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SEARCH FOR RESOLUTION: Ecological roots of India’s farming crisis
Over recent months Raja, a farmer in India’s Tamil Nadu state, has had a change of routine.
Every few days, the 53-year-old leaves his 30-acre farm in the Villupuram district — where he grows a patchwork of rice, sugarcane, coconut trees and vegetables — and joins a small group demonstrating outside government offices and main roads in his village. Raja is one of millions who have joined sustained protests across India’s villages and cities in opposition to three farm laws introduced in September last year. Raja, whose income hasn’t increased for over a decade, says, “Before the software boom of the 1990s, I was earning as much as my engineer friends. Today, I am nowhere.” He’s been selling a 75 kg bag of paddy rice at around Rs 946 ($13), less than the government’s minimum price support, for over 15 years.
Raja worries that the new laws, which weaken price guarantees for certain crops, will leave farmers even more vulnerable. The current laws push for contract farming, wherein farmers enter into legally binding agreements with large corporations and private players. Activists say this will place them in an unequal power relation, as a failure to deliver crops due to harvest loss could even mean loss of land. Ashlesha Khadse, activist and volunteer with Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch, a women farmers group argues the legislation fails to tackle the root causes of the sector’s problems. “The laws don’t mention the environment,” said Khadse. “But the farm crisis today has ecological roots.” She says that today’s problems can be traced back to the 1960s Green Revolution, when the government supported industrial cultivation of specific crops and adopted modern technology to maximize output. India’s food basket was homogenized as certain crops — mainly high-yield varieties of rice, wheat and pulses — were favoured over others.
Land has been left depleted by mono-cultural cultivation of high-yield seed varieties, said Khadse. She believes the costs of inputs needed to keep producing has pushed farmers into a cycle of debt. “The increase in agricultural productivity has come at a tremendous cost to the environment,” said Thomson Jacob, a policy consultant at the Centre for Biodiversity Policy and Law in Chennai. Jacob says these include loss of soil nutrients, excessive irrigation, water scarcity, indiscriminate application of some nutrients and pesticides and loss of agrobiodiversity.
Farmers today are dealing not only with the legacy of the Green Revolution but the added impacts of climate change. Those working in the agricultural sector, which employs over 40% of India’s labor force, grapple with drought and flooding. Research shows that cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal, along which Tamil Nadu sits, has been rapidly intensifying due to rising temperatures.
Further incentivising mono-culture
Although cultivation practices have been intensified since the Green Revolution, today 82% of Indian farmers still have lands of less than 5 acres (2 hectares). Karthik Gunasekar, an activist with Chennai Climate Action Group, believes a further deregulated market will add pressure to increase output. “These new laws will push mono-cultural farming and unsustainable practices,” said Gunasekar. He argues the laws should be repealed and that price protection should instead be offered for a more diverse range of crops to incentivise their cultivation. Without the security of a base price and poor market linkage, India’s indigenous crops — which are not high-yielding — have fallen out of favor over the years. However, Jacob says that if farmers are given incentives to produce traditional seed varieties then the push for contract farming could be used to help reverse the decline engendered by the Green Revolution.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle