Spending nights at a farm, one can hear the stillness, smell the freshness in the air and marvel at the clear skies. City folk thus romanticise rural life. They feel it is relaxed, slow-paced, with days spent in the midst of natural beauty.
Over a lifetime, however, farmers in many parts of India find themselves in deep debt. They take emergency loans from local moneylenders to pay for marriages, illnesses, crop failures et al -- and the pressure to repay is often the last nail in the coffin.
And things are bound to get worse in the coming years. The distress of the farmers and the consequent spate of suicides is already a grave national concern with economic, social and political ramifications. Impoverished farmers also mean less demand for industrial goods -- and a slowdown in the manufacturing sector.
The way forward could take many forms. One solution is increasing the area under drip irrigation as this saves 75 percent of the water; another is to help farmers with marketing. For instance, by setting up weekly bazaars in different parts of cities where farmers can directly sell their produce, cutting out middlemen.
Teaching farmers good agricultural practices (GAP) is another initiative the government should undertake with help from agricultural universities. Few farmers adopt GAP, resulting in poor yields; sometimes their entire crop is lost to pest and fungal attacks. This is because the average farmer's guide is invariably the local shopkeeper -- whose half-knowledge is incapable of providing appropriate guidance.
Over time, farmers must increase the use of non-chemical fertilisers. Encouraging organic farming preserves the land. Organic produce gets a better price today as supply is limited -- and the quality is better.
Another area worth looking at is agricultural insurance. Farmers could be charged a nominal sum for policies against natural calamities, drought and the like. A laid-down system of insurance would ensure streamlined procedures for predictable and fair compensation.
Of all this, propagation of drip irrigation is probably the most urgent issue to be addressed, given the rapid decline in ground water levels.
As drip irrigation saves 75 percent of the water, it also reduces the electricity required to pump out the groundwater. Fertiliser can be instantly applied through the drip, and it can target each plant, reducing its use and labour. Fewer weeds result as the dispersal of water and fertiliser is concentrated near the plant's roots. Less labour, therefore, is required to remove weeds. Yields increase by 20 to 40 percent.
The government of Telangana - where I have a farm -- encourages the installation of drip systems by giving a whopping 90 percent subsidy for those who own up to two acres -- and 100 percent for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. (Subsidy percentages decline with increased acreage.)
Few villagers avail of this subsidy because they do not want to even spend the balance 10 percent (about Rs. 10,000). For most, it is the filling of the forms that is a problem as they don't even know the required procedure.
We conducted a drip irrigation seminar at our farm two years ago (with chai and samosas). Last year, we got drip irrigation installed for 12 farmers who showed interest and gave us the required papers -- and the beneficiaries are very pleased indeed! What is worrying is that without our push, they would never have got their drip irrigation systems installed.
A new and radical approach is needed. We should set a clear target to install, in the next five years, drip irrigation systems in at least 50 percent of all farms in the country that rely on ground water. This would entail installing the system in about 10 million farms -- at the rate of two million farms per year.
The ubiquitous community health worker, bustling about and helping villagers with health issues, comes to mind. The health of our groundwater is the crying need today. Villages need a trained 'Drip Worker' today with a target to assist farmers and ensure they get their drip irrigation systems installed.
Much in the vein of a company salesman, the Drip Worker should have a 'beat plan', optimally routing his territory with initial and follow-up visits. He must carry application forms and lucid communication material detailing alternative product offers, schemes and procedures with realistic timelines.
He should own a two-wheeler, be paid Rs. 5,000 per month as salary and expenses and an incentive of Rs. 100 for every successful installation. His realistic target would be 100 farmers per month (four per day) or 1,000 farmers per annum.
Only 2,000 Drip Workers nationwide, therefore, should be enough to reach the target of installing two million drip systems annually. They will, however, need to be closely managed. It may be a good idea to conduct an STM (simulated test market) before scaling up operations. Such an initiative would also be ideal for a PPP, with each company or NGO adopting specific districts, and the government coordinating at the state level.
(Salim David hung up his corporate boots to be a farmer near Hyderabad. He grows organic vegetables, roses, and livestock. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)