Eating into the rural economy

Mukul Kumar Shukla | Updated on March 12, 2018

Nilgais at work At man's expense

Nilgais at work At mans expense

The once-elusive nilgai runs amok, helping itself freely to painstakingly nurtured agricultural crops

Whenever I take a train from Vaishali or Patna in Bihar to Delhi, I see tall, bull-sized animals in herds of no less than 10 or 15, merrily grazing on the tender leaves of precious crops such as rice, wheat, pulses, maize – and everything that humans grow and consume.

These are the nilgai, once not so easily spotted, which would keep their distance from human habitation.

In my own village, called Jalalpur as well as Vishnupur Gambhir, located in the Lalganj police station area of Vaishali district in Bihar, nilgais come 20 to 50 strong, their calves included.

While adults consume the leaves on the tops of plants, the calves polish off the lower-level leaves. Their raids continue through day and night; they stop only when the sun is too bright or the nights are too dark. On moonlit nights, they have a field day. There is no respite for farmers, exhausted from toiling during the day.

“This nilgai animal has taken away all the happiness in life. Ninety per cent of my time is spent protecting my vegetable crops, the mainstay of my livelihood,” says Rambabu Rai, a Yadav farmer, who produces ghia (bottle gourd) and karela (bitter gourd) on a two-acre plot of leased land.

Nilgais appeared in my village sometime in 1993-94. About a dozen of them walked into our farmlands, located along the banks of the river Gandak. Their arrival was hailed as the dawn of a ‘golden era’ ( Ma Lakshmi aa gayi hai) by some superstitious farmers. They came, they stayed, they multiplied.

Golden era gone sour

Soon, they started wreaking havoc on wheat, barley, paddy, maize, sugarcane, pulses and other major crops. They would devour banana plantations and eat small mango and litchi plants.

They can reach up to low-hanging fruits and vegetables by standing on their hind legs.

Bablu Shukla, a small farmer, took a ₹2 lakh loan in 2002 to do large-scale farming on 50 acres — some of the land was his and some leased.

He planted sugarcane on 10 acres, maize on 10 acres, masoor dal on 5 acres, and wheat on 25 acres. The nilgais cleaned out the sugarcane, maize, and masoor crops. The wheat was damaged, but since it is sturdy, some of it was saved.

Shukla’s been living in debt ever since. However, his father, a retired junior commissioned officer (JCO) of the Indian Army, bought him a tractor, and that has helped him earn an income and repay his debts slowly. But not everyone is as lucky as Shukla.

Multiplier effect

There are numerous cases of small farmers who have had to sell off their lands to pay their debts. The loans people take in my village, as in the hundreds of thousands of villages around the country, are not from banks and other institutions, but from usurious money-lenders who charge interest rates of anything between ₹2 and ₹5 a month for every 100 rupees.

This financial debacle has had a multiplier impact. Paddy is grown only in a limited upland area of the village where it can be protected. Wheat, being a sturdy crop, is the crop of choice for most farmers. Some farmers also grow mustard because its bitter leaves are not a delicacy for the nilgai. But no one dares to grow winter maize or masoor, except in very small plots of half or one-fourth an acre.

This deliberate move to shrink production unleashes its own dynamics on the village population. Income and nutrition levels have fallen because little is grown these days and the production of pulses, still the only means of protein for most villagers, has almost stopped.

In the absence of year-round work, that was earlier provided by the raising of spring and summer pulses, maize and oilseeds crops, and sowing of paddy in the diara (alluvial soil)areas, most of the farm hands have had to migrate to urban centres in search of work.

And yet farmers are by law not allowed to kill the nilgais. These animals fall in the category of protected species under the Wild Life Protection Act 1972.

When the Act was passed, India had a large population of tigers, cheetahs, leopards, and wolves to contain the population of these animals.

Since 1972, however, predatory animals have vastly declined in number. This has facilitated the unbridled growth of the nilgai all over the country. And the law-makers’ indifference to this reality has triggered chaos in the rural economy.

The writer is an independent journalist

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Published on July 25, 2014
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