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No quick-fixes again to farmer unrest, please

Sriroop Chaudhuri and Mimi Roy |

Recent UN reports project that by 2050, global population will rise from the current total of 7 billion to about 9 billion. It means that another one billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million extra tonnes of livestock products will be necessary annually to meet the growing demand.

The imperative for such tremendous agricultural boost will hit developing economies the hardest, where the challenge is not just to produce adequate food (with appropriate nutritional traits) but to ensure easy access of the same to the masses.

This acquires added significance in India where farmers’ unrest has become commonplace in recent past, leading to loss of human life and violent demonstrations against the authorities.

Farmer suicides have taken appalling proportions in the country in the past couple of years and seems to be rising by each growing season; they deserve urgent policy interventions. But is there a way to vie for a sustainable solution to the problem?

Through ages, farmers’ demands have mostly centered on few common themes: waivers of farm loans, hike in market prices of farm produce, irrigation subsidies and free electricity. Apparently, the demands have been pretty justified and following age-old populist agrarian political dictum, such demands have always been complied with. Several states have already announced farm loan waivers.

No doubt this will help peasant families for the time being. And also ruling parties to hold on to their bearings over the state polity.

But honestly, such solutions can only alleviate the burden on a short-term basis, like a quick fix, without even touching the main issue, the root cause to such recurring debacles in the agrarian economy.

Recent NSSO assessments have revealed that over 40 per cent of the young generation is now moving away from agriculture and in favor of migrating to urban hubs in search of ‘better’ livelihoods. What it means is that a once highly-rewarding vocation and core to the Indian economy from time immemorial is now losing its appeal. This looms large on national food security as much as on the longterm vision for rural development. But are our youth alone to blame? Not wholly.

In the backdrop of recent climatic anomalies, agriculture has become a highly uncertain proposition with no assurance over yields. Transforming weather patterns leading to frequent drought events is taking hefty tolls on irrigational water demand (potable as well). What’s more, groundwater, the mainstay of national irrigation infrastructure, is depleting at lightning pace.

According to the Central Ground Water Board’s recent estimates, waterlevels are dropping alarmingly in at least 20 states/UTs, even over the span of an annum or even a season. In some states water-levels currently are at 40-plus meters below ground level.

Unfortunately, the main reason behind such depletion is irrigational drafting itself. On a sinister note, unleashed irrigational drafting has actually given rise to a highly profitable groundwater market in many rural areas. It leads from the fact that as water-levels recede, farmers require increasingly heavy-duty pumps to lift equivalent load of water from a deeper subsurface.

But not all farmers can afford such expensive gear and thus have to rely on wealthier ‘brothers’. And this is a key reason why providing free electricity (a major farmer demand), will only aggravate the situation. It will be like granting a noholds-barred license to run pumps round the clock leading to further drops in water-levels. Not to mention mounting debts on energy deficits as well.

This is serious on both counts – water availability and energy supply. India hosts about 24 per cent of the global population without access to electricity and over 900 million (mostly rural inhabitants) still without safe and sustainable potable water sources.

Recent estimates of the Central Electrical Authority (CES) project national electricity demand to rise from 776 TW-h in 2012 to about 2500 TW-h in 2030. Under the circumstances can we really afford such ‘luxury’? Before aiming for any sustainable strategy to buttress the food sector, we have to factor in the expansive dimensions of water-energy nexus in the agrarian sector into the policy matrix. In the past few years drought has become a key resistance to agricultural yield that needs to be addressed on priority basis.

Presently, about 44 per cent of Indian districts are affected by drought. In Maharashtra, 77 per cent districts were hit by drought in 2015. In 2014 this was 69 per cent and in 2012, about 44 per cent, which indicates increasing prevalence of drought.

This needs to be sorted out first with process-level fundamental research and innovation to maintain productivity. We should think about solutions in terms of implementing more advanced on-farm water management systems, micro-irrigation with enhanced water efficiency, making easy provisions for famers to have their soil quality checked, train them on nutrient management and enhanced carbon sequestration practices, encourage them to raise drought-tolerant species, organise more workshops and awareness drives on climate change and potential ‘in-house’ remedies. Above all, we need more R&D on drought to devise robust methods (standardized and resistant to any spatial variability) to monitor and forecast.

Today almost 1 billion people are undernourished globally, and particularly in Asia (578 million). The UN reports suggest that for developing nations, even if agricultural production doubles by 2050, one person in twenty still risks being undernourished – roughly equating to about 370 million people in want of adequate and appropriate diet. But for nutrition status to improve and for food insecurity and undernourishment to recede, future agricultural production will have to rise faster than population growth.

The problem is, all these will have to happen on existing agricultural land (which is a finite quantity). So, this can only happen via sustainable intensification of agriculture that makes effective use of land and water resources without altering ambient conditions (soil-water pollution).

For India, it is going to be a perplexing challenge where even today a vast majority of farmers are unaware of climate change itself. This needs to be addressed. Presently, it is a delicate situation pitted by trade-offs and moral/ethical/philosophical dilemmas for the authorities. Human lives are at stake and by that token, law and order situation of the nation. On top of all this, the national tally on farmer suicides grew by about 42 per cent between 2014 and 2015, with Maharashtra taking the hardest of blows.

So, the farmers have every justification to go on violent demonstrations. But we should look ahead more judiciously at this point. Granting loan waivers alone or boosting farm sell or providing free electricity will only be good to appease the agitation for a little while. Next year (or may be even the next growing season) similar issues will resurface.

The idea should be to dig to the root causes (climate change, drought, irrigational shortage, energy supply) and put in place slow but long-term interventions to help the food sector rather than indulging in instant solutions. Otherwise there will be no respite from peasant unrests.

The writers are, respectively, Assistant Professor and Associate Professor at the Centre for Environment and Sustainable Human Development (CESH), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.