“We farmers … what a high position we once held in this country. We and our profession have been the central theme of many poets … agriculture was considered the noblest of professions as the world was dependent on the farmer and his plough … but what is our status now?” T. ANAND RAJ, farmer.
Farmers work with systems that are linked with place and season. The knowledge of local farmers is unique to a particular environment and continually revised through accumulated experience. From the dawn of agriculture this knowledge has passed and evolved, from generation to generation. Local farmers everywhere have knowledge about the climate, vegetation, animals and soils that repeatedly, in the absence of external pressures, results in multi-dimensional land use and production strategies which enable food self-sufficiency for the community.
HEAT EXTREMES, WATER SCARCITY, INTERVENTION
“In Maharashtra this year, the Godavari river in Nashik went dry. There is no water in Ramkund … in the town of Latur water scarcity is so severe that the district collector has imposed Section 144 and taken over 150 wells and tubewells near the city … Water is being supplied by tankers after a water train brings water all the way from Kota. While the drinking water emergency will be addressed … what of the farmers?”
Most of Maharashtra is plateau formed by lava millions of years ago. The major rivers and tributaries have carved river valleys across these plateau, but these rivers dry up during drought conditions. Inland the vast farming area is semi arid with scorching hot summer from March onwards broken briefly and violently by monsoon in early June. The character of the monsoon, with its short spells of rainy weather and long dry breaks, results in floods, but especially in droughts and these are getting more extreme with climate change. This is the farming struggle in Maharashtra.
WHEN THE CROPS FAIL
“Farmers are struggling to repay even small loans of a few thousand rupees. Every time the creditor comes, we are put to shame… He shames our families and snatches our belongings. Unable to bear such insults, thousands of my people have committed suicide.”
Maharashtra is experiencing a convergence of crises – on the one hand climate change is leading to prolonged episodes of intense heat leading to drought – on another there is no financial cushion for simple farming families if the crops fail and so the debt collectors move in. Farmers in Maharashtra are advised to borrow money and grow cash crops with a better return such as sugar cane and GM cotton, but there is reason to believe that these crops are less resistant to drought and quickly soak up precious water reserves, whereas the old staples such as Jowar (sorghum) have supported food and livelihood income for many generations.
When the crops fail there is no way to pay back loans. In the last 20 years, nearly 300,000 of India’s farmers have ended their lives by drinking pesticides or by hanging themselves. Maharashtra state is the worst affected.
BRINGING IT HOME
Farming in Britain is very different to India – but it is still about that same conflict between the weather, the times, the market, the cost of things, natural law and policy. It is waking up in the morning and deciding, having studied the forecast for weeks, to cut the grass. It is praying that it wont rain. It is praying that it will rain.
And, as in Maharashtra, when things go wrong – really wrong – farming is hell. When Foot and Mouth Disease struck in Britain, not so long ago, a kind of madness descended. Carefully nurtured breeding stock was lost, on a vast scale. Generations of work disappeared. Animals starved, unable to be moved for fear of contamination and the farmer who threatened the Ministry vets with a shot gun? This story is still told in many a local pub.
This is why I am excited to be talking to a fellow writer from London, who first told me about the situation for farmers in Maharashtra right now. Her family originate from the farming communities of Maharashtra, just as my children were born to a farming community in Devon.
An idea is to go out there and hear from the farming families first hand, and, as writers, tell the stories. I’ll let you know what happens.
First published in Broadsheep Magazine.