Notes from the countryside

Updated: Jan 10 2002, 05:30am hrs
There is no better time to visit the countryside than this time of the year. The rains have been good as usual since the last 13 seasons. Even the most drought affected parts such as in southern Andhra Pradesh, close to the Karnataka border wear a canopy of green. The irrigation tanks are full. The fields are ripe with sugarcane and other commercial crops. The peasantry is busy with various tasks of the season, from dawn to dusk.

Such pastoral sights might suggest that all is well on the farm front. That after a couple of bad years, higher agricultural production is likely this year. That higher rural output in turn ultimately results in faster GDP growth. In sync with such tidings is the recent bit of news that Indias higher economic growth of 5.3 per cent during the second quarter of the current fiscal reflected a smart recovery in agricultural growth.

But appearances often are deceptive. Behind the tapestry of green fields and crop-laden farms in southern Andhra, the small and medium peasants are passing through their own travails. The cost of cultivation is rising relentlessly while prices for foodgrains and commercial crops are depressed. The local newspapers are full of reports of banks and insurance companies in the region being reluctant to pay crop insurance and of suicides by farmers.

The most recent instance of such a suicide pertained to a debt-ridden groundnut farmer, with the matter being raised by political parties in the opposition. Although farmer suicides arent a regionwide problem, the lot of smaller farmers indeed is misery personified. A common problem, especially for those with lands close to the town, is the difficulty in hiring agricultural labour. Wages may be high but farmers have no assurance of timely availability of such labour.

Besides the labour problem, many of the bigger farmers have invested in digging deep borewells and/or using tractors to break up the tough soil. Southern Andhra being a chronic drought-prone region, such investments are imperative for survival. The lesser dependence on the rains also gives such farmers the freedom to grow commercial crops to respond to the requirements of nearby markets, like supplying tomatoes to the entire city of Bangalore.

But commercial agriculture has its boom-bust cycles as well. When many farmers in the region produce tomatoes, the price of tomatoes is bound to crash with excess production. In January 2001, a 10 kg basket of tomatoes sold for a pittance of Rs 2, entailing huge losses to small and medium farmers, who couldnt even pay wages for hired help. A crop loss of Rs 25,000 devastates farmers who live at the margin. This year, they are suffering due to overproduction of beans.

In this milieu, the balance is shifting to the larger farmers, who have greater staying power in the market. Not surprisingly, most of the sugarcane crop is standing on the fields of such farmers as they can afford to wait longer for even a year, if necessary for payments from the nearby sugar mill. At this time of the year, the crop is being cut, with the cane bundled up and transported to the mill for crushing. No passerby can resist the temptation of pulling out a cane from the loaded carts.

After the harvest, the brown stalk-laden cane fields offer a striking contrast to the ones in which paddy has just been transplanted. Rows and rows of women labourers are engaged in this task even in the smaller farms. Earlier, it was the larger farms with access to groundwater irrigation that cultivated paddy, but now this has spread to even the marginal farms. This has happened due to the visible hand of government intervention rather than on account of relative prices.

Under the various food-for-work schemes in the region, rainwater harvesting has been given a lot of importance: water storage and drainage facilities, sewage canals, the works. The bountiful rains have done the needful, which is why the tanks and ponds appear so full. Plenty of water thus has become available for paddy cultivation for those with lands close to the canals or drainage facilities. The patchwork quilt of green paddy fields makes the land appear naturally fertile.

Back to the canefields, as noted earlier, it is the substantive farmers who can truly afford the long gestation of cane cultivation of roughly a year. In southern Andhra, this includes those with 10 acres or more who have taken to this crop in a big way. Much of the sugarcane crop has been contracted to the lone sugar mill, which offers initial help on seedlings and thereby ensures a captive source of cane supply. Given the invariable lag in payments, it is the big farmers who can afford to wait a bit longer.

The smaller players cannot do so, especially for commercial crops like beans, brinjals and tomatoes. Information about price arbitrage opportunities is disseminated largely through word of mouth, as they take their crop to nearby markets, including Chennai, to get a better return. Given the sharp swings in fortune, many of the farmers are selling off their land, especially if their farms are close to urban settlements. This process of differentiation amongst the peasantry is already underway, with many erstwhile small farmers joining the ranks of casual wage labour in towns.

The charms of the season cannot really hide this harsh fact that agriculture is not a paying proposition for smaller and marginal farmers in a chronic drought-prone region in southern Andhra Pradesh. The rains have been good till now, but if the next one plays truant, the region will be back to lurching from one drought to another. The current years output will undoubtedly be higher than before, but there is no disguising the deeper developments underway such as the countryside gradually yielding to the imperatives of urbanisation behind the sunny, smiling, green fields at this time of the year.