It was a conference on ‘Difficult Dialogues’ organized in collaboration with the London School of Economics but one held in the most easy-going of places, Goa. It was a privilege to get invited to attend the programme in the august company of such luminaries as Pratap Bhanu Mehta and in the enthralling presence of the celebrated writer, Amitav Ghosh.
Amitav mesmerized us with his talk on the opium trade that at a time provided 50 per cent of the British empire’s revenues. Opium processed in factories in Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh or in Patna (such operations continue to this day) was the cause of the opium wars. Even when profits were extremely high, farmers producing the opium were paid a pittance that did not even cover the cost of cultivation.
That was amongst the first instance of a corporate structure influencing cropping mono-culture, something that Indian farmers suffer to this day. It all began with the Portuguese who established Goa and Macau in a manner of speaking. Macau became the gateway to China. Goa today is a tourist paradise where farming is not the mainstay of the economy.
Indeed, farmers are fleeing farming and abandoning farms, the subject of my speech at the programme. Smart cities are a pipe-dream and farmers continue to flock cities by millions every year. These are particularly perplexing times for Goa. The state government has notified that coconut trees will not be classified as trees. Before environment laws got tough a few years ago, a farmer could easily get permission to cut two trees a year on his own premises. That changed and farmers suffered, at least that is what 53-year old Caetan Vaz tells me. He explains that no part of the tree gets wasted; every part is used.
One of 10 siblings, Caetan bought his land after the tenancy act was enacted in the early 1970s. Only another sibling works on the farm now. He purchased the land for `35 per square metre. Now, the land price is inflated by arrivals from other states. Goans themselves cannot afford to buy the land anymore. Obviously, Caetan excludes the crony capitalists Goans, who have made truckloads of money from the extractive economy.
In Goa, the land is measured in meters and Caetan Vaz owns 10,000 square metres; about two acres. He is a proud owner of three cows that yield 12 litres a day. His family also owns a 35-year old male buffalo from the days of his father. Vets are available on call and Vaz has the option of accessing a vet and medication at half the cost from the co-operative. It provides him milk and he uses the manure for his farm.
Is he an organic farmer, I ask. He replies in the negative. He uses no fertilizer nor pesticide but does not care to classify himself as an organic farmer. I think of the many who use chemicals but classify themselves as organic, bringing a bad name to the rest. I ask him about his produce. He has planted jackfruit, cashew and supari now. His main crop is paddy and the variety is ‘Jyoti’. He prepares his land by removing the weeds and hand-spreading seeds on to the land and waits for the rains to do the rest. He sows in June and harvests in October.
Vaz’ biggest expense is weeding that begins 15 days after sowing and the cost of harvesting. Agriculture labour charges are `600 to `700 a day. If sowing, weeding and harvesting machinery do not become affordable and common, many will have to leave farming. There is one sowing and weeding machinery available on rent for `6,000 per acre. Demand is generating supply.
Monkeys and pigs are another major problem and sometimes compel farmers to leave land fallow at times other than when they grow paddy. What happily is not a problem is electricity supply or the public transport system in Goa. While public buses run on the state highways, private transporters ply the interior roads. Health care is satisfactory even though free medicines are not as easily available as before. However, expectations of a better system are missing; people have given up hoping because the hope has been belied. “Who runs the government is irrelevant. They are all the same”, is the common refrain across India.
Goans are allowed to migrate to Portugal. They can get a Portuguese passport if they can prove their ancestry to pre police-action times. This happened after many imposters forged documents to attain Portuguese passports to get to Europe. The Portuguese embassy has become strict and a church registered birth certificate probably does the trick now. Portugal is in the midst of a major recession but the grass seems to be greener on the other side and people are still leaving.
Goa is probably the first state to enact the price deficiency crop payment programme for multiple crops. Farmers can sell their crops to designated agents at the registered market yards and are entitled to receive a payment from the government for any shortfall from the minimum support price. A wonderful programme, only if the payments came in real time. Despite the technology to ensure timely payments being available most farmers usually receive payments a year late. This negates the scheme.
This is also one of the fears that haunt us when the government talks of direct transfer of fertilizer subsidy to the farmer’s account. Subsidies like those for water pump sets, digging wells or fencing are given after the work has completed. Usually payments take months to arrive if not more than a year. This actually means that the most deserving farmers, who are unable to make the initial investment, are denied the benefit of the programme. This is why designing policies better is important.
Caetan Vaz studied till Class 5. His only child is now in school. I ask him if he would want the son to farm after him. Caetan give me a blank look. I do not pursue the question. Additional income comes from cutting trees for others; probably one tree a month. In Goa probably 90 per cent of farmer families sustain themselves on additional non-farm tourism related income. The eternal fear is that Goa is a tourist paradise that will lose its sheen if coconut trees are allowed to be cut indiscriminately. The natural beauty of the landscape will certainly suffer, leading to loss of livelihood and no farm income to fall back upon. Small decisions can have a devastating impact. Only if the policy makers understood this