Agriculture Left to Die at India’s Peril

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

MOLASUR, INDIA — It was Pongal a couple weeks ago, the Tamil harvest festival, and villages around here were alive with temple music and firecrackers. Tractors were scrubbed down, shiny, and cows were decked out in flowers.

Pongal is a joyful holiday, a time of thanksgiving. For three days, the countryside was in a festive mood. The monsoons have been abundant this year. Village tanks are overflowing. Fields are green with rice.

The celebrations masked a grimmer reality. Agriculture in this area, and in much of India, is dying. The village economy is in crisis, assailed by migration to the cities, decades of ecological neglect, and the growing unsustainability of farming.

The scientist M.S. Swaminathan, often referred to as the father of India’s green revolution, has spoken of a “disaster” in Indian agriculture. The sociologist Dipankar Gupta has written of “hollowed” villages.

According to a recent report in The Hindu newspaper, almost 200,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2009 — a national tragedy (although it is rarely treated as such) brought on by rising debt and the resulting economic and existential despair.

Earlier this week, President Pratibha Patil called for “a second green revolution” to stem spiraling food prices and declining supplies. Such calls have emotional resonance in a country that still remembers the humiliation of American food aid in the 1960s. It’s not clear, however, how Ms. Patil’s goal can be achieved. The forces arrayed against Indian farming are formidable; they are part of the country’s great leap toward modernity.

A few months ago, before the monsoons, when the fields were still barren, I met a man named A.P. Govindan in the South Indian village of Molasur. He was 56 years old. He was wearing the white robes and prayer beads of a holy man, but he called himself a farmer. Agriculture was in his blood: his father and his grandfather had worked the land, and their parents, too. Mr. Govindan and his brothers grew up in the fields, plowing and sowing a two-hectare, or five-acre, plot of land owned by the family.

In truth, Mr. Govindan wasn’t a farmer anymore. He quit the profession around 10 years ago, with his family in economic distress. Now he worked two jobs. In the mornings and evenings, he collected milk from surrounding villages for a milk processing company. He also worked during religious festivals at local temples, piercing the tongues and eyelids and stomachs of pilgrims eager to prove their devotion.

Change had crept up on Mr. Govindan gradually, almost imperceptibly. He could still remember a time when his land had been fertile enough not only to feed a family, but also to provide a healthy income. For a while, in the ’70s, when the green revolution introduced new fertilizers and pesticides, yields actually went up. Back then, farming seemed to have a bright future.

By the late ’80s, the chemicals had started taking a toll. Mr. Govindan’s land dried up. Yields declined. Mr. Govindan said the quality of his crops did, too. In the old days, he told me, if you cooked too much rice for dinner you could keep it overnight and eat it the next day for breakfast. Now, rice from the fields around Molasur turned rotten overnight.

Other things had changed: labor was more expensive, the price of fertilizers and seeds had increased, and the overall cost of living had outstripped the rise in crop prices. It was also harder to irrigate the land. Twenty years ago, the water table was high. Even a cow could pull water from the shallow wells that dotted the area. But as farmers started using diesel and electric pumps, the water table declined. Now only farmers with the most powerful (and expensive) pumps can reach deep enough to irrigate their fields.

All these difficulties conspired to push Mr. Govindan out of farming. He wasn’t alone. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of farmers have quit their profession in this area. Across the country, almost eight million people left agriculture between 1991 and 2001, when the last Indian census was conducted. The next census, due in 2011, is likely to reveal an even bigger exodus.

In many ways, these men and women are on the wrong side of history — relics in a country where the center of gravity is moving to the cities, anachronisms and even embarrassments to a population consumed with visions of a 21st century knowledge economy.

Since the late ’90s, when agriculture represented more than a quarter of the nation’s G.D.P., its share has dipped to just over 16 percent. Over the last five years, the Indian economy as a whole has grown more than three times as fast as agriculture. The trend is clear: agriculture is being squeezed out of the new India.

Still, over 70 percent of the nation lives in the countryside, and, for all its decline, agriculture accounts for more than half the nation’s jobs. It’s not clear that the Indian economy — new or old — is sustainable without a solution to the problems confronting agriculture. The farming crisis is really a national crisis.

In Molasur, Mr. Govindan said he had ended up all right. He made a decent living, and his sons also had good jobs. They had never set foot on a farm. But he told me he wondered about all the farmers that would quit their fields in the coming years. Would there be enough jobs for them? Would they be able to partake in the opportunities of the new India?

Mr. Govindan wondered about something else, too. Farming had always seemed a special profession to him, with a vital, even noble, role in feeding the nation. He wondered why the country didn’t see it that way anymore. Just the previous night, he had watched Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on television, assuring the nation that it wouldn’t face food shortages. Mr. Govindan felt something didn’t add up. He pointed to the barren fields; he said you couldn’t even grow peanuts on them anymore. “I don’t understand,” he said, “Where is all the food supposed to come from?”

  1. Pranav says:

    Hi Akash,

    good points – but there are ways out. We need to go organic. For a success story from south India see http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/in-paper-magazine/encounter/farming-without-pesticides-410

    As regards water management, see http://www.ted.com/talks/anupam_mishra_the_ancient_ingenuity_of_water_harvesting.html

  2. Vivek ji says:

    Dear Akash

    Very good piece.

    But whom shall we question?? Policy makers? or us who are behind the cheap food policy?? Food security is one of the biggest achievement for any country ….perhaps we are loosing our grip.

  3. sunil says:

    hi akash
    very well written piece in the IHT today. I agree with most parts of it — yields declining due to overuse of pesticides, groundwater levels dropping, not enough investment in irrigation/rain water harvesting, the impact of industrial pollution — but there are also areas across the country that have seen major improvements. If you look at agriculture as a percentage of national income, it is certainly falling, but that’s deceptive because GDP has risen due to the boom in services. Over the last four years, food output has increased by several million tonnes, and there’s data to back that up.

  4. Terra Brockman says:

    The last thing India (or any country, especially those in Africa) needs is another chemical-dependent “Green Revolution.” As you show in your excellent piece in the NYT today, that misguided 20th century “revolution” had extremely short term benefits (increased yields), followed by decades of long term deleterious effects which have reached a crisis point: drastically falling water tables, loss of soil fertility, food insecurity, poor food quality (your report is the first time I’ve heard that the high-yielding varieties of rice rot overnight), loss of jobs in rural areas, and the hollowing of the countryside. It should be the priority of every government, from the village level to the national level, to ensure its people can feed themselves wholesome foods without destroying the very soil and water that our survival depends upon. In other words, what we desperately need is not the old, failed model for a green revolution, but rather to adopt a TRULY Green Revolution — one in which “green” has its 21st century meaning: self-sustaining, energy efficient, and non-polluting. This truly sustainable agriculture rejects “inputs” (biotech, chemical or other), and instead relies upon the specific biological and ecological systems of each place and the traditional knowledge of the people. This is the only hope for the future — and the only way to answer Mr. Govindan’s excellent question about where the food will come. High quality local foods will come from each community if their governments embrace and encourage food self-sufficiency as their highest priority. If not, it will come from large multinationals and we will be as disasterously dependent on foreign sources of food as we are on foreign sources of fossil fuels.

  5. Vijay Krishna says:

    I read your article in NYtimes today. I agree agriculture in India is facing terrible crisis which is also exacerbating other problems like poverty, malnourshiment, vilolence and law and order.
    Here are some of the causes for problems in agriculture in India:
    1. Most farms are small: about one or two acres each which means that farmers are also poor and cannot afford to either buy or rent things like Tractors, Fertilizers etc.. that are necessary to get good yield and make a profit by farming.
    2. Because our farmers are not able to make good yields, they get into a cycle of debt from which they can never get out.
    3. Because farmers also have children (our country failed completely to control the population), these already small farms will get further divided into smaller farms.
    4. Our farmers are very much dependent on monsoons because of lack of irrigation schemes.
    5. Most of the water that falls as monsoon rains will get wasted because of lack of proper storage facilities and irrigation schemes.
    6. Because of climate change the monsoons are going to be uneven. There will be more severe droughts and more severe floods, like that happened last year in South India. Both will do lot of damage to already worse situation.

    Because of all the above problems status quo cannot be maintained in agriculture. If we cannot reform agriculture we cannot get rid of poverty. If we cannot get rid of poverty there will be rise in violence since the gap between rich and poor will only increase. So here are the possible ways to reform agriculture and thus end poverty.

    1. Give good quality education to every kid irrespective of their economic situation. Giving good quality education will improve agriculture because it will help people finding jobs in cities and towns in a more constructive and reliable manner rather than running to cities to get away from poverty. Thus it will help in reducing number of people dependent on agriculture for livelihood.
    2. Provide equal education and employment opportunities for girls also. Encourage the concept of equality. If we provide education and employment to women, women will have more say in when to give birth and also in economic matters.
    3. We see that many poor families are still having more than two children. There fore we should encourage the use of birth control techniques like using contraceptives. How ever we should not encourage abortions any more because it is leading to unequal sex ratios.
    If we encourage birth control, we will be able to reduce population dependent on land, and thus we can improve the size of farms.
    4. Encourage research for and implement better water management techniques. We should avoid building large dams since i is leading to following irreversible problems: Further destruction of forests thus increasing soil erosion and exacerbating climate change, and also displacement of large number of people who have knowledge of any trade other than agriculture thus worsening the violence in society.
    5. Staying on the denial about climate change by our government and media is doing lot of bad for our country than good since it is doing lot of damage to agriculture. We should encourage policies like re-forestration, and also work constructively with other nations in dealing with climate change.
    6. Get rid of GDP as a measurement of economic progress. It is not straight forward and it is leading us to wrong sense of security. Only measurement should be the number of poor (not even percentage of poor). Then only we could be able to reduce poverty by looking at the problem in the face and get rid of poverty.

    Problems in agriculture are already showing up as high food prices. We managed to avoid since 1960’s due to implementing green revolution. However we will face it now If cannot reform. agriculture.

  6. Raman Kumar says:

    It is an abject negelect attitude towards agriculture by the people and the govt, that has brought down this sector so bad. I feel terrible when I hear about farmer suicide and also feel ashamed that I am feeding my stomach with the food produced by such farmers.

    I have no sympathy for the rest of the non-farming population that is partying now while farmers are dying. The day is not far when we will be just left with paper notes with no commodities available.

    People, govt and media showed so much sympathy for natural calamities like earth quakes but no one came forward to help these poor farmers who were forced to suicide.

  7. Murty says:

    Re: In the old days, he told me, if you cooked too much rice for dinner you could keep it overnight and eat it the next day for breakfast. Now, rice from the fields around Molasur turned rotten overnight.

    This is just one farmer’s personal observation, and does not make sense to me. If you grew up in a hot place like Vijayawada, you will know how quickly the food rots whether in olden days, or modern days. Generally, aging people opine that their younger days were better. I remember my school days when my mother made us eat left over unrefrigerated rice from the night before. It was pretty rotten then as it would be now. We used to make that rice more palatable by adding butter milk, and Andhra pickle. It was a quick breakfast and gave us instant energy. Centuries ago, the Europeans did the same thing when they did not know refrigeration. They used to take spices from India and add to their rotting meat to mask the smell of rotting.
    I am sorry I must disagree with your farmer’s opinion about his rotting rice.

  8. Jay Nair says:

    Just came across your piece in NYT today. A well written piece. The way farming is done in India is unsustainable and that is the primary reason why there is so much problem in Agriculture. A number of those problems have been enunciated above by one of the commenters (Mr. Vijay Krishna). There are many more. Some of these problems are endemic while many are due to poor planning and policies lacking a vision. India can no longer afford to just romanticize that 70% of our population lives in the villages (as some old Hindi movies did) and then do nothing about it! Even Bollywood has forsaken the farmers – look at how many movies are made these days with a village theme. It is necessary to move a portion of the people in the villages into cities or bring similar service and manufacturing jobs to the hinterlands to move people away from farming to other productive activities. At the same time, farming productivity needs to improve by leaps and bounds to meet the needs of the country. The output per hectare needs to rise significantly which will require mechanised farming rather than animal based. This would mean that farmland area per person be much higher than what it is today. This is a complicted problem. The policy makers have latched on to the need to move people to the cities and so decided to ignore the other pieces needed to make Agriculture work. At the same time they have failed to make the cities livable as well. All in all, it is a mess. Although not perfect, China has done a much better job moving people from agriculture to manufacturing. We need policy makers with better vision and better implementation skills to make it happen in India.

  9. Iknow says:

    I loved your piece, there is one thing everyone must know…. the next major wars will be fought on water and food, and india by blindly running towards modernisation is literaly cutting its on feet. Green natural farming at village level (not industrial farming) has to be made the priority of any country if it wants to survive as an idependent country, otherwise there will come a time when you will be lining up for handouts from powerful foreign interests like multinationals and corporations in the food business whos aim is to destroy every countrys farming base so that they may be able to dictate their will over every country, and they have succeded well so far in doing this, wake up people!

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