Konkan paradox

Print edition : September 08, 2006

In resource-rich Konkan, successive governments have neglected agriculture, the region's mainstay.

LYLA BAVADAM in Konkan Region

ALPHONSO TREES IN bloom in Sindhudurg district.Mango is grown on about one lakh hectares in the Konkan.-COURTESY: SHASHIKANT MUCHANDI

In the Konkan mango trees are tended like babies. When the rains fail or are delayed farmers place an earthen pot full of water at the base of each tree. The water percolates through the pot and the soil around the tree. Orchard owners ensure that the pots are filled through the day often for weeks until it rains. It is not uncommon for entire families to devote themselves fully to this task, carrying pots up and down hilly slopes, to keep the trees adequately watered. Their labour bears fruit in the form of the famous Konkan varieties that mango connoisseurs all over the world eagerly await. Maharashtra's annual turnover from mangoes is around Rs.600 crores, most of it from the six to seven lakh tonnes that the Konkan region produces annually on about one lakh hectares.

The resource-rich region presents a paradox of paucity amid plenty. Its four districts stretch 720 km along the Arabian Sea and on its other flank are the hills of the Sahyadri range. This strip of mostly hilly land, which at its broadest point is not more than 100 km wide, receives an average of more than 2,000 mm of monsoon rain. Indeed, the region gets more than enough rainfall but has no perennial water sources. Its fertile soil supports a rich variety of agricultural crops, including rice, millet, coconut, cashew nut, betel nut, amla, vanilla and pineapple, but the majority of its farmers are poor.

The Konkan, like the rest of Maharashtra, has seen the worst effects of deforestation and soil erosion. Sixty per cent of landholdings in the villages here lie barren. Furthermore, the hilly terrain has fragmented holdings, making cultivation even more difficult. Farmers harvest only a kharif crop - not because they are lazy, but because there is no water. "The land lies fallow because there is no water. We want a rabi crop but there are no irrigation schemes," says Shashikant Muchandi of Sindhudurg district.

The situation in Ratnagiri district is representative of the region. Of its total geographical area, 71.19 per cent is cultivable. Of this, only 27.56 per cent is under cultivation. Up to 23.40 per cent is under non-agricultural use. As much as 22.55 per cent of the land is barren. This can be brought under cultivation with better ecological management. The district has one medium irrigation project and 17 minor ones. Farmers, who form the majority of the population, depend totally on the 2,600 wells in the district. Cooperatives and agricultural credit facilities do exist but they are far from thriving. According to district statistics, the proportion of borrowers is as low as 18 per cent with a per borrower amount of Rs.1,621.

The greatest need is for regulated markets. In fact, this agri-intensive region does not have an Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC), something that farmers have been crying out for. Said a district functionary: "There is one regulated market at Ratnagiri, but it is not functioning now as there is no marketable surplus of rice and nagli [millet], which are the important cereal crops."

The regulated market is geared mainly to foodgrains and since this is not a primary crop in the Konkan farmers lose out on this crucial facility. No attempt has been made to adapt the APMC to the needs of marketing mangoes, for instance, the biggest commercial crop here. To take the crop to the cities, growers depend on commission agents and invariably lose out. "As horticulturists we are always cheated. It is our responsibility to see to the freshness of the fruit. The buyers know this, so they keep delaying until they know we are desperate to sell, and the fruit goes at a low price," says Muchandi.

He suggests that the government set up purchase points in all taluks. "Why should we be responsible for the transportation costs, the commission for loading and unloading and, on top of it all, the risk of the produce being rejected? There are no guarantees for cultivators. There should be some government control." As always, it is the small and medium farmer who feels the pinch. Compounding the crisis is the low morale of the farmers. This is visible all over - the quaint but ramshackle villages, the air of lassitude and the constant out-migration by youth. There is a simmering anger against the politics of budgetary allotments, especially the stream of money that goes to western Maharashtra. There are subsidies given to mango and cashew cultivation but there is resentment at the overall neglect.

Says Muchandi: "There is no understanding of the requirements of farmers. Even the Agriculture Department does things blindly. They are told to distribute saplings, so they do that. There is no follow up, no advice for new varieties. The saplings can live or die, the Agriculture Department has met its targets and that is all that matters. The government has to encourage new ideas like intercropping. The initiative has to come from them."

INTERCROPPING OF RICE and mango by farmers in the Konkan region seeking better incomes.-LYLA BAVADAM

A few farmers have rallied round and started their own water harvesting projects, but on the whole the Konkan nurses a sense of grievance against the government and the spirit of self-help is still dormant here.

A recovery programme would require a model that rejuvenates the region's socio-economic and ecological conditions. So far no government has provided this. Successive State governments have tried to industrialise the area, saying that is where its future lies, while budding politicians like Raj Thackeray see the region's future in tourism. Neither idea is acceptable to the local people. "Farming is a traditional occupation here and that is all we want," says Muchandi.

In 1978 the State acquired 512 ha in the Lote area of Ratnagiri for a Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) complex. There were protests but these were unorganised and hence ineffective. Chemical units came up and pollution affected farming and fishing. A public interest petition filed in 1994 prevented the acquisition of a further 640 ha, but to date agriculture has not recovered in the area. The "success" of the Lote-Parshuram MIDC prompted the setting up of many smaller industrial complexes all over the Konkan. Unable to deal with the loss of land and the environmental degradation, people migrated. By 1989 almost 60,000 people had left their homes. Large tracts of arable land lay fallow.

At a public hearing in Lote five years ago, the majority of the people rejected industrialisation, saying they wanted to continue with agriculture, horticulture and fishing. Their view is common to the rest of the Konkan, where people ask only two things from the government - better road and rail services and better marketing. The rest, they say, the fertile land provides for.

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