In A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future Through Her Villages, Feroze Varun Gandhi argues that for India to become a truly developed nation, the villages need to be given the attention due to them. Here is an edited excerpt:
A farmer cannot work without applying his mind. He must be able to test the nature of his soil, must watch changes of weather, must know how to manipulate his plough skillfully and be generally familiar with the movements of the stars, the sun and the moon. The farmer knows enough of astronomy, geography and geology to serve his needs. Physically, it goes without saying, he is always sturdy. He is his own physician, when ill. Thus, we can see, he does have an educated mind,” Mahatma Gandhi once said.
In our quest for a shining India, apathy has killed our rural equilibrium. Sometimes, statistics help paint the context. According to a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey, 33 per cent of all farm households have less than 0.4 hectares of land. In Sultanpur district, cultivation cost per hectare for wheat has increased by 33 per cent in five years. Such farmers face an uncertain Hobbesian life — poor, brutish and short. A sense of apathy stalks the hinterland. Changing this requires delving deep into the reasons why marginal agriculture is increasingly uneconomic; gaining a sense of how agricultural input costs simply make our existing cropping pattern unviable. In addition, we need to understand how the access to clean water, the availability of cheap electricity and cooking fuel, and the support of a robust agricultural marketing system enabling price discovery, will play a role in pushing the produce to the market.
It is often assumed that villages stand apart from external trade and commerce, ignored by regional, national and international trading routes. However, other than in non-tribal areas, this is patently untrue—consider villages in Gujarat, Kerala and the Coromandel region, which fostered maritime commerce with the West, trading indigo, cotton, wheat, rice, honey, ginger and spices. Inter-regional trade between villages too remains a historical fact, references to the Kabuliwallah aside. Gujarat has historically purchased its wheat and opium from the Malwa Plateau, rice and coconuts from the Konkan and drugs from the Himalayan foothills. Most Indian villages still produce commodities that are sold to the regional or national market, receiving various goods like salt, spices, clothing, metals and ornaments in return. The American Civil War led to a cotton boom in Gujarat and the former Central Provinces, bringing prosperity and technological advancement. The idea that villages, in this day and age, stand apart from macroeconomic and policy trends, is facile. Indian villages have always been part of a wider entity, affected by roughly built for unpaved roads, limited urban job creation and political dysfunction. This illusion needs to be dispelled.
Inder Singh, a marginal farmer near Orchha, in Tikamgarh district, amidst the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, has a few critical decisions to make before the planting season each year. Bordering a picturesque landscape surrounded by monuments built by the Bundela Rajputs, he faces destitution on an annual basis. Last year’s rabi crop was destroyed prior to harvesting, due to extremely hot weather and drought conditions. His loans, covering seeds, fertilisers, crop protection chemicals and machinery lease, required restructuring. Another fallow year could drive him to abandonment.
Bundelkhand’s soil covers an impervious rock found at a depth of 6–15 m; it proffers little in organic content or moisture retention. Its soil type is variable, changing every 100 m, while the land is undulating. Some varieties of it, called pahari, found over granite, have little phosphorus or nitrogen content, rendering them unsuitable for farming. Another variety, the parua soil (a yellowish variety of red iron-rich soil) offers some clay and considerable sand — a challenge for all crops except wheat. Black soil, highly prized, is found in limited quantities — kabar, a variety with highclay content, offering greater adhesiveness and moisture retention, is ideal for gram and jowar. Mar, another variety, is prone to waterlogging but offers high organic content, enabling cropping without any fertilisers, and which supports wheat, rice and gram. The region also suffers from significant soil erosion, particularly in Banda, Datia and Hamirpur districts. Its numerous rivers and streams, bifurcated by many nullahs, cut away at the top soil. Of Banda district’s 1,722,000 hectares of catchment area, 120,000 hectares were affected by soil erosion (Banda District Gazetteer, 1977, p. 93). With rainfall typically averaging just 930 mm, and most of it concentrated in the monsoon, Orchha and its surrounding areas are typically restricted in cropping choices.
For Inder Singh, there is a host of decisions to make. Should he consider planting annual crops, those producing seeds and dying within the season (e.g. rice, maize, wheat), or should he consider branching out to perennial crops like sugarcane, living for three to four years, and occupying fallow land for more than thirty months? Does he want shorter timelines — pulses only need seventy-five days to grow, but mustard and cotton can occupy nearly 150 days of the year. When should he time his initial tillage (the ideal timing for tillage is usually at 60 per cent of the field capacity)?
Any crop-selection decision would also require an identification of crop usability. To restore crop fertility, restorative crops such as legumes could be utilised to fix nitrogen in root nodules helping to enliven the soil conditions. Other crops can help prevent soil surface erosion through root mats and foliage (Example: groundnut, sweet potato). Yet other crops could help guard his main produce from trespassing or wind damage (gram surrounded by safflower, cotton surrounded by sorghum). And others could help suppress weed growth through extensive foliage suffocating or obscuring any weeds (mustard, cowpea).
A slight mistake in decision-making can wreak significant havoc. Marginal farmers like Harishchandra Sapkal in Latur district, Maharashtra, planting sugar cane on plots no more than 1.5 acres, have had years of savings wiped out by a bad cropping decision. He invested nearly Rs 4 lakh over three years, seeking to move away from risk-averse soyabean and tur to sugar cane, given the handsome returns from the nearby sugar mill. With Latur experiencing little, if any, rain over the past few years, his entire crop has failed, leaving him with little fodder to sustain his livestock. Over 5,000 farmers, spread across 45,000 hectares, are in a similar predicament in the district, with rainfall averaging 50 per cent less than normal.
Even seemingly risk-averse crops can go wrong. Guar, a drought-tolerant crop, grown primarily in Rajasthan, Haryana and parts of Punjab, is typically sown towards July and harvested by November. In many ways, it is an ideal drought crop with little water requirement, a ninety-day maturation period and low input costs; it also fixes nitrogen level, boosting soil fertility. Its seeds contain about 35 per cent endosperm, which is ground and processed into a gum, while the remaining husk and germ are processed into cattle feed called korma and churi. The gum is used as a thickening agent for fracking fluid, a copious cocktail of water, suspended sands and chemicals, which is injected at high pressure into shale rock formations to induce oil and gas to flow out of them. Since 2012, guar was being stockpiled by oil servicing companies for the production of this thickening agent, resulting in guar prices rising from $2,000 per tonne to $30,000 per tonne. By March 21, 2012, guar was costing Rs 30,432 per quintal in Jodhpur. Planting of guar nearly doubled in acreage in Rajasthan over 2011–12 and 2013–14, rising from 30.94 lakh hectares to 50.70 lakh hectares. However, the collapse in oil price, along with a removal of export subsidies under the Gram Udyog Yojana led to a steep decline, with guar prices winding down to $1,200 per tonne. Meanwhile, seed prices had risen by 40 per cent in 2015 given fears of unseasonal rain and hail. Farmers like Hari Singh in Rajasthan who had benefited in the boom years, are now forced to store their guar crop in warehouses until markets recover.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Rupa Publications