One hot April day this year, we found ourselves in a village deep in the emerging corn belt of India in Bihar’s Khagaria district.
We were a bunch of academics, sent on a quest by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development into this chronically poor and flood-prone area between the Ganga and the Kosi, to try and find what makes some of our citizens poor, and what kind of interventions can help them join the mainstream.
All around us was land bearing standing maize crop, dotted with a few banana groves and, more rarely, with plots just harvested of wheat. From a village anganwadi a stream of chattering young children rushed out after having eaten their daily khichdi . The women of the locality gathered around us and photographs were taken with our mobile phone amid much excitement.
Furnished with a charpai (cot), the porch of the building served as a community space for our chat. The sweltering heat gave way to a fierce thunderstorm. Electricity was a rarity in these villages but a few solar-bulbs had been distributed free to some households.
Our farmer friends seemed very pleased with the unexpected rain, because the shower would save them considerable cost on diesel used to power irrigation pumps. Few had smart phones to capture the advance weather warning that had been actually sent.
Fearing floods, the farmers of this region hardly sowed rice in the kharif season but they grew fodder for their animals even if that required leasing additional land. Almost all possessed a couple of cows or so. While some milk for the family was ensured, milk sale by our calculations almost never brought cash returns.
Rather, it was the sale of calves that tended to make up for the loss. This was in spite of the successful state cooperative and the dairy company that bought milk from them at largely administered prices.
Similarly, wheat helped mostly to meet family needs. It was maize that appeared remarkable in commercial returns but with average plots — even including leased land — rarely exceeding five bighas, it was amazing that the cash generated sustained the families.
So what made some of the people migrate? Farmers rued that villagers do not like farm work and asked for high wages, making farming quite unviable. The landless indulged in farm labour only under dire compulsion.
Asked about MGNREGA they all echoed that it was welcome but sadly the funds had dried up. Moreover, when operating, it was producing assets they did not require, while their own needs went unmet. Subsistence farming, a life-saving food security system, income from cities from migrant members and above all, a lively community life kept things going here.
Yet the people were not complacent. It was exhilarating to see a bunch of young boys and girls learning algebra in a shed. People wanted local employment for their younger generation and community driven development.
No agro processor was seen in the vicinity, only traders. Yet there is some hope that the relief from hunger pangs could help small farmers focus on commercial production. Perhaps, plants for processing their produce where they will be partners could be an answer?
The writers are with the Institute of Economic Growth