Monday, December 5, 2022

Agriculture: A withering profession

Agriculture, the beautiful art, science and practise of farming seems to be withering not in numbers leading to the production of food, but as a career in Nagaland.
This very state which is termed as an ‘agricultural economy state’ and engages more than 74% of the population (2, 50,360 farming households) being directly /indirectly dependent on agri and allied activities. But if we scan at the farming sector thoroughly, there are only a few substantial farmers along with their family members who help occasionally in the farm as wage labourers.
Current scenario
If we observe the market closely, majority of us rely on imported foods vis rice, dal, potatoes, oil, fish, meat and on and on. These commodities are supplied not just from the neighbouring states but from the far ends of the country. Taking the example of our staple food rice, the gross cropped area under in the case of food grains, rice accounts for about 84.4%. In a survey across BOC area and High School junction, two of the busiest marketing points of Kohima town, several shopkeepers confirmed that 3 years back they could easily sell 10-15bags of 25 kilo rice bags in a week while on good days it easily exceeded 20 bags.
However, post COVID economy, they barely sell 5 bags per week.
Upon enquiry on reduction of sales, the concerned shopkeepers lamented that they noticed people were not getting their salary on time which could be one reason and the other most probable reason was ration distribution among the citizens.
After careful observation of the supply and demand, during an interaction, Mr X shared that even his regular customers started to purchase only half of the usual amount, as the people tended to mix the ration rice and rice from the market. He shared that after the pandemic, sales of some commodities have gone low, and rice was one of them.
On October 2022, in a press release The Food Corporation of India, FCI Nagaland Region informed that there was no procurement of rice or paddy in the year 2022, so in order to meet the needs of citizens in the State, Central government has allocated approximately 27,000 Metric Tons rice for the month of October 2022 through different schemes such as National Food Security Act, Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana and other welfare schemes.
It was noted that 43 thousand 111 Metric tons of rice was in stock which was estimated to be sufficient to meet the requirements of Nagaland.
Looking at the demand of food grains, Nagaland which reportedly has higher average size of land holding with 2.1 hectares in comparison with states like Tripura which reported for less average size of land holding with 0.60 hectare, it is alarming that with such high holding system the state is not able to meet local needs and are reliant more on the market and external supply.
With the region being primarily hilly terrain, it is not feasible to adopt extensive mechanized operations; additionally, the fragmentation of land holding system across the state contributes to less use of mechanization as reported from several sources.
The challenges
There are a lot of factors that contribute to the problem of Agriculture decaying as a profession, such as:
(a)Younger generations not keen on following the traditional footsteps of farming and migrating towards urban spaces which offer greater opportunities – According to the 2011 census, in India, there are about 14.5 crore farmers and 27 crore farm labourers in India, however, around 60 crore farmers are directly and indirectly associated with farming.
In a survey taken across Kohima, when vegetables vendors were asked on if they would want their children to take up/pursue farming, 85% directly said they do not want their children to take up farming and preferred stable humble government jobs instead. The remaining 15% shared that they would want their children to take up farming as a career, but shared apprehensions if their children chose to enter the Agri-allied sector.
(b) Increase in population along with continuous deforestation resulting in land degradation across the state. One major contribution to land degradation is jhum cultivation, in referencing to Kundan Pandey’s, ‘Desertification in India: Slash-and-burn farming destroys Nagaland’, where it pointed out that in ‘’Kohima, approx. 62.43% of the area is under degradation and satellite images show that eastern Kohima has lost a massive chunk of forest cover in merely a decade as a result of jhum cultivation’’. This traditional system involving approximately 1,35,339 rural households with their farming activities covering about 947.37 Sq. Km constitutes about 5.71% of total geographical area and the intensive practice has resulted in an average loss of 30.62 tonnes of soil area per hectare annually, as read in Nagaland’s soil and water conservation department’s annual report for 2017-18.
As per the ‘India State of Forest Report 2021’ (ISFR) prepared by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) report, Nagaland recorded a massive decline of 235 square kilometre decline in forest cover from 2019-21 period, however, this had damaged the region’s biodiversity and led to alarming increased poverty and landlessness. Urbanisation, with rapid increase in population is continuing at such an alarming rate that land holdings are decreasing and such most of the families don’t possess adequate land to sustain themselves.
(c) The existing agricultural practices are either ineffective or outdated:
Agriculture in Nagaland still remains subsistence based, and the potential for commercialization remains largely unexplored.
(d) Too much of climate change
Believe it or not, but climate change has brought on heavy impact on certain areas allocated for agriculture, especially paddy cultivation. On a global scale, if the temperature increases more, there is likely to have more negative impacts on paddy fields, just like any other agricultural sectors.
The International Food Policy Research Institute predicted rise in price of rice by 2050 because of the climate change. In addition to that, rice productivity is expected to be reduced by 14% in South Asia, by 10% in East Asia and the Pacific, and by 15% in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.
The effect of climate change has the potential to damage crop yields, though factors such as increased weed growth, diseases that affect the main crop and other cereal grains, but the extreme weather conditions have also led to rodent and pest population outbreaks in the state or have provoked the increase of the intensity of some diseases.
Nagaland faced a drought-like situation covering a total area of 68,662 hectares of jhum fields in 915 villages, and with deficit rainfall, from December 2020 to April 2021, jhum fields were drastically affected resulting in poor germination and wilting of standing crops, Agriculture Production Commissioner (APC), Y Kikheto Sema informed.
Taking the example of the deadly Fall Army worm that stormed Nagaland in 2021, a huge infestation of Fall Armyworm was reported (FAW) for an area of 3048.45 hectares of maize crop spreading across 334 villages, along with drought-like conditions faced by the farming community due to shortage of rainfall. According to the Department of Agriculture, it was reported that the outbreak had been triggered by warm temperatures associated with dry spell. The pandemic like infestation not only affected the main maize crop but also had caused nuisance to other crops.
(E) Road connectivity still remains a distant dream
With poor road connectivity, the major constraint across the state, farmers possess scattered holdings and at times and the little quantity of produce available becomes uneconomical to carry to the assembling markets located at distant places where middlemen operate at different stages and mostly the roads leading to the villages across the state during rainy seasons the roads are almost cut-off from the market place.
Under most situations, the produces are collected from the producers/farmers in the interior villages and are brought to a collecting point, mostly by the women folks or other times are sold to merchants and there is also general shortage of storage facilities in both the urban and rural areas of the state. Due to this lack of storage facilities, the traders and small merchants tend to purchase the produce from villagers/producers immediately after harvest or else the produces are eaten by rodents etc and hence advantages are due to the difficult topography, lack of proper transportations and other basic infrastructure facilities the hard work of the farmers leads them at losses.
Marketing of agricultural commodities in the state is dominated by the private traders or middle men due to the absence of proper marketing sheds and good road connectivity across the state. Besides, the poor infrastructure, procurement practices, marketing approaches and processing facilities are observed to be the primary challenges in context to rural marketing.
In Nagaland, marketing of agricultural produce is not systematically organized, and a part of the lion’s share ends up in the wallets of the innumerable middlemen working in between the farmer and the customer.
Schemes and more schemes
During the 12th Five-year plan, GOI launched several National Flagship programmes with emphasis on sustainability and development in the agriculture sector and with CSS programmes like ATMA, NFSM, NEC, RKVY, PMKSY and PM-KISAN etc contributing massively and have been recorded to have drastically benefit the farming community at large.
However, the harsh reality is that current policies and schemes have also failed to recognise the crop choices, input costs, and the supply chain being intertwined, thus perpetuating marginal farming. Moreover, growing more food is not the solution to providing employment.
Ground reality
Remembering on the faithful promises of our Prime Minister back in February 2016, that the “farmers income across the country to be doubled by 2022-23”. For an instance if the farmers were earning Rs10,000 during that the time of the pledge they would ideally be taking home Rs. 20,000 today, yet the question remains for us to answer whether this is a reality or still a goal in Nagaland.
With the passing of time, the profession of farming is ignored over all the other professions and is mostly followed by elderly or middle-aged people. True, a small but growing movement of millennial are seeking out a more agrarian life, but in the end such farming is carried out primarily for personal consumption and rest for marketing purpose.
Fundamentally, Nagaland must figure out a way to provide employment to thousands of people outside agriculture and failing to do so, highlights failure towards human development.
With the introduction of ration system in the state, the age-old paddy cultivation has been reduced very drastically. Many farmers have become more reliant on the ration rather than toiling in the scorching sun, leaving about more than majority of their cultivated area.
Taking example of Khuzama, a farmer shared the story of her sweet childhood days their entire village was covered with paddy cultivation, however, over the years around more than 40% has been utilized for other activities rather than agriculture and her family has shifted more towards minimal vegetable farming for their own sustenance.
Taking note of the unpredictable climate and situations, some farmers in Thenyizu village under Phek district, after practising the age old traditional farming have shifted to cultivation of horticultural crops, mostly vegetables such as cabbage, chillies, king chilli rather than field crops, and while some farming community have moved from paddy cultivation due to some reasons and leaned towards fishery farming at Tethuyo village, under Longmatra block, Kiphire district.
The ground reality is that the sooner we shift agriculture away from politics, and stop applying band-aids to fundamental challenges and figure out solutions for the farmers , the sooner we can take bold steps in other directions. The declining participation of labour force in agriculture is an alarming and inevitable phase in the state’s transition towards urbanisation, while a large part of the workforce awaits the creation of factory jobs to transition out of agriculture, the only question remains which direction is agriculture in Nagaland headed?
Virosanuo Solo,
PHD scholar, Nagaland University, SASRD, Medziphema

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