Tackling the agrarian crisis, differently

V Kumaraswamy | Updated on March 11, 2019

Potent spray: Soil health has been massively compromised in the last four decades

The focus must shift away from sops, to raising farmers’ income by promoting better seeds and rejuvenating soil health

Agrarian crisis is staring on our face and, as usual, a flood of familiar suggestions have resurfaced. The political responses have been on expected lines.

Fixing MSPs (minimum support prices) at 50 per cent over costs is as disastrous as it can get. There is no inherent incentive in cutting down the bill on government or the rest of society. It may be possible in Western societies where 2-10 per cent of farmers depend upon the rest 90 per cent, but not in India where 50 per cent are in agriculture.

The sinking water table, largely due to free electricity, even in the land of five rivers (Punjab) is an example of poor policy-making.

On the contrary, when West Bengal used to charge farmers and residential units the same rate for electricity, the water table in the State was pretty stable as the farmers used the resource judiciously.

The basic problem is that our agriculture sector is producing more than the demand, even when its productivity is way below world standards. And we have compromised the soil health massively in the last four decades, so the costs are increasing way beyond productivity gains.

Wrong formulation

The main impediment in tackling the crisis is the wrong formulation of the problem. Instead of seeking to double the farmers ‘gross’ income, we should seek to raise his “net, net income” — net of costs but, more importantly, net of soil health loss and depreciation.

Let’s see how this can be achieved.

The wastes in our cultivation: Our flood irrigation system which has evolved to cut off oxygen to weeds and thus control their sprouting, has had adverse consequences on plant health also. The excess water washes nutrients, costly chemicals and fertilisers along with it, more than half of these never coming in contact with the plant or root aura. These unutilised chemicals have long-term consequences on soil quality.

SRI (System of Rice Intensification) farmers who have consistently reported higher yields have planted single seedlings with gaps of 20-25 cm (instead of clumps) and shunned flood irrigation — just retaining enough moisture — and reported 80 per cent savings in seeds besides saving 50 per cent water.

Soil health: Excessive chemical application has killed not only the earthworms so necessary for aeration but also microbes and fungus which break down vegetable matter and carbon into essential inputs for plant growth.

These chemicals solidify soil causing easy run-offs. Stronger osmotic pressure of the chemical solution outside the root systems promote reverse osmosis causing the water to flow from roots to soil rather than the other way around causing withering and dryness in some crops.

We need to get a lot more humus into our soil to boost its water retention (without run-offs) to achieve the above and enable stronger roots that can to go deeper and wider and sponge more nutrients besides being naturally more disease resistant.

We need to rotate the crops judiciously with nitrogen fixing legumes/plants, so that the artificial life support of chemicals get replaced with natural manures and supplements in a far more balanced way.

Sir Albert Howard, the author of the Indore experiment, had demonstrated that with just the organic material available within the village — the foliage, crop residues, and animal residues — it is possible to generate all the humus and compost and within it all the chemical required in a more balanced manner at much lesser costs. It might require some reinventing the natural and traditional methods and some re-training.

Trapping more incomes: The Indore experiment reported that a pair of oxen can help generate 1,350 cubic feet of compost, that is, approximately 27 tonnes of manure containing a balanced mixture of essential chemical ingredients. The market price of equivalent weight of urea is about ₹1.45 lakh.

Even if one were to offset the cost of animal keep and downscale the value, it would still leave a net ₹30,000-40,000 of commercial value in the hands of the farmer and village community. Instead, villagers are driving away these to graze unyoked and spending a fortune in ‘importing’ costly fertilisers. A better balance should be attempted.

Rice production is reported to be contributing nearly 15 per cent of world’s methane emission annually. Long-term research should focus on harvesting this thinly spread greenhouse gas like we have done with sunlight.

It is also possible to sequester carbon by traditional methods as modern agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emission.

If these incomes are trapped within the village ecosystem it could lead to better secondary cycle of incomes and enable our villages to make more investments in housing, electricity, healthcare and education, the other social necessities.

Employment potential: Adoption of natural or semi-traditional methods of farming like manual composting and weed control, controlled water charge, focussed pest control, recharge of crop residues are reported by Joel Bourne in his book The End of Plenty to absorb 27 per cent higher labour.

That may be a huge boon by itself for India which desperately needs to create employment.

‘Open sourcing’ research: The current system of research excessively serves only certain sections to the compromise of overall health.

It is focussed on maximising chemical or insecticide sales far beyond optimal levels.

So much so that insecticide companies do not even train the applicators on optimal volumes or safe methods of application. Today, more people may be dying out of their harmful effects than out of farm loan distress.

There is a compelling case for ‘open sourcing’ all agricultural and allied research, even if necessary by the government setting up more facilities under its control as well as opening up trade at least in commodities where we have surplus.

In conclusion, it is possible to more than double the net farm incomes just with better seeds and package of farm practices, cutting down heavily on the artificial ‘boosters’ even while preserving or promoting soil health.

Unfortunately, the measures necessary for this don’t serve some vested interests — political and corporate.

The writer is author of ‘Making Growth Happen in India’.

Published on March 11, 2019

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