Agonies of India’s Bread Basket - The Farmers
“Jai Jawaan, Jai, Kisaan”
These famous words were used by Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 at a gathering in Delhi. After Jawahar Lal Nehru’s death, Shastri became the second Prime Minister of the country during a deeply turbulent but vitally important period in India’s history. The early 60s were difficult as India lost its first Prime Minister in 1964. The economy was shaky and the euphoria of independence was fading. Morale of the troops was down after a humiliating beating by China in 1962 and there was a food crisis in the country.
Up until then India had relied on imports and food aid to meet its requirements. Two years of severe drought in 1965-66 led to a food shortage in the country as Pakistan waged war on India in 1965. It was during this turmoil that this slogan became a rallying cry for the Indians, whose society was still predominantly agrarian. It let farmers know that they were as important as soldiers, even during times of war. As India won the war with Pakistan, it also laid the foundations for rapid growth in the agricultural sector.
Adopting new technology over the 70s and 80s ensured that India turned its food deficit production into a surplus. Today, it is one of the highest producers and exporters of food in the world. This is not surprising given India’s fertile land, suitable climate and seemingly infinite manpower. But the fact remains that despite the initial advancements, India experiences some of the highest food losses due to poor infrastructure and unorganised retail and is also home to a quarter of the world’s hungry people.
The GDP share of agriculture in the economy steadily declined from 43% in 1970 to 16% in 2011 and has remained around that mark since. This could explain the apathetic approach by the government to make real changes to improve the farmer’s quality of life. This does not imply any diminished importance of agriculture to India though, as agriculture is still the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s population. So then, why are over ten thousand people in the farming sector being driven to kill themselves every year?
The Indian Farmer contributes a lot more to the economy than the GDP suggests. The GDP sets the parameters of success and growth for our country without encapsulating what those parameters should really be given the natural resource capacity for our country and its farmers. Thus, the farmers have never really been looked out for, only the productivity is measured as an output of the farmer.
The most common cause of farmer suicide is inability to pay back debt. The farmer economy in general is under a lot of debt, especially with diminishing resources. A huge amount of labour could move away from agriculture as they get more intertwined in debt circles. Another practice that this could lead to is that of monocropping. Normally, a number of different crops are grown on a piece of land to maintain its productivity and fertility. Under monocropping, a single crop is grown repeatedly to maximize profits but that is highly unsustainable and leads to soil erosion and poor quality of future crops. This is a double whammy for an already eroding topsoil. Genetically modified (GM) seeds, brought in to protect plant growth against natural calamities, lead to further degradation of the soil. GM seeds are often more expensive to buy, increase the debt burden on the farmer and lead to ecological disruption by changing the composition of the soil.
Crop failure is the major factor that makes debt unmanageable. Due to India’s poor artificial irrigation facilities, almost 80% of the farmland relies on flooding during the monsoon season. Inadequate rainfall can cause draughts, making crop failure common. Regions affected by draught have seen suicide rates increase. As the coronavirus threatens to disrupt the monsoon season entirely this year, it could be a catalyst for many farmers already on the brink. Transportation channels are crippled and immediate cash flows are difficult as the country is on stand still. It’s a logistical nightmare for the farmers to be able to distribute all of their produce. This can transition a farmer to the suicidal stage much faster. We have already seen desperation creep into society as daily wage workers could not afford to sustain themselves in bigger cities without sustained work. The industry is so brittle that sudden extremities of the market (like the coronavirus) magnify the already existent debt burden on the farmer, making it seemingly impossible to manage.
A situation arises where the farmer has invested on harvest for the season but is now unable to make sales. This disrupts the next season for him as more loans will be needed for next season’s harvest, along with the hope of everything running smoothly. The scary part about this is that for most farmers, the best-case scenario is the only conceivable scenario they can afford. The situation that is being created is such that the food prices will rise considerably or else farmers will be forced to find alternate sources of income at a much faster rate than they are already.
Since this problem started getting media attention during the 90s, the number of farmer suicides has been over ten thousand almost every single year. The corrupt ways of our political machinery have their own part to play, of course. Time and again, politicians promise farmers subsidies and loan waivers. While unsustainable, it may bring short term relief to those who find themselves drowning under the sea of debt.
Unsurprisingly, the reality is that very little of the money actually reaches the hands of the farmers. According to reports published by the central government and the National Crime Reports Bureau, most of the relief subsidies from 1993 to 2018 went to producers and dealers of seeds and fertilizers instead of farmers. Rs. 35,000 crores of farmer loans and subsidies were given to entities in New Delhi and Chandigarh in 2017, cities that do not have any farmers. 60% of farmer loans and subsidies in Maharashtra were given to people and entities residing in Mumbai. This has resulted in money being circulated between the government, banks, large and small corporations and politicians, without any of it reaching farmers, aggravating their woes. Most farmer loans being of less than Rs. 50,000, it is frustrating to see so many lives being lost over this.
These difficulties have caused a shift in society as we see the traditional household evolve to try and meet the financial challenges put to them. As families grow and it becomes more and more apparent that their piece of land will not be enough to sustain them all, male members of the family are forced to move to cities to find alternate sources of livelihood. This is causing an increase in women lead households along with the rise production of cash crops which are labour intensive in nature. Women performing tasks is a shift from the traditional family unit of India where the male provides financially and the female maintains the household. Due to increasing debt burden on such families, the women often bear the dual burden of maintaining the farm and household while the husband is in the city trying to earn an additional income. Often children too start to help out at an early age at the cost of education.
The structures in place mainly help the export community, where there is a surety of purchase. The vastness of our country and the decentralized distribution system makes it difficult for the relief to actually reach the people in need.
Better communication channels need to be created to improve decision making so that the system can better absorb shocks of irregularities (like the coronavirus and draughts) and ease the bottlenecks of distribution. A Panchayat system can be put in place with a direct democratic approach for decisions. Heavy resource deployment can be made directly to them to empower the local communities to help each other instead of waiting helplessly for aid that may never arrive. It allows for a more immediate and proactive solution that could improve the time lag between the irregularities and the support for the farmers. Farming practices have room to become more sustainable once the debt burden is taken off the farmers, ensuring diversity of crops and fertility of the soil.
With the right infrastructure in place, hemp can boost the agricultural economy. Making it available to grow can provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the farmers. But we need to be wary of monocropping. Most of Indian farmers are marginal farmers, which means that they have less than 3 acres of land. Panchayat systems can ensure optimal rotation of crops as well as distribution of crops. This system can be a great organisational tool to uplift and empower local communities. As legal barriers open up, and cultivation plants began to grow, the apprehension of farmers will fall as well. A farmer doesn’t just shift to making hemp one day. He needs to be educated in the cycles of crop growth for a new plant. He needs to be aware of an existing demand. Locals seem to know that while illegal, this abundantly grown plant has many uses.
This plant grows abundantly in the wild in India. While some states burn it all, some sell it to other companies that further utilize it. It is a massive resource that grows naturally that we are not making use of. Hemp can be used to ease the burden that the garments industry causes. Creation of dyes and most fabrics is highly polluting. Farmers and indigo cultivators could work together to raise India’s shareholding of the world’s output of sustainable fabrics. Pharmaceutical companies would represent another way of ensuring adequate demand to incentivize the farmers to learn and grow the crop.
Currently, two states in India have legalized cultivation of hemp which has THC of no more than 0.3%. Getting that consistency is extremely difficult and cumbersome. Crops with THC higher than that would have to be destroyed. This has created a very monopolistic economy where very few companies have been able to cultivate a strain that ensures a lower THC percentage. They own all the crops that the farmers make for them and the farmers are benefited in this process either. A more lenient policy would allow for a more open economy, where farmers are able to cultivate freely and companies are can further research and process it to maximize its potential.
The UN protects certain medicinal and food use of the plant in many areas under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Technically it overpowers the NDPS in certain cases too but a lack of awareness and enforceability has made it largely ineffective in India. The coronavirus has represented us with an opportunity to scrutinize and modify the systems in place to elevate the lives of farmers and empower rural communities. It is an opportunity to introduce the benefits of hemp into the economy for the next generation of farmers. Over half a century on, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s words are especially applicable today.
Read our previous blogs to find out more about the hemp farming and how it is affected by the legal structure and why there is a high need to address the farmers' issue.
We at Himalayan Hemp are working to educate the public and farmers on every level. Have a look around our website to become a part of the Indian hemp revolution.
(1) - http://www.fao.org/india/fao-in-india/india-at-a-glance/en/
(2) - https://www.ibef.org/industry/agriculture-india.aspx