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How government can boost incomes of farm help to enable them to face a drought better

Sure, the rains are picking up, but droughts will strike again. Government can boost incomes of farm help to enable them to face a drought better.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Aug 21, 2012, 07.42 AM IST
Sure, the rains are picking up, but droughts will strike again. Government
can boost incomes of farm help to enable them to face a drought better.
Sure, the rains are picking up, but droughts will strike again. Government can boost incomes of farm help to enable them to face a drought better.
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The rains are picking up, but still the latest numbers released by the agriculture ministry show that about 60% of India has received less rainfall this monsoon, resulting in 4.4 million hectares of less area being sown.

This represents a seemingly minor decline in area sown, of 5.5% over last year, but its impact on people who work the fields is major — by a crude estimate, an income loss of Rs 10,800 crore.

One hectare of agri land provides 285 person-days of employment in a year, according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. Assuming half is in the monsoon season—India has two agricultural seasons—this means a loss of 625 million persondays (4.4 million x 142).

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a good reference point to impute a value to it. For the nine months to December 2011, NREGS paid out Rs 20,866 crore for 1,210 million person-days of employment. Or, a value of Rs 10,800 crore for 625 million person-days. This Rs 10,800 crore loss is felt more because farm labour perpetually lives on the edge.

Rural households will try to reduce their expenditure, borrow credit for consumption at high interest rates and sell productive assets like livestock, says Humnath Bhandari, agricultural economist with International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Agricultural experts say the government can do more to increase the insulation of incomes of farm labourers to drought, and not just this year because droughts are a recurring phenomenon. Further, they add, it can take the shape of a three-pronged approach— alternative employment in the short term, new income streams in the medium term and fixing irrigation in the long term—and that there are local innovations in each of these areas that are delivering and can serve as reference points.

Short Term: Alternative Employment

“Drought is a short-term phenomena and relief has to be immediate,” says Himanshu, an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

There is unanimity among agricultural experts that public works—for example, building canals, water-storage tanks and regenerating soil—should be increased to provide alternative employment to farm labourers. There are, however, differences on what kind of public works should be undertaken and by whom.

Himanshu wants public works to be routed through NREGS. Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), terms NREGS a “mixed experiment”. A critique of NREGS—which assures 100 days employment in a financial year to a rural household—is that it is rife with corruption and that many assets created through it don’t have an economic use. “Route public works through local NGOs (non-government organisations) and SHGs (self-help groups), with strict government monitoring,” says Gulati.

On what kind of assets should be built, agricultural experts say there is plenty of scope—coupled with need—for public works meant for agriculture itself. “Regeneration of soil and water could be given priority,” says Himanshu.

Gulati says check dams, by capturing water and topsoil, will bring the most benefit among short-term measures. “Put money in activities like repairing/deepening the tanks, and completing the lower-level canal system (essentially, last-mile connectivity),” adds Yoginder K Alagh, chairman, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA).

E Vadivel, director of extension education with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), says NREGS work should be directed towards helping small and marginal farmers. “A majority of farmers have small land holdings.


They too are equally affected just like farm labourers,” he adds. Vadivel was part of the team that piloted a state-sponsored precisionfarming programme in 2006 with 400 farmers in two districts, which has since scaled up to 60,000 farmers in 12 districts.

Medium Term: New Income Streams

Terming drought a recurrent problem, Sushil Pandey, a senior agricultural economist with IRRI, says its management must be based on long-term strategies. “Policies that promote income diversification are hence needed,” he adds.

According to Gulati, over the last 25 years, the share of non-farm income in rural households has increased from less than 23% to around 50%. However, he adds, given that 54% of rural workers still depend on agriculture, the scope for further diversification is huge.

Livestock is the most popular income-diversification option. It requires a small investment, it is easy to organise and it requires minimal intervention. In Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, a chicken-breeding pilot is generating an income of Rs 4,000 a year on an investment of just Rs 100 per household.

Started in 2000 by an NGO called Social Change and Development, the programme organises rural women within self-help groups (SHGs) in batches of 5-10. It then gives 5-6 good quality chicks to each woman. “The maintenance cost is nothing except feeding few broken grains each day,” says V Srinivasan, the programme coordinator.

“The rural environment is selfsustaining and the local breeds don’t need any medical care too.” Each hen lays 60-90 eggs in a year, which are sold as either eggs or chicken, yielding Rs 4,000-5,000 a year. The NGO organises a physical market that brings together buyers from nearby city centres and SHG sellers. “This also gives bargaining power to farmers,” says Subramanian. So far, the NGO has covered 85 villages with 200 SHGs.

Vadivel of TNAU says this idea is feasible in areas where the density of SHGs is high. He adds governments can also consider giving goats and cows to rural households. “A goat is like a walking ATM, with good cash flow to the farmer,” he says. “Only local breeds need to be given because of low maintenance cost.”

This is something the Jayalalitha government is doing in Tamil Nadu as part of its poll promises. The state government’s plan is to provide three female and one male goat. It is expected that, in two years, this will lead to 5-6 kids, each of which is grown for six months and sold at an average price of Rs 4,000. So in a year, a farmer can sell around three goats in the market and produce the same number, and make Rs 12,000 in a year. Vadivel says the scheme is doing well so far, and only 10% of the people who received livestock might have sold it.

Long Term: Fixing Irrigation

Livestock and public works, for all their good intentions, remain supplementary measures. If agriculture remains the primary source of income of farm help, the government has to fix irrigation to overcome periods when a bad monsoon plays havoc with their employment prospects.

“Except paddy, all other crops should be brought under drip irrigation,” says Vadivel. In drip irrigation, which is a more efficient way of watering crops, water and fertilisers are fed directly to the roots through a network of underground pipes. Although it entails an initial investment of Rs 1-1.5 lakh per acre, savings on inputs compensates for it. “The two big benefits are that input efficiency is 90-95% and expenditure on weed management is only a fifth.”


Crudely put, 50% more land can be irrigated with the same amount of water used conventionally. Gulati of CACP says rice and sugarcane are water-guzzlers, with each kg requiring at least 3,000 litres of water. “In Maharashtra, 3% of the cropped area drinks up 60% of water,” he adds. “If sugarcane farmers are forced to go in for drip irrigation, it will mean additional 50% water for other farmers.”

In Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri, the two Tamil Nadu districts where TNAU piloted a drip-irrigation project, farmers have reported 65% savings in consumption of water.

These two districts receive rainfall of about 25% below the national average. The state government provided a 50% subsidy on the capital cost of Rs 1-1.5 lakh per acre and officials from TNAU provided guidance and support to farmers for one to two years.

Alagh makes a case for empowering local communities with water-management tools. “They have become cheap, enabling almost real-time monitoring of water table and usage patterns.”

Once such project, which ran between 2003 and 2008, has helped farmers in 638 villages covering seven drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh monitor their water consumption, and make more informed choices.

The Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems (APFAMGS) project is a partnership between the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), a United Nations body, and the Bharatiya Integrated Rural Development Society, a non-profit. Hydrological devices are installed at the villages and volunteers among farmers are trained to measure on a daily basis.

Thereafter, the information is made public. “Through this participatory water management, farmers were able to see the water usage and recharge process,” says Alagh. “Thereafter, allotment of water is decided.” He adds that, as a result of this project, which was funded by Netherlands, farmers have moved away from waterintensive paddy cultivation to other crops.

Talking Heads

Himanshu, Assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at JNU: Drought is a short-term phenomena and relief has to be immediate. So, the focus should be on public employment through NREGS

Ashok Gulati, Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices: NREGS is a mixed experiment. So, it will be a good idea to route public works through local NGOs and SHGs, with strict government monitoring

Yoginder K Alagh, Chairman, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA): In the short run, put money in activities like repairing and deepening water tanks, and completing the lower-level canal system

With inputs from Sameer Bhardwaj

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