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Dead mango trees at the author's farm during the drought of 2011-2015

Uma Shankari

Did Marx call the peasant an idiot? He was right, I am an idiot.

Chittoor-based farmer and activist Uma Shankari writes: After the year 2010, for the first time we’ve had good rains; in fact exceptionally good rains, a side effect of the Chennai disaster. My husband used to say, “If Chennai drowns, we’ll be saved”. This time it came true. We’ve not seen such heavy rains in twenty, thirty years. (This is the second installment in our series Weathering The Change)

Uma Shankari

My husband Narendranath and I moved to the ancestral village in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh in 1985 to live by organic farming, and practice an eco-friendly lifestyle and social activism. We witnessed three droughts: 1987, 1998-2004 and 2011-2015. Thanks these successive droughts, the water situation here has become worse. The main culprit: government policy which encourages unsustainable use of ground water for growing water intensive cash crops. Poverty, the need for money and desperation makes people including farmers to do all the wrong things.

After 2010, for the firs time Chittoor district has had good rains; in fact exceptionally good rains, a side effect of the Chennai disaster. My husband used to say “If Chennai drowns, we will be saved”. This time it came true. We have not seen such heavy rains in twenty, thirty years. Chittoor has been suffering a five year shortage of rainfall, with ground water dropping to 1000 plus feet. Chittoor district now has the dubious distinction of having the highest concentration of borewells. The mainstay of drinking water in most villages had been the water tankers supplied by the government.

Thousands of trees have died during these last five years due to lack of water – a crisis wrought by both man and nature. If nature withheld showers, man relentlessly went on digging the ground for water. In our family farm of 30-odd acres, we lost 600 coconut trees and around 400 mango trees – trees that were hundred to fifty to twenty years old.


Workers cutting down dead coconut trees

But then the rains did come; at last; and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. But, now what? Farmers are in a dilemma. Should we grow a crop or not? If yes, what crop? For, the agricultural situation has changed so much. The number of farm workers has drastically reduced in the villages. Young people have migrated. In many villages, only the older people remain. In farming, you need attentive, intelligent and committed labour. And that comes from family labour. Both land owning and landless families have lost much of their labour force due to drought and to the lure of the city lights.

Share cropping arrangements used to be a way of tying landless/marginal farmer families to farming. Now workers are not ready to take up share cropping. If as a daily wage worker you get Rs. 200 to 250 by afternoon, why would you want to be a sharecropper, risking investment and tying up your labour in one spot? And farming is impossible without a team of committed workers. All this talk of surplus labour is a stupidity harboured and propagated by economists, who have never done any farming in their lives. The MNREGA was supposed to stop migration, but it has only been a partial success. As long as city wages are going to be more than rural wages, you can’t stop migration. Come to my village, and see for yourself. There are only old people and women left here.

What should we grow? Most farmers can’t think beyond paddy and sugarcane, tomatoes and mangoes. These are the crops they are used to growing; crops for which markets are well developed, but which brought the water crisis in the first place. To change to a different set of crops – crops which need less water, less labour, good yields, and have developed markets and good prices – these fantasies may be entertained by those in the world of computers and e-commerce, but we can’t stuff brinjals into our computers and send them to Singapore.


This hundred-year-old well is three-fourths full, but only thanks to the unprecedented rains in December 2015

And yet, as soon as we have good rains, there is a spring in the gait of farmers, their imagination runs ahead and hopes fly… With much cajoling, I just got my land ploughed (as there is a heavy demand for the tractor fellows and the window for ploughing is less than a week). I am thinking of an inter-crop of row-planted ragi, mirchi, and pulses, but before I even start sowing, I have to get my bore well motors and pumps pulled out and repaired. The mechanics are working round the clock, as everyone wants their machines repaired; we have to literally pester them to take up our machines. And yes, I have to shell out ten to twenty thousand rupees to get the job done.

I have already lost two crops and Rs. 9000 trying to grow foxtail millet (which is supposed to be the most drought resistant) after the October rains. I thought, let us at least have fodder, if not grains. The first time, there was a long dry spell after sowing and the seeds didn’t sprout at all; the second time there was heavy rain on the day seeds were sown! So there is no guarantee of getting a good crop, nor of prices.

But still, the farmer will not stop. What do you call it, except the idiocy of the peasant? But, I suppose it is this idiocy which feeds the world.

Uma Shankari and Narendranath have described their journey in their book
Dilemmas in Agriculture (pdf)View more articles by her at the Economic & Political Weekly website

(Weathering The Change is a short series presenting a ground-level perspective on the ongoing agricultural crisis, particularly as it relates to changing weather patterns. Read Part 1 of the series)

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