Bitter Harvest for Indian Farmers

BRICS, 19 Dec 2016

Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

“If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture.”
— Bill Gates

 15 Dec 2016 – The naked and cruel truth about India is that agriculture remains its Achilles’ heel. It is a source of livelihood for hundreds of millions of people but a fraction of the nation’s total economy and a symbol of its perennial distress. Though India has the second largest agricultural land area in the world, hardly two fifth or forty percent of the agricultural land is irrigated. Also, even though the country boasts of being the highest producer of many major agricultural commodities in the world, it suffers from low productivity.

The average size of holdings for all operational classes (small & marginal, medium and large) have declined over the years and for all classes put together it has come down to 1.2 in 2010-11 from 2.3 hectare in 1970-71.  No more than 4.9% of farmers control 32% of India’s farmland. A “large” farmer in India has 45 times more land than the “marginal” farmer

Even though this land-human ratio in India is better compared to some of the developed countries like Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium and even China, other factors like very low yields and low levels of industrialization in India compound the problem of population pressure on agricultural land. Even if the maximum irrigation potential is realized, around 86.5 mHa of gross cropped area will remain under rain fed conditions.

With soil fertility devastated, underground water table plummeting as a result of relentless water mining, environmental contamination from excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides    has led to increased salinity of soil making it even more unsuitable for agriculture.  According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, India is losing 5.3 million tonnes of soil every year because of the indiscreet and excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides.. The entire farming equation has gone wrong.

Most cotton farmers do not rotate crops nor leave enough time for the soil to naturally replenish. Instead, farmers hope additional fertilizer will improve the quality of their soil. Thanks to Monsanto blasting through and taking over the seed market, other cotton seed varieties have died on the vine and are hardly available anymore in cotton growing regions  . We must keep in mind that these farmers have been growing cotton for centuries, and were always able to eke out a living.   

Maharashtra receives about 600 mm of rainfall of which only 10% recharges groundwater. This means only 60 mm water is available annually for sustainable water withdrawal — sugarcane needs more than 1,200 mm. Growing sugarcane in drought-prone areas is a recipe for water famine . .. Yet, the area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has gone up from 1,67,000 ha in 1970-71 to 10,22,000 ha in 2011-12. Sugarcane uses about 70 per cent of Marathwada’s irrigation water, according to a state government report, despite accounting for 4 per cent of cultivated land .Marathwada added 20 sugar factories even as villages were supplied drinking water through tankers during periods of great droughts. The State has 205 sugar factories of which 70 are in Marathwada alone.

Maharashtra is the epicenter of India’s farm quagmire and Marathwada belt is a miserable pit. In it, Marathwada has been traditionally prone to droughts. It constitutes 31 per cent crop area of the state but it uses only 14 per cent of the state’s surface water. Western Maharashtra, on the other hand, has 36 per cent crop area of the state, but uses 47 per cent of the water.

Due to skewed policies of the state, Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-à-vis the irrigation potential created. Of the potential land that can be irrigated by dams created in the region, only 38 per cent is actually irrigated. For Vidarbha, this ratio is 47 per cent while for the rest of Maharashtra, it is 76 per cent .The per capita income in Marathwada is 40 per cent lower than the rest of Maharashtra.

.Most farmers in Maharashtra agree that many farmers had   killed themselves in the past and they all agreed on the reasons: there is almost no affordable credit, no social security, and no meaningful crop-insurance program.  Farmers   need credit, but banks will rarely lend to them. “We want to send our children to school .We want to live better. We want to buy equipment. But when the crop fails we cannot pay.” In most cases, there is no choice but to turn to money lenders, and, in villages like Dhoki in Yavatmal, they are often the same people who sell seeds.

The Vidarbha region, in eastern Maharashtra, is among the state’s most underdeveloped areas.  It is largely inhabited by impoverished cotton farmers who are reliant on the region’s scant rainfall for their crop. Uncertain rainfall and the rising costs of farming have made agriculture less and less sustainable in the region, leading to an increase in farmer suicides.

Besides, unlike in Vidarbha where most farmers who committed suicide were over 40 years of age, farmers as young as 23 are killing themselves in Marathwada. Farmers here have a very high sense of esteem. They cannot take the humiliation of not being able to pay the debt or meet social obligations. Also, landholdings here are smaller than that in Vidarbha and farming families are becoming nuclear. Young farmers who have recently taken up the responsibilities of their fields are more vulnerable to psychological pressures.

There are two triggers for the suicides. The first at the time of sowing, when the cash strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can ill afford, so he takes credit. The next is at the time of harvest, when he arrives in the market and realizes that he will not get the price that will enable him to repay the loan. That’s when the desolate fellow has no option but to consume pesticide.

While a broad thread of resentment and disenchantment runs across, we need to plan for development knowing that weather will be more variable and more extreme.  . There is no rocket science here. Build water and drainage infrastructure that can both hold water when there is excess rain and recharge groundwater when rain fails.  A significant portion of the water just runs off.  Areas   that get flooded are the same areas that face droughts   months later.

There is a broad consensus on the need for a coherent farm policy that addresses issues of sustainability and productivity growth in Indian agriculture. The US, a country with a few hundred thousand farmers, debates its farm bills for years. More than six decades after independence, India does not even have a national agriculture policy. There is a need for an integrated approach, which addresses source sustainability, land use management, agricultural strategies, demand management and the distribution and pricing of water. . Compartmentalized responses are unlikely to be adequate to address the current crises.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Dec 2016.

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