the last 15 years taken away from the dungcake source? have commercial crops reduced the available quantities of husk and straw (and what’s the effect on these as animal feed? We know a lot less than we think, but we do know what a ‘maund‘ of babul costs so that it can heat a hill household in winter.