Farming in India: Green shoots

Meet the non-profits and private companies digging to the root of poverty among India’s smallholder farmers

India’s economic miracle has yet to work its magic in Yeluvahalli. Just 108 kilometres outside Bangalore, the pulsing heart of India’s technology boom, the village is home to dozens of small-scale farmers struggling to coax a living from tiny patches of land. For 50-year-old Shivanna, the annual harvest is barely enough to feed his family and too small to sustain them through the droughts that haunt the village each spring. In an attempt to boost his crop yield, he has shouldered debts to buy chemical fertiliser.

“The rains have reduced a lot, especially in the last four to five years,” he says. “It is also much hotter in the summer, which means the water in the village ponds dries up before the dry season is over.”

Shivanna’s misfortune is a grim reminder of an uncomfortable truth. India, despite its ambitions as a rising economic giant, is still struggling to thin the ranks of the rural poor. Towns and villages house around 70 per cent of the Asian country’s 1.2 billion people, a large number of which exist on the knife-edge of poverty. Three out of five Indians live dangerously close to the breadline of $1.17 a day, with the spending growth of the poorest 40 per cent still trailing the national average. While one India is prospering, driven by a small but thriving urban elite, the other has failed to catch the rising tide of wealth that has recently transformed the country’s cities. Smallholder farmers, overwhelmingly, are in the latter camp.

“Many of the rural poor can barely read or write, and they are geographically isolated. They don’t have many options”

“India’s pattern of economic growth is not equal,” says Sumiter Broca, policy officer with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Asia-Pacific office. “The rewards have gone to those with some sort of qualifications or skills, or with capital.”

Agriculture employs more than half of the Indian population, but accounts for around just 13 per cent of the economy.

“Many of the rural poor can barely read or write, and they are geographically isolated,” Broca says. “They don’t have many options. It’s the 1 per cent of the population that has done well.”

Across India’s villages, this economic partition is only too visible. Farmers survive with scattered pockets of land, poor roads and no water or electricity. Illiteracy is rife, so workers farm by instinct rather than information. A lack of access to cash or credit means only a handful have access to modern farming methods and equipment.

More than half of cultivated land in India is rain-fed rather than irrigated, and crops from rice to cotton are at the mercy of the monsoons. Good fortune can be fleeting: smallholders are often one bad harvest away from catastrophe. Government data shows more than 15,400 farmers took their own lives in 2012, as drought pushed them further into debt. “Farming is an incredibly difficult occupation,” says Broca. “Even down to personal risk in terms of injury or death. It shouldn’t be romanticised.”

Tackling these problems demands a radical overhaul of India’s farming industry, starting with its poorest players. Scotland-based charity SCIAF is among those digging to the root of rural poverty and trying to bolster incomes for smallholders. The organisation pairs with non-profits in northern and southern India to improve farmers’ skills, boost their yields with basic techniques, and to part-finance small loans to help them buy equipment or seeds. They also work to band local farmers together in co-operatives, creating scale for collective economic clout.

“Most are facing the same economic and social problems,” says Percy Patrick, programme manager for India, SCIAF. “When you are going together to trade in the market or to the local government, your voice is more likely to be heard.”

Alongside its partners, SCIAF works with more than 3,400 households across India, largely in Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Most are supporting families of five or more, on less than 2 acres of land and just a few dollars of income a day. More than half are women. Almost all are illiterate.

The co-operatives double as a source of credit, or saving scheme. With few assets to hedge against, mainstream banks are wary of lending to marginal farmers, who often struggle to secure the cash to buy seeds and fertiliser in the planting season. Instead, farmers are nudged towards moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates for loans and can lay claim to their harvest or land if they fail to meet their repayments.

“With the co-op, you might pay a small percentage of interest, but it’s much safer than dealing with loan sharks,” says Patrick. “We promote a policy of saving among members, and that money can be used not just for farming, but also for education or healthcare or for other purposes.”

Some of the biggest wins, says Patrick, have come from improving farmers’ access to water, either by reviving community ponds, digging wells or installing small dams. “These villages are totally dependent on rain,” he says. “If we can improve water access, some of these farmers will take a second or even third crop each year, or start a small kitchen garden. It means they aren’t dependent on one harvest, and they have food for a longer period of the year.”

Creative solutions are also coming from technology start-ups, both in the social enterprise and for-profit sectors. One example is Digital Green, a company that began life as an offshoot of Microsoft Research and now works with farmers all over India. The firm creates short ‘how-to’ videos to demonstrate specific skills or farming techniques, which are screened to groups in other villages. The videos star local farmers, captured using cheap cameras, and broadcast using pocket-sized projectors. The aim is to spur the adoption of new methods, and questions asked by farmers during the screenings are fed back to shape the topics of future videos. As a visual medium, its neatest trick is sidestepping the problem of illiteracy, estimated at 40 per cent in India.

“If we’re screening a video about cattle, but someone asks a question about, say, pest control on cauliflower, that helps inform the next video we shoot,” says Digital Green CEO Rikin Gandhi. “But the first questions we hear are always about what is the name of the person in the video, about their family and what village is he or she from. The local element is very important to the process.”

To date, Digital Green has reached more than 150,000 farmers in India, Ghana and Ethiopia, with a library of 2,608 videos. The project, which is part-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, puts the cost of getting a farmer to adopt a new behaviour at between $3.50 and $4.

“Farmers need to see higher earnings from the produce they grow,” says Gandhi. “It’s a major challenge, but by teaching better practices, we can help them to achieve it.”

Technology firm Reuters Market Light (RML) is also digging deep into India’s villages. Tapping into the Asian state’s high mobile penetration rates, the firm uses an SMS service to send data on crop prices, weather and agricultural tips to farmers. For about $1.60 a month, rural subscribers receive three or four texts a day to their mobile phones, tailored to the sort of crop they farm, and their location.

“We cover everything from pre-sowing to post-harvest; everything the farmer needs to make better decisions,” says Amit Mehra, founder and CEO, RML. “We track whether prices are up or down, if there is, say, an outbreak of a particular crop disease, whether the local market will be closed on Tuesday; it’s very specific.”

The data is gathered by a hive of up to 400 reporters, who swarm local markets to gather up-to-the-minute information. To date, 1.3 million farmers in 50,000 villages have signed up for the service, but RML says it is still battling to reach India’s poorest. “We’re still working to engage more subsistence farmers,” says Mehra. “Even at this low cost, they might not find it economical.”

The firm is dabbling with a shorter subscription period, covering only the harvest season at a lower cost. It is also in talks with state governments to potentially subsidise subscription rates. If it succeeds in scaling up to a much larger audience, the windfall could be significant – both for RML, and the isolated smallholders it reaches. “Younger farmers see about 9 per cent higher pricing using our information,” says Mehra. “Subscribers who sold directly to traders saw an 8 per cent price increase.”

Jaswinder Singh, a potato and rice farmer in the Punjab, is a case in point. He used the data to haggle for a better price for his crop at his local market.

“A local trader wanted to purchase my potatoes for Rs365 ($5.90) per bag,” he says. “But since I knew the market rate for potatoes, I sold them at the rate of Rs427 ($6.94) per bag.”

The involvement of private sector companies and non-profits may be critical in the evolution of India’s farming sector. The state has poured billions of dollars into subsidies in India’s countryside, to chip away at the damage caused by water scarcity, skewed market pricing and a lack of rural infrastructure. These efforts have done little to lift the wider industry, in part because of corruption and inefficiency.

“There are schemes to support farmers but accountability is an issue, both in terms of funding being distributed and corruption,” says Patrick. “And that’s assuming the farmers even know about the scheme and how to apply for it.”

He recalls an incident after a local non-profit partner Prakruthi had helped more than 500 rural households in Jharkhand apply for government-issue ration cards. Designed to aid India’s poorest, these allow the holder to buy state-subsidised food in ‘fair price’ shops. A year after the applications had been submitted, the local government in Ranchi, the state capital, had yet to issue a single card.

“When we met with local officials, they said they’d received the forms but didn’t have any blank ration cards to give out,” says Patrick. “That continued for three years.”

Non-profits realise that changing the market requires lobbying the government for better agricultural policies. Oxfam India, which works with 69,000 small farmers through a clutch of local partners, uses grassroots findings to persuade the state to tweak or redirect funding. Among its priorities is ramping up smallholders’ access to public investment and improving rights for women farmers.

“They often can’t access state schemes for subsidised seeds or farm machinery because they don’t have enough land, or the right information to apply,” says Sabita Parida, project coordinator for smallholder agriculture and climate change. “It’s a maze, which is why they struggle. Especially if they live in remote rural areas.”

Women farmers are particularly neglected, despite carrying out an estimated 70 per cent of all agricultural activities. Old power structures can bar them from securing joint title deeds to their land, leaving the asset in their husband’s name. Without this piece of paper, women are trapped, unable to access state training, subsidies or credit. Worse, if they are widowed, or their husbands leave for nearby cities in search of seasonal work, they are not recognised as joint owners of the land.

“They are in limbo,” says Parida. “Even though they oversee the land and take care of most of the production, they aren’t acknowledged as farmers.”

Oxfam’s Aaroh campaign in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh works to increase joint land titles, and quash cultural taboos. Since 2011, it has helped more than 600 female farmers to secure rights to their land, largely through community mobilisation efforts that give women in these impoverished villages a collective voice.

Pressure is increasing on the Indian government to align its economic interests with those of the rural poor. For Parida, this requires investment in rural roads and storage, better access to quality seeds and fertiliser, and use of irrigation. Some of this can and is being supplied by non-profits and private sector firms, but the fat injection of capital needed to improve the lot of farmers will remain a state concern.

“India’s economic growth is not equal for all. Farmers are left behind,” she says. “Without public investment in agriculture that divide will only widen. It’s the only way for India to see universal growth.”