Helping India's Poorest Farmers, One Acre at a Time

In March, I spent a few days in Koraput, a vast, hilly, sparsely populated district in the state of Odisha in the east of India. Few people not native to the region ever visit there: It is almost exclusively known for its poverty and backwardness and has become a kind of emblem of benightedness, the dismal antithesis of an emerging India.

The region, however, has some of the richest biodiversity and is also one of the most distinctive areas demographically (this has something to do with its poverty). More than 60 percent of the people of Koraput are "adivasis," or tribals, indigenous peoples who enjoy (in theory, at least) special privileges under the Indian Constitution, where they are referred to as "Scheduled Tribes." This demarcation itself conceals an enormous internal variety. Koraput is home to as many as 62 different tribes, each with its own myths and mores, but almost all living hand-to-mouth in small villages and hamlets where they try to raise rice on their tiny landholdings or labor for pitiful wages on the estates of non-adivasi farmers.

The land is unyielding. The region's predominant red laterite soil isn't particularly fertile; further, because it is so porous, it holds water badly, erodes swiftly under heavy rainfall, and yields little to the kind of seasonal, rainfed farming that is characteristic of much of monsoon-dependent India. The soil is rich in mineral deposits, but that's of little use to the tribals. In recent years, the region has become the focus of large investments by mining companies. But this is a lopsided model of development that invites land acquisition and the publicity-seeking gestures of corporate social responsibility, and has only meant that the tribals are further susceptible to the likelihood of displacement.

As "marginal farmers," who produce little or no surplus for sale in the market and who often go hungry, the tribals of Koraput live in a shrunken economy with no access to capital, no buffer of savings and frequent indebtedness. They live, too, in a shrunken temporal zone where it's hard to look beyond the immediate needs of subsistence -- toward education, for example -- or even to plan more than a few weeks or months ahead. The 2001 census of India found that more than half of the men in Koraput were illiterate, as were more than a third of the women.

It's hard to see a way to break this vicious cycle of poverty and debilitation. Realists would say, with some truth, that it's one of the hardest challenges for a relatively new nation-state to integrate its indigenous populations -- and India's tribals number more than 80 million, most of them occupying a long, densely forested corridor running across the center of the country -- into the model of industrial civilization, while also protecting their specificity. Some even argue that the two ways of life are incompatible, that it's unfortunate but inevitable that Indian tribals must disproportionately pay the price of progress.

Critics, such as the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, argue that this is a failure that India's state and its better-off citizens need urgently to address.

But even such a debate can degenerate into the abstractions of development-speak. That's why it's good to see that some of the most productive thinking about agriculture, community investments in infrastructure and negotiating the competing pulls of marginal farming and a market economy is being tried in places such as Koraput. Some of this work stems from local nongovernmental organizations. But one of the most promising and holistic of these projects is the brainchild of India's National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. It's called "the wadi project," and in its pilot stages some villages of Koraput have been made the focus of investments from Nabard's Tribal Development Fund.

The project is small in scale, but its smallness is intrinsic to its thinking and its emphasis on building from the bottom up. In essence, it involves transforming the agricultural prospects of small holdings in hard-to-farm regions one acre at a time. It also seeks to introduce a layered system of cash crops and intercropping to farming cultures that practice only monocropping and the cultivation of food staples such as rice and millets.

A "wadi" is a pan-Indian term for a small fruit orchard, usually no larger than one or two acres. Under the wadi program, the bank partners with local NGOs such as BAIF in Gujarat and Agragamee in Odisha, to set up a program of intensive agricultural development with small communities of marginal farmers who have land holdings contiguous with one another. Each farming family "donates" an acre of land to the collective, and agrees to turn it, with small investments from the bank that are part-grant, part-loan, know-how and supervision from the partnering NGO, and its own labor, into a wadi. The window for the partnership is five to seven years, this being the amount of time that it takes for saplings to bear fruit, for the wadis to become sustainable and to merge into the cash-crop economy, and for the farmers to have acquired a wider arsenal of cultivation practices and water-resource management.

I spent an afternoon on two such wadi sites around a village called Dasmantpur. Like most settlements in Koraput, Banasil is no more than a small hamlet. Much of the farmland in and around it is arid, gravelly. A verdant transformation had taken place, however, in the midst of red, parched hills on the 28 acres of land in Banasil taken over as wadis under the supervision of the NGO Agragamee.

It was Friday, the day of the weekly "haat," or local market, and the farmers were away from their fields. Ani Sauntia, the owner of one of the wadis, led me proudly around his land and that of his neighbors, skipping across water channels and vegetable beds. About 60 saplings of mango, cashew and litchi had been planted in evenly spaced rows on each wadi; now in their second year, they were halfway to maturity. Not an inch of space had been left unused; in the pockets between the fruit trees, small pink onions with bright green shoots peeped out of the earth, cheek-by-jowl with the mauve flowers of aubergine plants and patches of young cabbage. This intercropping gives the wadi farmers some produce to work with while the fruit trees mature, and a source of small gains at the weekly markets and, more importantly, a food reserve for the family.

The wadi project is about more than just improving rural livelihoods, acre by acre, in a sustainable way. The transformation it imagines is also structural and, in the end, political. It encourages farmers to aggregate land holdings without giving up ownership, and in this way to build shared capital and take joint responsibility for their successes and failures. This aggregation represents a kind of positive scaling-up for the marginal farmer, almost a form of insurance.

As the Indian academic A.R. Vasavi, who has written on farmer suicides in India, said in an interview: "One of the reasons for farmers to resort to self-destruction or suicide lies in the fact that agriculture is increasingly an individualized experience. Risks and losses have become individualized burdens borne by persons who internalize blame and shame—such as failure of crops, inability to repay loans, and so on—within themselves."

The pressures of those "individualized burdens" are to some extent balanced out by cooperative agricultural projects such as the wadi experiment.

Further, programs such as the wadi project have many positive ripple effects for marginal farmers. It spares them (and urban planners) the agonies of distress migration to the cities, where they would work as daily-wage laborers with no rights. It also provides an alternative model of development to that of the relentless urbanization and industrialization assumed to be the way forward for developing countries with large rural populations such as India. (India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said in an interview: "My vision of a poverty-free India will be an India where a vast majority, something like 85 percent, will eventually live in cities.")

And most vitally, the wadi program provides the families of marginal farmers such as Ani Sauntia with a measure of food security and disposable income, which can be the way to stay clear of a ruinous indebtedness. In the long view, such projects for the revitalization of India's village economies are linked directly to the health of the country's democracy. After all, when a man goes hungry to bed, it is far more likely that he will end up being a subject rather than a citizen.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View.

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