Mar 1, 2012 – I travel on the Grand Trunk Road, that historic thoroughfare, first constructed in the 3rd centruy BC when Chandra Gupta Maurya ruled India and then extended by Sher Shah Suri. I am on my way to village Ghirsindi Kala on the banks of Bihar’s Falgu river, which finds mention in the Ramayana. This was the region of academic and cultural excellence (CE) in ancient times.
Standing in the mid-day sun, under the shade of a mango tree, I wonder at the state of Bihar. What could have gone wrong, so horribly wrong, for the once culturally and economically rich state to have descended to such a pitiable state? Here, around the 5th century CE was set up at the greatest university and library of the world: the Nalanda university. It was also here, at Bodh Gaya, that Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment. More to the point, it is at the heart of the alluvial plains in the Indo-Gangetic region: the natural heartland for agriculture. Yet it is far from being agriculturally prosperous; the farmers are a sorry lot here and a worse future awaits their children.

Farmers pray to the trees for salvation. The turd tree offers hope: they scrape the bark of the tree and collect the liquid that oozes out in earthen pots. This is an excellent health drink provided it is consumed immediately. If not, it gets fermented into a light intoxicant alcoholic drink. One farmer asks the obvious question: why can this not be bottled and sold like other alcoholic drinks. I wonder: why does a government that seems to be doing wonders in the state not, address a simple issue like this? Cut to the bigger picture: why is the food processing industry fighting shy of Bihar? Clearly the dynamic chief minister realises that unless remedial action arrives at the Bihar countryside, the hype around administrative competence will wear thin. Bihar shows me how not to do things: demonstrable disdain and an opposition to good interventions that could really improve the farmers’ lot continues.

Consider the plight of a group of farmers in village Ghirsindi Kala, who talk to me. It is a village with 200 families and a thousand people. At least two thirds of the youth here are engaged in non-farming professions. More than 200 villagers are employed outside Bihar. Only one person has a government job. Geeta Devi and Raghu Yadav are quite vocal about their plight but the story is consistently depressing from village to village here and, indeed, across India. Lack of access to credit; usurious terms; shortage of water; lack of knowledge: the litany of woes is the same and why not? There is little by way of professional agricultural extension work and filling up the vacuum is the shopkeeper who sells the seeds and also advises the farmer on what seeds to buy, for instance. Obviously, he pushes those seeds that offer him the greatest margins. Nobody is concerned though, as the countryside is an easy prey as to spurious seed sellers. The other big problem is electricity. It is not available for more than four to five hours a day and that too at unspecified times at Ghirsindi Kala.

Even more scare is credit. Geeta Devi says that getting loans is near impossible. Worse is the shocking rate of interest that the moneylender charges: Loans for Rs 1,000 to Rs 5,000 come at a rate of interest of Rs 6 to Rs 8 per Rs 100, per month, which works out to 100 per cent annualised return for the moneylender. There is no state level intervention to bring about reforms in the agri systems in the region. Indeed, the government machinery is conspicuous by its absence.

The livestock fares no better than the humans. The villagers tell me that most of the livestock has been sold because there is not much to feed the animals. Those that have cows say that the yield is a litre of milk a day and there is no effort to increase the yields. No veterinary doctor ever visits the village; no agriculture officer has ever visited the village. I provoke them and insist that this is not possible. A teenager turns out of the crowd and informs me that “official visits are all on paper; the officers do not leave their offices but the paper work is all there.” This is the kind of cynicism that resides in the masses about agriculture officials.

It is in this sad state of affairs that the IFFCO Foundation has ventured to intervene. It has helped with the formation of a self-help group with 11 members as a Primary Agriculture Society (PAX). It realised early enough that that self-staining farming is the key to upliftment of the farmer and not just doles. It dug a well and installed a water lift irrigation infrastructure, which the village self-help group regulates, maintains and operates. The membership has grown to 521 members. Of them, 141 farmers get water from the tube well and an 11-member committee after the working of the well. The farmers pay a service charge of Rs 15 per hour and every time the diesel generator is operated to draw water from the well the farmer has to replenish the diesel tank for the quantity that he has consumed. These are simple rules, they work very well and teach an important lesson.

Personally, they reinforce my understanding that the future lies in grouping farmers to negate the otherwise minuscule voice that they have on account of the small individual land holdings. Control and a sense of ownership of the stakeholders in these groups is critical to their success. Simplicity is the other key. Once the structure is simple and the members ‘own’ it, the rest falls in place. Even myths are dispelled.

In the Ramayana, the river Falgu was cursed by Sita and the popular belief here has been that the wells would run dry when used. This scepticism accompanied the installation of this tube well too: water would run out, the villagers said. It has not. There are major problems facing the river Falgu though. This rain-fed river is no more than a stream following three years of extremely scanty rains. There was not enough water for the river to be recharged. The underground water level too has been continuously receding and there are no other systems for recharging ground water.

Things are changing though, even with the very basic introduction of the tube well. The village sowed a single crop in the yesteryears. With the lift irrigation now available, the farmers who get water through this scheme also grow potatoes and pulses such as masoor dal. The farmers are very happy with this diversification because they see profit for a change.

Raghu Yadav explained to me the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) that the self-help group has started to practice with help of foundation experts. Plant cultivation is optimised as seeds are planted under the 20 cm X 20 cm regime or two seeds instead of one. Holes are dug by hand and seeds are planted at a depth of between four cms and five cms. Green manuring is used first for better results and the average yield has increased from 40 quintals per acre to 98 quintals per acre. A little extension service has transformed the state of the farmer from one of despair to hope.

A lot has changed in the village since the advent of lift irrigation. Regular farming has become possible and fewer people are migrating for work. Surprisingly, only those belonging to the scheduled castes get MGNREGA work – not the others – at a salary of Rs 120 a day. Labour charges in the village have increased by Rs 350 to Rs 400 per acre. There is share-cropping as well: land owners give land to other farmers on a 50:50 ratio. The land and the inputs are provided by the farmer and the labour is provided by the tenant. One farmer has just purchased the first tractor in the village and most people have mobile phones. Never have MP or MLA funds been given to the village though.

Thus there are problems aplenty. Even financial dues arrive late in this region: the Rs 200 per month old age pension comes six months late and there are the aged who have received no pension for six months. There is no dispensary in the village. No doctor visit the village. The only health care is the annual check-up offered by the foundation. There are no toilets in the village and it got its first school only two years ago; up to class five. Children must go to the adjoining village to study thereafter.

Neglect and inadequacies rule the countryside. A person is entitled to 25 kgs of grains a month but gets only 20 kgs: 12 kgs of rice and 8 kgs of wheat. A farmer is entitled to 2.75 litres of kerosene but gets only 2.50 litres. Does the balance get siphoned off, as has been proved in Punjab or is there inadequate supply? Even the below the poverty line schemes are meant for the favourites. “There are the laal (red coloured) card, the ration card, the APL, BPL and the Antyodaya Scheme but the beneficiaries are chosen by the administration. All those who genuinely qualify do not necessarily get these cards,” I am told. In fact, in Ghirsindi Kala, a lot of people who are not eligible for such largesse have got cards, thanks to political patronage. This is the worst aspect of elected governance. Such discrimination only enhances friction in the village.
There are no cold storages or godowns but neither is there a shortage of fertiliser in the village because there is no demand. Only rudimentary implements are used, possibly little improved since the Maurayan times. Rice sells at less than the minimum support price and there is nothing by way of a marketing infrastructure. Mandis or markets are required before production increases and only then can the fruits of the ‘second green revolution’ accrue to the farmer. Increased production is not a solution in itself but a link in the process.

At Ghirsindi Kala though, the farmers are no longer praying for better crops: bijli, paani aur siksha (electricity, water and education) is what they want first. Education is probably what will get their children out of the vicious cycle of farm poverty. No child can be more cursed than to be born to a farmer in this forsaken land.