Suicidal farmers

by Poojari Thirumal

Earth, how are you doing? (Issue I/2018)

The region's inhabitants have noted that traditionally bountiful rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic and the climate is gradually warming, disrupting local ecological cycles. Other parts of the subcontinent are also feeling the effects of climate change. South of Shillong lies the Deccan plateau, one of the oldest geological formations which has some of the earliest traces of agriculture in India. To this day, its dry swathes of land are used to grow rain fed millet crops, which sustain poor peasant farmers. But growing this traditional crop, which is ideally suited to the habitat and climate, may not continue much longer. Instead, state incentives are triggering a rise in larger plantations of mono crops such as cotton, maize and soya.

Mogalamma is one of the local farmers who clings on to the traditional but intensive task of growing millet. She is based in Potpalli, a small village in the southern Indian state of Telangana and around mid June every year, she waits for the monsoon rain to seep into her inch-deep gravelly soil. Given its arid topography, regions such as these are often considered unfit for cultivation by the big corporate farmers in the region. But for Mogalamma, the one and half acre of rocky land is a source of food and nutrition for her family and fodder for her cattle.

In the distant past, Mogalamma recalls her mother correctly foretelling the arrival of the monsoon rains. In recent decades, however, the winds, which herald the arrival of rains, have become unpredictable.

In India, agriculture lies at the heart of a healthy ecosystem. The Deccan plateau’s dry soils are considered among the areas which are most difficult to cultivate. Underlining the harsh reality, regions like Telangana or Vidharba have become known as India's suicide belt. According to Colombia University studies, crop failure due to climate change has driven as many as 60,000 farmers to suicide over the past three decades. Many people in India find agriculture in the Deccan plateau very difficult due to the soil, the unfavourable weather and the water shortage.

But that is only part of the story. There are still many farmers who do not have suicidal thoughts. Indigenous communities have honed ingenious methods to defy the adverse environmental conditions. Over the centuries, they have accumulated expertise in agricultural practices that are adapted to the harsh environmental conditions and are dubbed as "agro-ecological".

The Indian government, on the other hand, propagates crops that rely on the use of agro-chemistry and irrigation. But these tactics leave lands exposed to weather extremes. In 2016, the never-ending rains in many parts of Telangana washed away monocultures like soya, leaving farmers miserable and in debt. Fields with crops, such as pearl millet, finger millet and various types of sorghum, however, remained unharmed. A significant proportion of suicides among farmers in this part of the Deccan plateau are sparked by the government-backed move away from ecologically harmless millet cultivation in favour of more commercial crops.

Farming methods that need irrigation present a looming problem for India, a country which has more than seventy percent dry soil. Conflicts over water are, therefore, nothing unusual. For a long time, several neighbouring Indian states have been fighting for water, which is mostly used to grow water-intensive crops such as rice and sugar cane. While you need around 2,000 liters of water to grow one kilo of rice, millet does not need irrigation water and can thrive even with a minimum of rainfall. Sorghum millet in central India, pearl millet in the north, finger millet in the south and millet in the northeast are longstanding indigenous crops.

While more than fifty countries worldwide grow and consume millet, its role in Indian agriculture currently faces fierce criticism. Efforts are made to steer farmers like Mogalamma away from the traditional crop. Given state interventions and the establishment of new companies, more than half of the farmers in Mogalamma's village have switched to cotton crops, prompting an unusual ecological repercussions. For example, Mogalamma's farm attracted a many birds last year, who pecked at well-developed millet husks in their desperate search for food. But, Mogalamma smiles, pointing out that she has saved birds for which the state has no mercy. With the so-called "Green Revolution", farmers in many parts of India have switched from biodiversity to monoculture, cultivating high-yielding, chemical-intensive crops such as rice. But as one of the most undemanding crops, millet production resists capitalist market logic which suggests that investing in seeds, fertilizer and technology automatically boosts yields. In fact millet growing, by its very nature, is ill suited as a business for large corporations.

As it happens, locals from the Deccan plateau have long been aware of this conflict between two methods of cultivation. Traditional folklore in the Telangana region equates millet with a female fruit, while "cash crops" such as cotton and sugarcane are represented as male fruits. Because millet is generally not intended for the market, but serves as a basic food source, women become the natural guardians of food. Cultivating millet involves adjusting to nature and setting up home and farm, activities that are not convertible into commodities and cannot be paid for with wages.

In the context of climate change, we can learn from those growing traditional millet, a crop that is so well suited to tough environmental conditions. Fed by scant rainwater, millet’s resilience means it could secure food supply, even as water is harder to come by. 

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