- The agro-pastoral crisis has emerged as a significant issue for the 2019 national Lok Sabha elections in India.
- In the run-up to the elections, political parties have announced a number of measures aimed at farmers, including crop insurance, loan waivers and a minimum basic income.
- In this commentary, Harini Nagendra and Rucha Ghate make a case that the current agro-pastoral crisis is an ecological crisis; a crisis of the commons.
At the time of India’s upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the agro-pastoral crisis has emerged as a major flashpoint issue. In March and November 2018, tens of thousands of farmers marched hundreds of kilometres to Mumbai and Delhi, carrying photographs of dead friends and family.
Farmer distress is widespread across India. Half of India’s rural households rely on farming. Four out of five farmers own tiny parcels of land, less than two hectares in size. An average Indian farmer earns about Rs 9000 a month – a little over a third of this income comes from agriculture and an additional 8% from livestock. Recurrent droughts and other natural disasters, attacks on cow traders, lack of grazing land, worsening productivity, inadequate facilities for crop storage and transport, and unstable prices have set a vicious cycle in place.
Due to the lack of affordable credit, over half of all farmer households are in debt, owing over a lakh of rupees on average. Thousands of farmer suicides are reported each year, with many more probably going unreported. Small wonder that these conditions have led to collective movements of farmers across the country.
In the run-up to the elections, political parties have announced a number of measures aimed at farmers, including crop insurance, loan waivers and a minimum basic income. These are primarily economic measures, aimed at one-off treatment of farmer distress. But is the farming crisis a one-time disaster that requires a bailout, or an inherently risky business that needs systemic support? The roots of India’s agro-pastoral crisis are ecological and require systemic ecological measures for treatment. Yet this aspect is completely missing from the current debate.
Across South Asia, farming was always part of an integrated agro-pastoral-forest system. Farming was done on private or communally owned land. Practices of commoning around pastoral and forest lands played an essential role in maintaining fertility. In many parts of the country, such as the soppina betta forests of Uttar Kannada, some patches of forest land were set aside for the leaf litter they provided, used by local farmers to restore soil fertility.
In peninsular south India, villages were adapted to times of extended drought. When lakes and water bodies shrank to shallow pools, interspersed with slushy wetlands, indigenous fish species, tolerant to low levels of water, thrived in these shallow pools. Harvested by farmers who waded in and collected them, these fish provided a community source of protein when crop cereals were scarce. When the waters receded further, bitter, nutritious wild greens that grew on dried up lake and river beds staved off hunger and malnutrition. Cattle, goats and sheep grazed on these grassy expanses, providing alternate sources of milk and meat to supplement the limited harvest, and manure, to rejuvenate soil fertility.
Forests were another important source of insurance against bad times. In times of floods and drought, farmers turned to the forest to collect tubers, wild fruits and greens, and to hunt for fish and small meat like the wild pheasant or wild boar. Even in times of plenty, the forest provided medicinal plants that helped keep many families healthy, and to avoid expensive visits to the doctor for minor ailments.
Firewood, tendu leaves and bamboo from the forests of central India supplemented meagre incomes, especially during non-agricultural seasons. Cattle and livestock were grazed partly in the forest, and partly on fallow agricultural land in rotation, ensuring that no single part of the integrated agro-pastoral-forest ecosystem was overused.
Areas of sacred forest were set aside for the protection of wildlife, helping to avoid practices of over-hunting, along with local belief systems that banned, for example, the hunting of species of fish, fowl and wildlife in the breeding season.
These resources – grasslands, ponds and pools with fish, and forests teeming with wild fruits and animals – were commons. They were of most value for those at the margins – the landless, and small farmers. Each village typically had a common grazing land and common forest, along with water bodies – ponds, tanks and wells – often set aside for different caste groups.
Caste and gender, of course, played a major role in shaping access to commons, limiting rights to access, and dictating obligations. But while oppression was widespread, some disadvantaged caste groups played an influential role in commons management. For instance, the neerghantis in Karnataka managed the distribution of irrigation water to from common village ponds and canals to private farms. In exchange for this service, they were allotted parcels of land by the village. Many women’s groups, similarly, patrolled forests, identifying and penalizing those who sought to take more than their fair share.
Drought was not a one-off disaster which farmers were unprepared for. On the contrary, farming involved a deep and sophisticated knowledge of the local weather system, in consultation with almanacs and in accordance with local festivals. Farmers across India had evolved context-specific, sophisticated community norms and institutional arrangements for resilience against the unpredictable climate.
Farmers were well aware of their embeddedness in the local interconnected patchwork of ecosystems. The inherent unpredictability of a monsoon-dependent agricultural cycle was recognized, and managed for, by moving dependence to other agro-ecosystems in times of need.
This ecological and social interconnectedness has now been fragmented. Ponds, tanks and community wells have been filled in and captured by large landowners. Common grazing areas – traditional charagah and gowmala lands – have vanished from many villages across India. Considered “wastelands” by the Government, many commons areas have been captured by state and private industries, used for biofuel plantations, social forestry or renewable energy plants. Forest access is largely lost, with forests cordoned off, fenced and guarded, and severe restrictions placed on traditional community rights to grazing and harvesting.
The commons have been systematically plundered, captured and degraded to the extent that we have lost our collective memory of how farming was once part of an integrated system. Political attention is mostly focused on loan waivers, crop insurance and minimum support prices. While these economic measures are undeniably important to mitigate the current crisis, they will be inadequate unless they are supplemented with a widespread, systematic initiative across the country to document and restore the village commons, keeping in mind the link between pond and pasture, and field and forest.
The crisis of agro-pastoral India is an ecological crisis and a crisis of the commons. To fix it, we have to go to the roots. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections provide us with an opportunity to rethink our approaches to addressing the fundamentals of the crisis of rural India.
Banner image: A farmer in Chhattisgarh whose fields have been adversely impacted due to a nearby coal power plant. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay India.