Where’s the techno fix for farmers?
Bitter Harvest 4
Litres of pesticide did not save his crop, but a few gulps of the lethal chemical ended his life.
Vithal Krishnarao Kamble (26) committed suicide in May, unable to pay back the loans he had taken from the local moneylenders. He did not live to see his son, born a few weeks later.
“Even the money he got from selling his mandap decoration business was not enough to settle his debts,” says his father Krishnarao, who doesn’t even know the extent of his son’s borrowings. What he does know is that Vithal bought Rs 34,000 worth of pesticide from the local dealer to rid his 18 acre plot of every cotton farmer’s nightmare – the American bol worm.
Though Vithal sprayed his fields 15 times, even when he knew it was not advisable to spray more than four, his crop was ravaged. The pesticide was ineffective for two reasons. First, unseasonal rains increased humidity, which is favourable for widespread proliferation of the pest. Secondly, cotton monoculture has made the boll worm resistant to pesticides, even in the most concentrated dose. Moreover, pesticides are only effective during the early stages of the boll worm’s growth.
Vithal’s tragedy illustrates the ill-effects of intensive methods of farming and unscientific agricultural practices, which are beginning to rear their ugly heads. “The green revolution made agriculture more commercial. Farmers, who earlier used indigenous inputs, are not dependent on companies for expensive seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Never mind how high the costs or the ecological damage caused,” says Udayan Sharma from the Amravati Kisan Sabha.
Crop failure due to unseasonal rain, hail storms and the pest attack destroyed the harvest in Vidarbha causing 60 farmers to commit suicide. The government has announced compensation of Rs100,000 to 19 victims’ families.
Farmers sunk their money in pesticides that did not work. This points to the failure of the government’s agricultural extension services that are supposed to advise them on prudent farming techniques. The administration started publicizing advice about combating pest attacks only after much of the damage had already been done. With extension officers nowhere in sight, farmers were forced to seek advice from pesticide dealers. The same dealers who provide them credit.
Says owner of the Rathi Krushi Kendra, a farm products shop at Phalegaon in Yavatmal, “The farmers don’t know much. I explain techniques to them.” And how does he keep up with the latest farming practices? “Through the companies, of course, who come here with their pamphlets,” he says.
Aggressive and unregulated marketing by seed and fertilizer companies is pushing technologies that may be inappropriate. “In order to promote our research seeds, we cultivate a plot of land and invite farmers to see the results,” says a company salesman. Most of these seeds do not bear the government’s quality control label.
Many seeds promoted as super hybrid seeds fail to live up to the company’s claims. “I bought 100 grams of a Korean papaya hybrid for Rs 10,000. But it did not yield even half the expected crop,” says Suryapal Chavan, a farmer from Nandgaon in Amravati.
While companies go all out to market their products, the agricultural extension office remains far removed from ground realities. “Extension officials’ knowledge is outdated. In fact, it is the farmers who keep reading about new techniques,” adds Mr Chavan. Extension officials never reach the villages, but complete their quotas by conducting farm training session in each tehsil once a year. Moreover, training is conducted in only one crop after which they move on to the next tehsil to conduct training on another crop. Last year, even this was not conducted. “We shifted all our training sessions to Akola because the chief minister was keen on promoting the Israeli system of drip irrigation there,” says an agricultural officer in Wardha.
While the government is trying to promote drip irrigation, which is far too expensive for the ordinary farmers, it has failed to improve basic irrigation. Less than 10 per cent of Vidarbha is irrigated. Even the few irrigation projects are not efficiently utilized. For example, only 10 per cent of the irrigation potential created in Yavatmal district has been used.
This has resulted in excessive pumping of ground water, lowering the water table considerably, says Yavatmal district collector Rajeev Jalota. Heavy use of urea has also led to a soil imbalance.
Although Maharashtra accounts for nearly 20 per cent of Indian cotton production, its yield per hectare is one of the lowest in the country. In Maharashtra, the percentage of irrigated area under cotton is less than two as compared to Punjab (99 per cent), Rajasthan (94 per cent) or even Andhra Pradesh (12 per cent), according to a study by S. Mahendra Dev of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research.
The Times of India, Mumbai, 6 July 1998