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The Beed syndrome

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Outline of Beed district, Maharashtra

Outline of Beed district, Maharashtra: 11 talukas, 1,368 villages and population of 2.585 million in 2011.

Wandering through the rural districts of Maharashtra as a teenager I can recall well how villages were laid out, as collections of homes and in also in relation to the fields and natural features nearby. These early impressions were strengthened by travels over the years, in neighbouring states (Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh) and a window seat in a state transport bus was the best vantage point to have to watch how the landscape unfolded and how it was being attended to.

Outside the ‘circle’ of dwellings and small institutional buildings (school, public health centre, panchayat block, mandir) – ‘circle’ is not the typical shape, which is irregular and in our motorised time follows more the alignment of a panchayat road than the dictates of topography and planning – is the land to be looked after by the village, the ‘grama’, and which provides it sustenance of every kind.

There is the land allocated to grow crops and these provide food and are also what used to be called cash crops, there is land to be shared by those who keep cattle, buffaloes, goats and sheep so that these animals can graze, plots in which fodder is grown, there is land for orchards (such as mango, amla, guava) and land for the organised cultivation of vegetables.

There is also the land in which grow densely and undisturbed a variety of local trees and bushes, and which may be called forested or wooded. These tracts are just as important to the grama as are the cultivated fields and grazing grounds, for they contain the wild relatives of much that grows in the precincts of the grama and offer to the husbanded animals varieties of grasses and plants that the ruminants seek at certain times. The forested area may or may not include a sacred grove (guarded by snakes that are well respected).

There are the waterforms – ponds and tanks, natural channels for monsoon streams and a few shallow-cut and narrow canals from which water is shared, several low check dams used to impound water at the start of a growing season, and dug wells, some of which are indeed old and lined with stone from earlier eras. (The pumpset and borewell have dramatically disturbed and altered the grama’s relation with water and the meanings of its waterforms, and what I saw in the late 1970s has mostly vanished.)

How these different uses of a grama’s land are decided upon by its cultivator households determines its swarajya nature – that is, its capacity to be largely independent and self-sufficient in most material needs. Whether from a bus window at a halt or when on foot, I could make out a distribution of land use that was designed to serve the ‘grama’ as wisely as possible.

Cropping pattern for Beed district

Comparing land allocated to major crop groups in Beed, 2010-11 and 1995-96, in hectares.

Ratios could perhaps have been calculated even then in the 1970s (they were done, much earlier, as large-scale and very authoritative planning guidelines in some of the princely states such as Gwalior, Mysore and Patiala). With today’s remote sensing, doing so has become very much easier while at the same time being theoretical only, the advent of ‘market forces’ having weakened the commune-like ‘grama’ social and economic structure through an appeal to the individual.

The ratios – one could see even then, 40 years ago – would vary because of the influence of three factors: the watershed or the manner in which water became manifest in the ‘grama’ precincts, the manner in which plant species dominated and were distributed together with how they were shaped by climate (‘agro-ecology’ in today’s parlance), and the soil characteristics together with the underlying shallow geological features.

How would and how did a grama respond? At the time, being observant but unschooled in such matters, I took no notes. Today, the only sources of such information are old administrative records (such as the district gazetteers of the British colonial era) and more recently the data collected by the periodic agricultural census.

Using the agricultural census data, I set out to examine if and how the land use of a district (Beed, in central Maharashtra) had changed, and in what way. Records at the level of grama cannot be found other than locally (if they have not been consumed by termites or become mouldy compost). But in the databases of the agricultural census one gets a clue of how much is changing and in what direction.

The available time-span for comparison is a small one, 1995-96 and 2010-11, these being two different agricultural census series. For Beed district, the difference in cultivated land (including that land that was fallow at the time the census was taken) was 100,000 hectares with the increase being from 903,672 hectares in 1995-96 to 1,004,006 hectares in 2010-11. This is a very large increase over so short a period and we shall see why.

The agricultural census records the distribution of land to various kinds of crops which is called a cropping pattern. Examining the cropping pattern for Beed district in 1995-96 and in 2010-11 I found several major changes. First, about 100,000 hectares had been brought under cultivation. From where? The census does not tell us. We would have to look at other records. It is likely that these new cultivation areas were earlier what are called ‘waste land’ (this is a British-era term invented to disparage grazing grounds and their importance to our desi cow).

The most striking change is the reduction, in 2010-11, by a whopping 196,879 hectares, in land used to cultivate cereals. The next big change is the addition in 2010-11 of 143,659 hectares of land given to the cultivation of fibre crops (that is, cotton). Third, is the increase by 50,365 hectares (from 15,240 in 1995-96) of land for sugarcane. And fourth are the increases by 45,617 hectares of land for pulses and by an almost similar area – 44,993 hectares – for oilseeds.

Worksheet to calculate district cropping pattern

My worksheet for the ‘Beed syndrome’

Without any other kind of information that could be used to better explain these changes, I might infer: (a) that the change in the land allocated to cereals has happened because the kisans of Beed’s gramas decided that having a surplus of cereals is not as lucrative as having a surplus of cash crops, (b) that cotton as a cash crop is the district’s most valuable ‘export’ of cultivated biomass, (c) that the more than four-fold increase in land under sugarcane means that more water has been made available for the district (as sugarcane needs more water than most crops), (d) that the central government’s programmes to increase the cultivation of pulses and of oilseeds are working well in Beed.

How tenable are these inferences? The first, about cereals, needs to be seen through the region’s cereal preferences. In Beed, like in many districts of Maharashtra and the dryland areas of the north Deccan plateau, it is jowar and bajra that are grown and eaten. By weight, jowar and bajra together account for 80% of the cereals Beed grows (about 50% jowar and 30% bajra). These are not surplus cereals but staple foods. Second, it is possible that Beed’s kisans decided that the income from their two cash crops, sugarcane and cotton, could be partly used to purchase staple cereals grown elsewhere and so balance their diet.

This needs more investigation, although my guess is that they were incorrect in their choices as sugarcane not only takes scarce water away from other needs, the political control of local sugar economies makes income from the crop volatile and unreliable. Likewise cotton, which is controlled by traders and the big players in mechanised looms – with the seeds and inputs being controlled by the biotech industry if Beed’s kisans were persuaded to choose bt cotton over desi varieties. The one bright spot is the last inference, for even today, nearly every cultivating district is deficit in pulses and every addition is a welcome one. It is the same for oilseeds (the intention being to reduce India’s import of palm oil) provided the oilseeds suit the agro-ecology and are processed and used locally.

The final aspect of this change in how Beed has allocated its cultivable land has to do with the amount of food the district’s population (that means the 11 talukas with their 1,368 gramas and eight urban centres) needs. In 1995-96 the district had 713,196 hectares of land under food crops and by 2010-11 that area had reduced to 562,029 hectares. In the other direction, in 1995-96 the district had 190,335 hectares under non-food crops and by 2010-11 that area had increased to 429,352 hectares.

Aside from calculations about yield and income, I treated this as an indicator of hectares of food growing capability per unit of population. In 1991 the district population was 1.822 million and in 2011 it was 2.585 million. The indicator I have designed is a quite simple one: food-growing hectare/consumer unit. (A consumer unit is a head of population weighted by quantity of food typically consumed, adapted from the National Sample Survey method.)

Using this indicator, the difference between 1995-96 and 2010-11 is large and stark. The 713,196 food hectares in Beed in 1995-96 provided a cultivable base of 0.47 hectare per population consumer unit. But 15 years later in 2010-11 the food hectares available was 562,029 and those provided a cultivable base of 0.26 hectare per population consumer unit.

What led to such a precipitous reduction? There could be a combination of many factors. Based on what I learned while working on a central government programme, swarajya or self-sufficiency whether for a grama or a district is never part of the intention that guides a ministry of agriculture scheme. Nor is swadeshi – that what is entirely local and indigenous as much as for a material input as for a practice.

Where Beed is concerned, with its 11 talukas there is the possibility that one or more large and more populated talukas (like Georai, Beed, Ashti) are skewing the district’s overall indicator. I will shortly, time permitting, post an update which examines the talukas (Patoda, Shirur and Manjlegaon are entirely rural) and how they contribute to (or not) the ‘Beed syndrome’.

The big climate shift busy India missed

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Climatic classification at district level (1971–2005). Map: Current Science

Climatic classification at district level (1971–2005). Map: Current Science

Quietly, a group of researchers from an institute that guides new thinking in rainfed farming, has published a finding that ought to make India sit up and take notice. They set out to ask whether a twenty-year-old classification of districts according to the climatic patterns observed in them still held true. It doesn’t, and this group from the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) has a remedy. But the startling finding is that there is a recorded climatic shift in about 27% of the geographical area of India.

Not that Current Science, the widely-read and well-respected fortnightly journal published by the Current Science Association (with the Indian Academy of Sciences) put it that dramatically. An eighty-one-year-old journal prefers drama in theatre and not as a by-product of scientific inquiry. Nonetheless, the finding is there and it is published, in Volume 105, Number 4, the issued dated 2013 August 25.

The problem has to do with how district-level planning can best be done – I am moulding this problem a bit to fit my own well-advertised bias against the state as the unit of planning and in favour of the district as the unit. The authors of the innocuously-named paper, ‘Revisiting climatic classification in India: a district-level analysis’, have pointed out that the Planning Commission of India had emphasised the need for district-level plans and the district as the focal unit for development schemes in the Twelfth Five Year Plan.

Only partly correct, for the Commission has been advocating a district-level contribution to planning in possibly every Five Year Plan from the 1980s onwards, although in the Eleventh and Twelfth that earlier conviction has been replaced by a condescension for planning whose origin is not New Delhi, but that really is another complaint altogether.

Earlier studies had indeed brought climatic classifications to the district level, but in those cases climatic data sets used were old (not later than 1970). And that is partly why the climatic classification used by the Ministry of Rural Development when it assesses (or says it does) the eligibility of districts to qualify for the Drought Prone Area Programme and the Desert Development Programme dates back to 1994 (the DPAP and DDP that veteran block development officers are familiar with).

Estimated district-level annual rainfall in millimetres (based on grid data for 1971–2005). Map: Current Science

Estimated district-level annual rainfall in millimetres (based on grid data for 1971–2005). Map: Current Science

No wonder then that this group of researchers, steeped in studying dryish and rainfed districts, chafed at the vintage of the classification. The most important difference observed between the old studies and the CRIDA group’s study was the shift of climate from moist sub-humid/humid to dry sub-humid in Odisha (12 districts), Chhattisgarh (7 districts), Jharkhand (4 districts) and Madhya Pradesh (5 districts) “to a great extent”, as they have said.

There is also a substantial increase of arid region in Gujarat and a decrease of the same type of region in Haryana. Other salient observations include the increase in the semi-arid regions of Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh due to a shift of climate from dry sub-humid to semi-arid. Likewise, the moist sub-humid pockets in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have turned dry sub-humid to a larger extent.

Among various shifts observed by the group, the shift from moist sub-humid to dry sub-humid was the largest (7.23% of the country’s geographical area). About half of the moist sub-humid districts in eastern India (other than West Bengal) became dry sub-humid. A number of humid districts of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh turned moist sub-humid. In Mizoram and Tripura, the shift was towards per-humid from the earlier humid climate.

India-district_moisture_index

The classification methodology.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this finding. In a post titled ‘Rain, districts and agriculture in India, a first calculus’ there is a map. This shows rainfed areas in India occupying some 200 million hectares (that is, over two-fifths of India’s total geographical area) and agriculture that depends on the south-west monsoon (and winter rains) is to be found in about 56% of the total cropped area. The National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) of India has estimated that 77% of pulses, 66% of oilseeds and 45% of cereals are grown under rainfed conditions. And the pioneering work I referred to in that posting also included CRIDA.

There is no doubt that this updated district climatic classification will be vital for all those working at the district level, whether for agricultural planning, for assessment of water demand, preparing measures during times of drought, or determining whether the DPAP and DDP of yesteryear and the RKVY and NFSM of today need recalibrating.

Once again led by first class work at CRIDA, the district as the default administrative unit for development, assessment, planning and enumerating becomes the norm we still fail to adopt. To the 11 of the CRIDA group who really must take a bow for this work, I can only say: well done, for the revolution is at hand.