For the water of this earth

Changes in local ecology and economy have a direct impact on food security for the poor

Published: Wednesday 31 May 2006

For the water of this earth

-- In the arid regions of Rajasthan frequent droughts are a phenomenon closely interwoven with ecology and have always been a periodic occurrence. The agricultural economy as it developed traditionally, took this into account. Changes in the local ecology due to changes in agriculture however, have had a far-reaching impact on food security experienced by the rural poor.

Despite difficult ecological conditions, agriculture is the primary source of livelihood in the arid regions ofRajasthan. Agriculture as traditionally practised, has however,undergone all-encompassing changes in the Jalore region over the past few decades.

The cropping pattern has changed. Cash crops are now regularly grown instead of traditionally grown food crops. Land is seldom left fallow and foodgrain that is produced is sold in local mandis .

The use of indigenous seeds has virtually stopped in Jalore villages. Commercial seeds bought from various companies require large amounts of water and fertilisers and very importantly have to be purchased in every cropping season. To sustain repeated cropping cycles without the land being left fallow, groundwater has been exploited with the boring of a large number of tube wells as a result of which the groundwater level has plummeted drastically.

Since high financial investments are required for boring these wells, only affluent communities have access to groundwater. In Jalore, richer communities have in fact bored wells on a rampant scale. Poorer communities suffer with the impact this has on their livelihood and on the levels of food insecurity experienced by them. Poor farmers have to purchase water from affluent farmers to cultivate. Further, with an increase in the population andagriculture being undertaken on smaller plots of land, food grains are not stored in traditional mud structures, which can ensure preservation of food grains for several years. Food grains when preserved in these structures used to sustain entire families in times of distress. Food grains now tend to be stored in jute bags that allow moisture absorption which hinders their preservation. This also prevents seeds from being used for the next cropping season and simultaneously adds to the vicious cycle of impoverishment since poor farmers are forced to buy commercial seed.

The capacity of poor communities to cope with drought has also drastically gone down because several plant types earlier used for consumption have now become extinct or are severely depleted in the region due to ecological changes. These depleted plant types include khemda, sangri and babool, parts of which were earlier consumed.

Changes in the local ecology and economy therefore have a direct impact on the food security of socially and economically weaker communities. Although food availability continues in distress periods, it is the more affluent people who manage to purchase food grain in times of scarcity and maintain normal food consumption levels. Less affluent communities become progressively worse off with each passing season since their sources of livelihood are uncertain and constantly under threat. Most of these families migrate to earn a meagre livelihood and face crippling levels of indebtedness.

Shifts from food to cash crops and from indigenousto hybrid seeds have also undermined livelihoods of poor farmers. It needs to be recognised in India with a sense of urgency that the impact of plummeting groundwater levels, the resultant impact on agriculture and simultaneous depletion of flora are taking on grave proportions with every passing year. The daily assault on the environment and on livelihoods is moreover a situation that afflicts not one region alone but vast tracts of rural India. Access to livelihood, protection of the traditional economy and ecology are issues that decisively determine food security. To ensure food security for economically weaker communities equitable distribution over natural resources must be ensured. It is imperative that we protect our ecology and people's source of livelihood to prevent mass hunger.

Nandini Nayak is with the Centre for Equity Studies

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