By T.Ramakrishnan/The Hindu
Nearly six years ago, R. Muthukumar, who studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, returned to his village, Karungalikuppam, about 20 km from Tiruvannamalai town, after working in a couple of metro cities, including Bengaluru.
Now a farmer owning around 4.8 acres of dry land, Mr. Muthukumar, who is in his mid-30s, has seen changes happening in the way agriculture is practiced in his village and surrounding areas. For instance, the level at which groundwater can be spotted is going deeper and deeper, an outcome largely due to the policy of free power supply for farmers, he says. “In the beginning, I could get water at about 10 m. Now, we have to go down at least 23 m,” he says.
But that is not the only change Mr. Muthukumar has observed. “At one point of time, I did not have anyone here to discuss the system of rice intensification (SRI), a method of cultivation involving less use of water, seeds and input. My people did not relish the idea as they were used to flood irrigation. But they no longer remain so,” he says, adding that he has found many progressive farmers in nearby villages experimenting with innovative methods.
Karungalikuppam is not a solitary example. Enjampalli, a tiny village near Modakurichi in Erode district, is no less different. Other than paddy, maize and cotton are being grown increasingly. Drip irrigation is gaining greater currency these days.
Subtle shifts have started happening in the farm sector in Tamil Nadu and the farmers, by and large, are alive to the trends and emerging constraints, and are ready to adapt. While innovative policy interventions can be thought of to support them and fix smaller problems without causing too much disruption, the elephant in the room that needs immediate attention is the dismal groundwater situation.
Open To Ideas
“I can see more educated youngsters coming into this sector and taking up farming with the help of modern technology,” says R. Subramanian, a 54-year-old farmer with an experience of over 30 years, dispelling the notion that present-day agriculture is full of senior citizens.
As late as about 10 years ago, farmers of Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts, despite being in dry areas, were not receptive to drip irrigation even when the State government had decided to implement a scheme, recounts E. Vadivel, former Dean of the Horticulture Department in the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU). Now, the same method is used even for water-intensive crops such as sugarcane.
For years, N. Doraisamy, a soldier-turned-farmer, kept as wasteland an area of about three acres in Ananthapuram Mathura, Padavedu block, Tiruvannamalai district. Thanks to a government subsidy scheme for micro-irrigation, coupled with assistance from the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST), the land is fully covered with drip irrigation now.
“I am raising mango, sapota plum and gooseberry. I hope to get ₹1.5 lakh,” says Mr. Doraisamy, adding that but for the new facility, he would have raised such crops only during September-January and earned a few thousands of rupees. The work in Padavedu is one of a number of projects being carried out by the SST, a 22-year-old body engaged in a host of initiatives concerning rural communities and urban slums in five States.
Dry lands in 25 districts have now become the target of the State Agriculture Department for a ₹803 crore programme of ‘sustainable agriculture.’ Though it is too early to assess the impact of the scheme which was launched a year ago, the department claims that the area of cultivation for millets went up by 22% and for pulses, 18%.
Significantly, this initiative enables farmers buy farm implements such as tractors and rotovators, which, in turn, can be given on rent to other farmers at cheaper rates. A government subsidy covers 80% of the cost of the machines. In Karungalikuppam of Tiruvannamalai district, a group of young farmers, instead of taking loans to meet the remaining cost of the implements, pooled their savings to acquire them.
Crop diversification is also catching on. “During kuruvai [short-term cultivation season], even in the Cauvery delta, do you think we are all raising paddy? It is cotton,” quips P. R. Pandian, a Mannargudi-based leader of agriculturists. The coverage of cotton in the delta during 2016-17 was 17 lakh acres. This year, the plan is to extend it to 21 lakh acres, notes K. Ramasamy, TNAU Vice-Chancellor.
Rainfed areas, also known as dry lands, too do not appear to be lagging. In the southern districts, the belt between Srivilliputhur and Tirunelveli, where paddy was ordinarily raised during the Samba cultivation season (September-January), of late has seen maize being grown. A report by the Department of Land Resources in the Union Rural Development Ministry a few years ago commended the State, stating that the “adoption of new oilseed crops, especially soya bean and sunflower in Tamil Nadu, is [a] testimony to the potential for rapid changes in rainfed areas.”
Meanwhile, the State is in the midst of another experiment — collective farming — which is in its early days. The concept, not altogether new to Tamil Nadu, is the new mantra of the State government. Its idea is to organise marginal and small farmers, who constitute 92% of the whole community of agriculturists, into groups and, eventually, bigger organisations or even companies. This year, ₹100 crore was set apart for the scheme.
On productivity too, the State’s performance is better than the national average and that of other States. According to the findings of a 2017 study of the PRS Legislative Research on agriculture, Tamil Nadu (3,191 kg per hectare) comes next only to Punjab (3,838 kg/ha) at the all-India level in terms of yield for rice for 2014-15, even though its record is not that impressive with regard to yield for food grains [which includes pulses and millets too] as a whole.
While these are the positives, chronic problems plague agriculture, including labour shortage, dependence on private lenders, absence of fair and remunerative prices for produce, and hurdles in marketing. However, the foremost is the lack of efficiency in water use. “In times of crisis, farmers behave in an exemplary manner. But, once the situation improves, it is all back to business as usual. Such an attitude cannot continue for long,” feels Dr. Vadivel.
The way groundwater resources are being depleted in the State has disturbed M.P. Vasimalai, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. In his native village of Ezhumalai near Usilampatti in Madurai district, “we are not able to raise one crop today whereas we once did three crops a year. It is because of indiscriminate use of groundwater, thanks to energized pumpsets.” There are about 20.6 lakh such pumpsets all over the State.
His anecdotal account is supported by a number of studies by both official and independent bodies, all pointing to the situation that is, in his words, leading to a “catastrophe.” Mr. Vasimalai, the founder-executive director of the DHAN Foundation, says desertification is happening across the State, and, despite the creation of farm ponds, percolation ponds and other water harvesting structures under schemes including the latest one on dry land farming, more steps are needed.
“Flood irrigation should be banned in areas where water is being pumped. Only drip irrigation should be allowed. Then, you can reduce water consumption by least 25%,” Dr. Ramasamy says, expressing concern over the increasing occurrence of salinity intrusion in groundwater.
There is no sight of the government coming out with a law again to regulate groundwater extraction, even though over four years have lapsed since the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa chose to repeal the 2003 Act, the creation of her previous regime. The assurance given to the public at the time of withdrawal was that soon there would be a “comprehensive and workable law.” One of the principal objections to the old law was the lack of clarity on the definition of marginal and small farmers.
The farmer from Enjampalli in Erode is not averse to fixing tariff for farm connections, a subject regarded in political circles as a hot potato. A reasonable rate for the power supply can be levied, suggests Mr. Subramanian, adding that this will also pave the way for efficient use of groundwater.
Deepa Kumar, who is running a network of young farmers to promote organic farming near Denhanikotta of Krishnagiri district, has a radical idea. “Even for agriculture, you can take electricity connection under commercial tariff and still make your farming profitable, as there is enormous scope for using water judiciously through natural or organic farming,” says the farmer in her late 30s, adding that members of her network have given up their jobs in the IT sector to pursue farming.
Contrary to the position of the officials in Chennai, the government’s latest scheme on dry land agriculture does cover farmers who have taken electricity connections for pump sets, as noticed by this reporter in Villupuram, Tiruvannamalai and Krishnagiri districts.
The government is promoting collective farming to counter the effects of fragmentation of land holdings. Mr. Pandian says that while he is not against it per se, the farmers, after getting organised into FPGs or FPOs, should not be left at the mercy of the corporate sector for price negotiations on commercial transactions.
“They cannot match the power and resources of large corporate groups. So, the government should perform its role as an effective regulator,” he says.
Another aspect that the government should keep in mind is that procedures for setting up value addition facilities, such as processing mills for pulses, should be made simple. In Radhapuram near Thandirampattu of Tiruvannamalai district, it took two years for farmers to get approvals from various departments to set up one such mill and, after three months of commissioning the facility, they are still struggling for a three-phase power supply.
There are also larger issues that affect the farmers. A substantial section of farmers is not ready to take to alternative crops, notwithstanding various measures to attract their attention. Left to any farmer, paddy is still the first choice. During 2016-17, cotton was raised in a big way but prices crashed, and the farmer had no system of minimum support price for support.
There is a general complaint in Villupuram and Krishnagiri about ‘unilateral actions’ of secretaries of Primary Agricultural Credit Cooperative Societies (PACCS) in disbursing of crop loans.
This is one of the reasons for farmers approaching private lenders. A senior official at the office of the Registrar of Cooperative Societies acknowledges the prevalence of the problem and says that as of now, there is no provision to get erring secretaries of PACCS transferred. The government is working on this issue.
With all the problems and issues plaguing the sector, the young Muthkumars and Deepa Kumars are yet confident of making a difference through cohesive networks, deployment of latest technologies and the acquisition of knowledge. After all, it is their firm belief that without modernization of agriculture, food security cannot be guaranteed in a sustained way.