Same indifference

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Last week, on a visit to the cold desert of Ladakh, I learnt something important. It made me see the ongoing agricultural negotiations at the World Trade Organization's meet in Cancun, Mexico in a different light. I learnt that what the industrialised world is doing to our agriculture, Punjab and Haryana and the Indian government combined are doing to Ladakh's agriculture. Therefore, even as our commerce minister rightly pitches for justice in the name of small farmers at Cancun, the agriculture minister must seriously review policies and practices at home so that agriculture in marginal and diverse environments can survive. So that the real small farmers can, indeed, thrive.

The key to survival in Ladakh is the intelligent use of water -- only 0.6 per cent of its land area is inhabited; of this, only 28 per cent is under cultivation. Crops have a short growing period, after glaciers melt and before the snow descends. Still, the harvest is rich, for people do make the best use of their environment. The water of melting glaciers is diverted in the evening into small storage tanks called zings; from here it is distributed to fields. The network is managed by a village-appointed water official, churpun. These village "officials" allocate water by timings to all in the stream basin; they keep careful account of the water distributed and adjudicate disputes. Furthermore, people grow crops -- barley, millet and wheat -- that use less water but provide nutrition and livelihoods in this heaven-on-earth region of the country.

But things could change in the coming years. Today, rice and wheat from Punjab and Haryana, or from the bulging godowns of the Food Corporation of India, is beginning to swamp the food markets and tables of this mountainous area. People are beginning to eat water-guzzling rice as against water-frugal barley. This is because this (imported) food is cheap and subsidised. The government procures rice and wheat at minimum support prices, which are often higher than international prices. Under the public distribution scheme, it then transports, again with price concessions, food across this region. I asked: How will Ladakhi agriculture compete? Will the homegrown system -- built on self-sufficiency and sustainability -- last for very long in the face of such poor public policy? Can it survive the industrial agriculture of the plains, which is pampered with irrigation and electricity subsidies, market access and guaranteed government procurement?

Investment is after all a key variable in pricing. But in areas like Ladakh, the labour spent in improving productivity through building irrigation systems and maintaining fertility in harsh lands is never accounted for. In fact, public policy actively destroys incentives. Here people use dry toilets (called Chaksa) to collect human excreta, which is mixed with sand and straw, thoroughly decomposed and then transported to manure fields. Clearly the system is the only sensible one for this water-starved region because it minimises water use and disposes off human waste without leading to pollution and waste. But equally it is clear that this system can only survive if policy learns to value its role and underwrites the ecological cost of production. If the value of agriculture declines, as it is beginning to happen today, so will investment in agriculture.

This is not just a Ladakhi story. In the Himalaya of Uttaranchal, for instance, agriculture needs huge investment to maintain soil productivity. Here mostly women farmers expend huge energies to manufacture manure -- the work of collecting fodder, feeding it to cattle, and then transporting dung is backbreaking. They apply over 20 tonnes per hectare on nutritionally deficient terraced lands, all to get pitiable returns. In the uplands of the Northeast, where farmers practice shifting cultivation -- also as a means to invest in soil fertility -- their land and labour is completely discounted and undervalued. In these regions, agriculture is not anymore a means to economic security and prosperity. People are destitute and their rich land impoverished.

The point is: How do we break this vicious cycle? How do we begin to value the agriculture of these marginal lands so that it can compete in this unfair internal market? The need is to shake up a mentality and challenge a policy myth: that agriculture is only about improving productivity and moving food. We will have to change our priorities to think, not only as Mahatma Gandhi said, of the last person, but literally of the last foodgrain. We will have to re-disburse public money so that we invest, not just in a slogan called food security, but in securing the local styles by which people can actually become food-secure. We must begin to value the "good". So for instance, in Ladakh, we would begin to value investment in organic manure and water-minimising crops. Policy would provide incentives for local agriculture and promote a way of growing food that is both sustainable and rewarding. In the Northeast, as a reader recently wrote to me, we would begin to value the enormous contribution of its rich agro-biodiversity and reward its custodian farmers accordingly.

In other words, even as we ask the obdurate Northern countries to reduce their mind-boggling agricultural subsidies, we must begin to get our own local act together. We know -- and vociferously holler about -- the callous indifference of Northern countries to poor farmers living in poor lands. Now we must come to grips with the equally callous indifference -- holler about it equally loudly, if need be -- that haunts our domestic agricultural policy. Only then can the road to the future be one on which everyone can journey, in their own ways, eating well.

-- Sunita Narain

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