Jan 1, 2014 – On my second visit to Maharashtra in a week, I am in Nagpur for the first time. Nagpur is famous for the santra or orange but I am here at the invitation of Keshav Kranti, the director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research.

I first visit the institute, where I notice the beginning of the revival of the cotton open pollinated varieties that will push back the onslaught of the hybrids. We drive to village Saheli, Taluk: Arvi, District: Wardha. Our guide and counsellor in this village, off the Nagpur Wardha Road, is Atul Sharma, the dean extension, in the Ramkrishna Bajaj College of Agriculture, Pipri, Wardha.

Given the regular experience of visiting farmers who are dissatisfied most of the time, one tends to get cynical. After a round of short pleasantries, my first question to farmer Ram Bahu Keshav Rao Kokate, aged 71, is about his problems. My meetings with farmers across the country have prepared me for all kinds of surprises but this one is quite out of the blue. Animals like wild boar and the nilgai (blue bull) are the biggest menace here. Saheli is ensconced within the hills of the Tadoba wildlife sanctuary.

If farm animals cross the boundaries of the sanctuary, they are caught and the farmers are arrested. The grouse that Keshav Rao has is simple. When sanctuary animals destroy more than 50 per cent of his crop why is he not compensated by the government? It is a classic case of animal rights versus human rights and it is not difficult to choose sides when one in surrounded by affected villagers.

Half in jest, I guess, he adds that the farmers can look after their animals while sanctuary must look after its own. Gun licences, earlier given to farmers for protection, are not easy to procure anymore. Keshav Rao does not believe in killing animals but expects the government of provide material support for fencing of lands.

Worse still, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is the centre point of all criticism in this village. It has extended the boundaries of the sanctuary without the consent of the gram sabhas, despite this being mandatory since 2006. Appeals have failed to arouse any reaction from the ministry that is quite deaf to the problems on the ground, as usual. I suspect that the fate of some 15 to 20 people, allotted land in this extended area decades ago, is now uncertain; they do not know what will happen to their land next.

These are dry, rainfed hills, where erratic and heavy showers can wash away the crop. Initially, the rain-gauge was kept at the district collector’s office. When there was a cloud burst in the villages, there was no compensation for the farmers because the rain gauge in the collector’s office had not recorded any rainfall. Now, these rain-gauges are being put up at the tehsil and at lower levels.

Of course, as in most of India, water for irrigation is a problem. Water flowing through these villages collects in the Dham dam, two kilometres downhill and is transferred through water canals to farms 150 km away to Hinganwadi. Villagers want some of the water to be uplifted back for irrigation. This seems to be a valid demand, otherwise they will continue to be at the mercy of the rains. It is a classic case where resources of an area are siphoned off to far away places due to faulty planning much like the minerals from the tribal belt of Jharkhand benefitting everyone else, far and wide, but the tribals. Indian politicians are known to pray to the gods for relief but never for the wisdom to formulate better policies and execute them well.

The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has financed the watershed programme implemented by the farmer covering 3,200 hectares, which includes over 1,000 hectares of forest land. Villagers have made seven check-dams on the main water channel. Good planning has ensured that the collected water is clean. Keshav Rao, who headed the programme, is also head of the ‘Van Samiti’ or forest committee. The NABARD disbursed Rs 2.5 crore as grant on a five per cent contribution by villagers between 2001 and 2009. Proudly, Keshav Rao tells me that the samiti has a corpus upwards of Rs 25 lakh.

As to deposits, the Wardha District Central Co-operative Bank failed and defaulted on returning farmers’ deposits. Now farmers may withdraw only Rs 500 at a time. Allegedly, the money was loaned to a relative of a member of the board of directors for a mill that has since declared bankruptcy.

Where water is available, as in village Dhayaegaon (Gundi), the yields of cotton are between 10 quintals and 15 quintals. In rainfed places like Saheli, the yield is only two quintals per acre. That is a why water is important, even though the watershed programme has helped recharge ground water increasing availability of water, there is need for more.
There are other serious problems of an intellectual nature. There is profligate use of hybrid cotton seeds and hybrid cotton has become synonymous with Bt cotton and the private sector. When two cotton plants are crossed with each other, the progeny plant is bigger than the larger parent, meaning that it has more green foliage requiring more nutrients and water, unsuited for dry land farming.

Keshav Kranthi is propagating a movement back to the open pollinated variety cotton and takes pains to explain the need for GM technology and the need to move away from hybrids.

It is an interesting thought that floored me completely. He faces flak from both the anti-GM movement and from the private sector companies for thinking differently. India is the only country in the world where 95 per cent of the cotton crop is hybrid. It is not even a fraction of that in the rest of the world.

Expenses for growing open pollinated varieties are lesser at Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 per acre and yields increase to five to six quintals with high-density planting. Generally, one kilogramme of Bt cotton seeds is planted per acre. The alternate is to plant five kgs of open pollinated variety seed like ‘Suraj’, a single-stem plant. This may also allow the farmer to produce his own seeds, free of cost.

Village scouts have been appointed for every two villages under the technology mission on cotton. The scout must be a village resident and inspects 10 plants for pests in each farmer’s field every week. The reports are collected, reported and analyzed. This process has reduced use of pesticide by more than 50 per cent. This is a perfect example of insecticide resistant management practice. Farmers desperately need this in the Malwa region of Punjab; the cancer capital of India.

Single phase electricity supply for the village is available but three phase electricity for agriculture comes for only five to six hours a day. Farmers complain that electricity connections are cut off for non-payment of bills, even when no person comes to read the meters. There are other issues too. The nearest health centre is 15 km away and there is no doctor on call at night. Free schooling is available till class IV and teachers teach regularly.

Nagpur tends to be warm in the day while the night temperature falls sharply. The weather is pleasant, in fact, perfect for me for I like the warmth of the sun. The gram panchayat office is full with local villagers and the discussion turns to policies being only good on paper but never getting implemented. Most agree that the state government is responsible for not implementing central government schemes.

These villagers seem free and relaxed as Keshav Rao and Atul Sharma answer my questions patiently. I venture forth, trying to validate my opinion on the growth versus development model and arouse the interest of the youngsters. Do you want cheap food? “Yes”, is the answer. Free electricity (even though supply is erratic)? “Yes”. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), even though payments are delayed? Again, a unanimous “yes”.

I turn the question around and ask what if there was a choice of not receiving cheap or free food, electricity, MGNREGA jobs or other government dole outs and the government spending the scarce resources for providing lift irrigation from the Dham dam? What would they prefer? The youngsters, who have been slouching on the floor till now, are up on their feet. They want investment in a lift irrigation system. With that, they explain, they will have better agriculture productivity with which they could pay for electricity and other necessities like fencing; jobs would be created in the village; and people could earn their own livelihood amongst other things.

The government fails to understand that creating equal opportunities for the people needs fair and just determination of priorities; it cannot be achieved through handouts. Handouts or aid exists are required when people cannot sustain themselves economically and not vice versa. One does not need formal education to understand that. Policymakers need to be as well connected to the masses as they were educated.

We drive to the Seva Gram Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi spent many years directing India’s freedom movement. It is a pilgrimage that everyone should undertake. We have lunch here and I relish the local food; jhunkabhakar (sorghum/jowar bread), puranboli (Bengal gram), kadhi (warm butter milk mixed with gram flour) and ambadi (red sorrel drink). The world-wide slow food movement could learn a thing or two here.

This is the ideological heartland of the Sarvodaya movement, the Gram Seva Trust and the Bajaj foundation’s activities are laudable. Atul Sharma comes from an illustrious family of social workers with a community-based development background. That is what the nation requires; the art of self help. Atul is still tormented by memories of the inglorious days of the Emergency. One shudders to look into a future when the curse of the dole out era that has affected the present generation, stalling growth and killing opportunities, will be recalled with just the same sense of torment.