Rural distress has many elements to it. A rise in the cost of agricultural inputs, combined with lack of access to irrigation or groundwater resources, and limited provision of electricity can wreak havoc in a marginal farmer’s life.
While we have a range of institutional mechanisms that seek to improve a lot of the marginal farmer, there are local examples of individuals and organizations demonstrating the case for change in the rural economy, as detailed in my book, The Rural Manifesto.
Agricultural scientists like Subhash Palekar, famous for the propagation of the idea of ‘zero budget farming’, have offered training to farmers in Sundargarh district in Odisha, training them on the production of ‘Jeevamruta’, a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, molasses and besan, and organic pesticides (from neem, Karanja, calotropis and garlic leaves).
Farmers have been encouraged to go for multi-cropping, along with adoption of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method in cultivating staple crops like millets and mustard. Yields have improved substantially, rising 10-12 times for the rabi crop in 2017. Young professionals have taken this idea forward in other districts, particularly in villages in and around Latur in Maharashtra.
Other farmers have sought to simply change their cropping pattern. Farmers in Nimbahera, Rajasthan, have sought to cultivate strawberries. Local climatic conditions, soil and water availability have proved to be sufficient to enable its cultivation, while increasing per-acre profit.
Farmers are increasingly tapping into local networks to sell such products in markets like Delhi and Mumbai. The input costs for switching to strawberries can vary between Rs 2-4 lakh for 1bigha (1,618.7 sqm) per land. But such strawberries can be sold in 2 kg packs, at Rs 200 a box.
Groundwater depletion from excess pumping using subsidized water pumps is a significant concern across northern India. Marginal farmers in South Kamrup district, Assam, have increasingly taken to small water pumps, of less than 2 horsepower capacity.
Typically, such farmers invested in shallow tube wells, with 4-6 horsepower pumps, despite water being available at less than 5 m below ground level.
However, unsustainable withdrawals, especially for growing paddy, led to the misuse of the pumps, and a shift to small pumps, which offer a lower capital cost. Such pumps are also lighter and can be easily transported from one marginal farm to another, with lower operating costs than larger pumps.
Also, utilizing local knowledge can also help improve a lot of the marginal farmer. Sikander Meera Nayak, founder of the Sankalpa Rural Development Society in Hubli, Karnataka, helps local farmers revive and upgrade traditional water harvesting structures, combining them with modern techniques to improve water availability.
His NGO has helped implement over 1,130 rainwater harvesting structures, seeking to channel monsoon rains into underground aquifers, via borewells, recharging them and storing water for future use.
Providing access to energy in off-grid areas has been a challenge for decades. Consider the case of salt pan farmers in the Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, where farmers used diesel irrigation pumps to extract brine to conduct salt harvesting. Diesel can typically account for as much as 40- 50% of their total seasonal revenue.
Pilot projects utilizing solar irrigation pumps have highlighted a potential for reducing irrigation costs significantly, with annual savings rising to Rs 70,000-90,000, a150% increase compared to diesel-powered pumps. When the season is done, the solar pumps are often used to power local households.
While the State may have given up on expanding biogas significantly, Nathan, a village in Patan district, Gujarat, has been saving over 500 metric tons of firewood for the last 30 years. Its secret: a biogas plant that has been running since April 25, 1987. The biogas is supplied early morning and evening through underground pipelines to houses. Each house pays Rs 50-100 a month, in addition to a one-time charge for a connection and maintenance.
The biogas plant itself is profitable, with cow dung cheap and plenty, and the plant itself requiring just two people to run it.
For centuries, rural India’s economic strength was based on the agricultural surplus generated by its farmers, and the trade revenues brought in by its entrepreneurs in agriculture, handicrafts, calico and metal work. And, yet, over the last few centuries, its natural competitive advantage vanished. Our agricultural techniques grew outdated, our handicrafts found fewer and fewer markets.
Meanwhile, access to public goods, whether water or energy, was limited, as the population rose. To reinvigorate the rural economy, we must toss aside centrally driven planning and think on a local level. While rural distress certainly prevails, there are plenty of fresh sprouts of hope and change.
By Varun Gandhi