Recently the very tragic suicide of a farmer from Haryana at the protest site on Delhi border drew widespread attention. He left behind a note which stated that the demand for repealing the three contested farm laws should be accepted very soon so that the protesting farmers can return to their villages happily. This note stated that farmers are no longer strong as they have been hollowed out by expenses on commercial inputs.
It is widely acknowledged that costs of farmers have increased greatly, a burden which falls more heavily on small farmers with a low resource base many of whom are trapped in debt. A pattern of farming based on chemical fertilizers and pesticides has been that with the passage of time more and more of these external, expensive inputs are needed to maintain the same yield.
The scientific reason for this is that the more these inputs are applied, several aspects of favorable environment for farming are also damaged. For example earthworms and various soil organisms which play a great role in maintaining natural fertility are greatly harmed by these inputs. Pollinators like bees and butterflies and several birds are also harmed. Organic content of soil in particular is harmed, even though it is the key to maintaining soil fertility. The balance of various nutrients in soil ( and ultimately in crops grown in them ) is disturbed. Friendly insects, frogs etc. who help to control harmful insects are harmed. Water retention capacity of soil, its porosity and stability is reduced , increasing damage from drought, floods and erosion.
So farmers have to steadily spend more to maintain yield. They are spending much more on seeds as well as the entire technology of external inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides comes packaged with commercially purchased seeds. Over a period of time traditional seeds which could give reasonable yield at a very low cost are lost to farmers , so they become dependent only on those seeds which need a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides etc. Hence it becomes very difficult for a small farmer to avoid a situation of high costs which are further increasing all the time.
As a farmer from Western UP told this writer, “Ek din zameen jawab de jayegi” ( If we go on like this, a day will come when this land will not yield anything). A farmer in Amritsar said, “ New pesticide appears in the market even before the new seed comes! Where will this take us?”
What is the way out? Some farmers start looking for those crops which can fetch better price, even though these are not suitable for local soil and water conditions. This can at best give some short-term gain, while leading to even more difficulties later. Sometimes even in the short-run there are a lot of problems, sometimes as a part of contract farming. So the heavier investments made for the change only lead to heavier debts. In particular the heavier one-time investment in machinery can lead to big debts once the intended increase in yield or overall returns is not achieved.
So the most reliable solution appears to be to ask the government to give a guarantee of an assured remunerative price, and as the technology is one of increasing costs and reducing natural fertility of land, the government also is to be asked to go on increasing this guaranteed price.
The question is—how long can this go on? As long as the ground level situation of soil, water, friendly birds and insects and pollinators and soil builders continues to deteriorate, how long will merely price support be able to ensure sustainable livelihoods for farmers? Also what is the guarantee that increase of purchase price beyond a point can be assured? There can be pressures from other sides for cheaper food and for reducing subsidies beyond a point. So the question remains — what alternative approach is available?
One alternative is to make available much higher resources for soil and water conservation, for improving degraded soil, for saving those seeds which give good yield without agro-chemicals, for improving green cover in a big way, for improving animal husbandry and mixed farming systems, for decentralized research which also incorporates local traditional wisdom. Once all this happens, then over a period of phased change, the farming system can move to a very low-cost and self-reliant system capable of giving good yield.
Then, once cash costs of farming have been significantly reduced, then all existing debts of farmers can be more or less cancelled and on the basis of this low-cost farming, a fair price can be calculated and the government can buy a higher share of several crops for its stocks, expanded public distribution system and nutrition schemes. This will be much more possible and sustainable in a situation of significantly lower costs.
Self-help groups particularly of women can be mobilized to arrange sudden cash needs within the community without paying high interest rate. Additional creative and sustainable livelihoods can be generated particularly by village-level food processing and in several other ways. India can become a hub of producing healthy food which can bring additional income for farmers from home and abroad. Special funds available nationally and internationally for farming and related activities which help to reduce climate change can be arranged so that farmers get further benefits.
Keeping in view these and other possibilities which are more sustainable and broad-based farmers’ groups and movements should decide their future path and their demands should also be articulated in keeping with this thinking.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who has been close to several social movements.