Day 93: Learning from Ajangaon

July, 2020

25/06/2020

Day 93

The time spent in Wardha has helped in exploring ideas, realities and readings in agriculture. The village we have come to be associated with after buying the farm has become a reference point for knowing and comparing agricultural trends. By the way of reflection here are some observations from the last two years of my time here. 

  1. Diversification of income and consumption is a design feature. This region is an average performer in terms of crop productivity. Often, the narrative on farming here has verged on distress and drought. Yet, many village clusters manage to hold themselves together against a complete collapse. Farm economy is much more diverse than those studying it imagine. Farmers supplement their income and consumption well enough to not face existential threat from crop failures. A brief spell of impoverishment does occur. But it doesn’t seem to be wiping families off. The households are resilient. For instance, in a very bad cropping season, most farming households have grains and lentils secured for the entire year. So a bad season doesn’t affect food supplies.Diversified sources of supply and need fulfilment is built into the design of living in the villages here.
  2. Thinking in aggregates: As much as we are used to high resolution, disaggregated data, farmers here tend to think in aggregates. At every step of the farming process, there is a tendency to pinch off expenses, unless it is absolutely necessary. This brings the aggregate returns from a cropping season better. The intensity of micro-level monitoring is replaced by a general application of cut-the-cost rule.This helps the aggregates. I see this thinking prevail over other measures of financial prudence. Approximations are applied for most decisions. Perhaps, precision and micro-level monitoring is traded away for ease of process, especially when most households have only the family members working on the farm and that there is no permanently hired labour. This seems to be an effective lean management system evolved by the farmers. 
  3. Sustainability is contextual: Among the major lessons is that sustainability is a contextual idea. General notions of sustainability need not apply with the same intensity and urgency in all regions. More importantly, sustainability must be thought about from a systems perspective, wherein one needs to very closely understand the impact of a practice on the entire ecosystem and not just two points up and down a chain of effects. For instance, soil productivity in the district is low. Rejuvenation of soil needs time and low cropping stress. Both of these are difficult variables for farmers to accommodate. Hence, they typically use recommended doses of fertilizer for their crops. Is this fertilizer bad or harmful? Will it be a ‘sustainable farming’ effort to cultivate without chemical fertilizers? I think the farmers here aren’t really worried about these questions. Instead, they’d like to use them and ensure realization of a minimum level of crop production. If anything, they are more aware about the problems of overapplication of chemicals, than an average thinker who knows to write reports.

Situations change. From this belief in change comes emerges a certain attitude and behaviour that I have observed among the people here. They are not in a tearing rush to react, because they know situation will change soon enough. As opposed to inaction (which seems a lazy idea) it appears that to regard change as a key agent in setting things right prevents people from being reactionary. 

As with most behaviours, there are benefits and limitations. It can be said that the villages around here aren’t really aspirational and progressive as a community is expected to be. But is that diminishing their quality of life or worsening their life outcomes in general? I do not know for sure yet.

The evening was spent in a couple of webinars on agriculture in India. There were civil servants from the agriculture and animal husbandry ministry sharing their views on the future of agriculture in India as well as big corporates weighing on the matter. I heard someone saying that farmers need to adopt a ‘technology mindset’ than a ‘subsidy mindset’ for the sector to develop forward. What that panelist might need to do first is to live for a couple of days in one of India’s 600,000 villages and experience a slice of cropping cycle. Maybe, he would know better than labeling it a subsidy mindset. All the technology requirement is on the corporates’ end who want to trade or process the harvest towards their own needs.. Not the farmers. Their farming practices have a decent level of technology embedded in them. 

I learnt about the government of India’s drought management manual that was developed by the National Institute of Hydrology in 2016. It explains the factors and assessment criteria based on which droughts are declared in an area. This was something new I learnt this week, especially, assessment of water level in reservoirs. It opens with a preface from Minister of Agriculture on a note that I broadly agree with –

The varied agro-climatic context of Indian agriculture and its general dependence on monsoon rains makes it particularly vulnerable to droughts. Significant public investments in irrigation and research in appropriate technologies, development of drought resilient seed varieties, strengthening of food security and public distribution networks, widening of social security nets and availability of employment guarantee schemes have contributed to the containment of many of the maladies, traditionally associated with droughts.

Next, I am exploring seed technology and plant molecular biology developments and published papers. I haven’t been in touch with any developments in this space since the time I graduated with a B Sc degree in biotechnology. It has been almost fifteen years since then.

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