Empowering Farmers by Broadening Their Base and Ensuring Sustainable Livelihoods

Bharat Dogra

In the middle of reports of increasing rural distress, a heartening news has been that many farmers’ organizations are coming forward to resist the growing domination of Indian agriculture by corporate forces—multinational companies as well as leading local players of crony capitalism. In this context there has been a lot of discussion recently on how demands relating to protecting the interests of farmers and farming should be formulated.

 Clearly the formulation should not be  a narrow one but should keep in mind the immediate as well as longer-term interests of all people toiling in farming and related activities. A related concern should be to broaden the base and hence the strength of the farmers’ movement. Finally, the entire effort should be along the lines of universal need for equality, justice and environment protection.

There is already wide agreement among farmers and related sections on two components of their demand. The first of these relates to a firm commitment to a well-administered, adequate and justice-based system of minimum support price or MSP for government purchase of a significant part of the crops produced by farmers. The second component relates to higher budget allocations for agriculture and rural development ( and related areas) . Several detailed aspects of these demands can be discussed and debated further, but broadly speaking there is already near consensus on these among farmers’ organizations and those arguing on their behalf.

Of course, these demands are very important demands. However, these demands by themselves cannot go very far in resolving the farming and rural crisis in India. What are the additional extremely important issues which need to be added to these two demands?

Firstly, there are a range of issues which are related to reducing the costs of cultivation and improving the sustainability of farming and related livelihoods. These may be seen as two separate issues but can be bunched together as the set of solutions for reducing costs significantly can also contribute  in a big way  to various aspects of improving sustainability.

The importance of reducing costs of cultivation can hardly be exaggerated. It is the fast increasing costs of expensive technologies and inputs spread in recent decades at a fast pace which have contributed most to the mounting economic problems and debts of farmers. There is increasing evidence from many parts of the world as well as from smaller efforts within India that good yields can be achieved without expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides by adopting a range of practices which make better use of local village resources instead of purchasing expensive external inputs.

 This includes various methods which while reducing costs also improve the organic  matter in the soil and also protect the numerous organisms which enhance the fertility of soil in durable ways by their natural processes. Similarly, these contribute to greater porosity and water retention capacity of soil, while also protecting soil from erosion.

 There is the added advantage that these methods, as opposed to expensive external input based methods, can be best pursued by small farmers with their much better capacity for intensive care, creativity and for working with mixed farming systems. Generally, less water is needed in this approach and there is more scope for water conservation. If costs of farmers are reduced, natural fertility of land improves and overexploitation of water can be avoided then sustainability of farming and related livelihoods increases significantly.

All these methods are based on a better, close and creative understanding of nature and natural processes, to ensure protection of nature and co-existence with nature, as opposed to disrupting nature and natural processes thoughtlessly, without much care for them. This entire approach is together referred to as the agro-ecology approach.

 An additional advantage of agro-ecology is that this leads to much lower emission of greenhouse gases  and also has a capacity for absorbing more carbon dioxide, thereby contributing  to checking climate change at two levels. If and when economic benefits become available for farming practices which check climate change, then all farmers who practice agro-ecology should be eligible for these economic benefits as well.

Agro-ecology has more room for local small-scale food and farm processing, so that the chances are that a range of livelihoods based on such processing can also improve, even more so for women.

 As agro-ecology entirely avoids GM or genetically modified seeds as well as poisonous pesticides and herbicides, food produced under agro-ecology is always much safer and healthier. Hence the chances of this food getting a higher price are much higher, and the government can also be asked to pay a higher price for such organic food which can be justified in terms of improved nutrition and health.

In fact, ideally the government should purchase this organic food as a part of its procurement drive and then make it available for the ration shops and nutrition schemes of the same village, thereby reducing transport costs and passing the gains to farmers. Procurement for cities can be done separately and additionally.

Secondly, there is the question of the exclusion of landless farmers from farmers’ movements and their demands. According to the latest census data the number of landless households in villages is now even higher than farmer or land-owning households.  Their poverty levels are also higher. Hence an attempt should be made to involve them also in farming activities as this will definitely improve their nutrition, health and socio-economic status.

 This can start initially with kitchen gardens near their homes based on agro-ecology approach. At second level, efforts should be made to provide them some farmland under ceiling laws, or by better utilization of existing community land. In addition they can be involved in regeneration of degraded land and wasteland with farming, animal husbandry, forestry and water/moisture conservation components.

 Once they have land-rights and are cultivating/improving land, they should be treated as small farmers and hence almost all households in the village become farmers. Apart from reducing poverty and hunger, this will greatly improve the base of farmers’ movement as almost all rural households will be farmers with some land-base (while some among them will also be sharecroppers under various local arrangements).

Thirdly, the importance of women in farming and related works needs to be asserted. Women have been contributing tremendously  in these activities but have not received due recognition, and their presence and leadership in farmers’ organizations is also relatively very less.

 While on the one hand  their contribution to farming and related work should get much better recognition, at the same time there is need to accord them ( and youths) a leadership role in social reform initiatives in villages. In many villages the progress of women and girls is hampered by gender discrimination, child marriage, rapid increase of consumption of liquor by men and other substance abuse, domestic violence as well as other (including sexual) violence against women and girls. Farmers’ organizations should form social reform cells and committees to be led by women and youths which should work with continuity against these and other serious social problems such as untouchability and dowry system. This will help to greatly increase the creative contribution of women in the progress of all village activities including farming.

 There have been several indications from areas where agro- ecology has been successful that women have made a particularly important and creative contribution in this.

Hence by including agro-ecology and by asserting rights of landless people and women, farmers’ movements can at once broaden their base greatly and at the same time they will be able to formulate an agenda based on highly protective, sustainable and protective livelihoods. An agenda based partly on demands placed before the government and partly on creative self-work of farming communities can go a long way in bringing new hope and prosperity to our farming communities and villages.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.    

Back to Home Page

Oct 31, 2020

Bharat Dogra

Your Comment if any