Unsettling Winters – Deadly Food Bowl

by | Mar 19, 2020

Growing up in a small city in north India, my favorite time of the year was winters. Playing badminton with my father and sister in the foggy mornings, sitting by the bonfire and eating vegetables roasted in it, are some of the best memories. Summer and monsoon seasons mostly brought restrictions but winters were liberating, as you could just put warm clothes on and you were good to go. I moved to Delhi in 2007, and here winters were even more fun. Going to school early in the morning, walking through the clean foggy morning in beautiful Hauz Khas, brought such joy. But this was short-lived as I slowly began to experience what you can call the death of winters. Year on year, clean pristine winter mornings waned and smog set in. It’s sad that the kids today cannot enjoy such beautiful winter walks anymore in Delhi. This change isn’t restricted to just Delhi but most of northern India. It’s unfortunate that only Delhi gets highlighted while the plight of the rest is left unheard.

File image of Delhi, filled with smog, in the winter of 2019-20. Image courtesy Flickr

So how did this happen?

Burning of paddy stubble combined with the low-pressure conditions in northern India are the main reasons why people suffer in winter more than any other time of the year. While one cannot do anything about the punishing geography of Delhi, We can definitely do something about the state of agriculture in the region and beyond. Till around the 1960s, agriculture in our country was mostly self-reliant. Farmers grew food from their own seeds, used organic fertilizers and were driven by the local demand. With the Green Revolution, the majority of the ‘good’ farmlands were under hybrid crops using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This altered the cropping patterns and now government policies of subsidies and Minimum Support Price (MSP) dictated the choice of crop. Come 1990, India became a net exporter of food grains from a dismal, famine-ridden, import-dependent country. 

This came at a price, with the cost of farming rising, farmers are forced to cultivate three crops a year to milk any profit over their investment. This leaves a very small window in between the farming seasons, hence the farmers resort to burning the stubble to make space for the winter crop.

Paradox of the plenty

Perennial rivers and linked canals provide year-round irrigation and facilitate an eternal growing season throughout the year. But intensive farming has degraded the land and now going back has become painfully difficult. Farmers of ‘green belt’ (Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh) traditionally didn’t grow rice, as it didn’t suit the climate. With govt. push for more food production, MSPs and water availability, the region is growing more rice than the traditional growers (southern and eastern India). This fetches good money but is extremely detrimental in the long run, as the soil is already giving up.

Farmers have already been pushed to their limits. The cost of labor, seeds, fertilizers, and machines is so high that growing more is an obligation. When it doesn’t happen due to bad weather or crop failure many small farmers resort to suicide. One might ponder that, how on earth one of the most gifted agricultural regions in the world has become a killing field. As per Punjab Agricultural University, in the last seventeen years, an average of nine hundred farmers have committed suicide annually.

Images like these, indicated the new found glory of the ‘Green Belt’, post the ‘Green Revolution’

The case of Dharampur, Gujarat

“Our region receives massive rainfall in monsoon, but almost all runs off quickly. This leaves us with no water for summers and we have to migrate to cities for work. This has been the pattern for most tribal families for many decades”, says Srijit from Tamak village.

“But for the last seven years, this has changed for my family as we are able to fend for ourselves in summer, thanks to the earnings from selling mango, cashew, and honey. This has been possible only because of my association with BAIF and UTMT in the region. I have been a beneficiary of both the organization. While BAIF has made a check dam near my village and has helped me develop mango and cashew on my rocky farms where cultivation wasn’t suitable, UTMT has helped me with beekeeping training and provided bee boxes. More than honey, I earn more due to the increased productivity of my farms because of better pollination services provided by the bees.”

Like Srijit many farmers have benefitted from such intervention by the organizations working in this region, while others continue to migrate and work in vineyards in Nashik or as laborers in other cities. This shows that the region has a high return on investment. If the government can manage to channel the monsoon water for year-round irrigation, farming will multiply in the region even without inputs for fertilizers and pesticides.

Chilli farm in a village in Dharampur. While most of the farming in the region is subsistence, there is a wide scope of growth if water and soil management is improved.

Baring availability of water throughout the year, there is no major challenge for agriculture here. Soil is sacred for people and they, by default, practice organic farming. With little intervention in irrigation and scientific know-how, these places have and will do wonders in agriculture. Most of the tribal farmers still practice what can be called a zero-waste nature farming in southern Gujarat tribal belt. Being a hilly region, the land resource is scarce and scattered. It makes sense for them to use locally available resources to farm. Most of them have small plots where they have a hen, cattle, fruit trees, flower plants, kitchen garden, etc. They cultivate local seeds and use organic fertilizers. The use of machines is a bare minimum because of the small farm size and lack of adequate finances.

A steady return to scientific sustainable farming is a necessity both for farmers as well as the city dwellers in the country. Farming with local seeds and manure is good but the selection of good seeds, drip irrigation, placements methods, etc will help them grow more and better. The government spends thousands of crores on fertilizer subsidy alone, which is only further harming the land and farmer. Instead, even a fraction of it if used on technological and training support in sustainable farming, change can be brought within years without compromising on output.

Intensive farming is like running on steroids, which gives quick visible results but degrades the body eventually. Chemical-based intensive farming took decades to flourish, it will take longer and sustained efforts to revert to sustainable ways of farming to have a sustainable future.

Stay in the loop…

Latest stories and insights from India Fellow delivered in your inbox.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: