Climate change

A crop revolution

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Shailaja Narwade with her first crop of quinoa. She hopes to sell the quinoa seeds, which are much in demand, for a substantial profit. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Parvati Narwade plucks onions for the evening meal. Of the four acres her family owns, she uses one acre for Climate Resilient Agriculture (CRA) and grows vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Mandakini Surveshe, with her husband and son, beside one of the three manure-curing beds she manages. She specialises in goat rearing and making manure, and sells both manure and the worms used for vermiculture. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Swayam Shikshan Prayog members who practise CRA. They meet once a week to assess the progress in villages in the Osmanabad-Latur belt. Photo: Anupama Katakam

The women-led climate-resilient farming model created by Swayam Shikshan Prayog in drought-hit Marathwada has yielded encouraging results and is worthy of emulation across the country.

“LOOK at our quinoa. It has grown so well,” says a beaming Shailaja Narwade from Masia village near Solapur in interior Maharashtra. Shailaja has planted the traditional South American plant not for consumption but in order to harvest its seeds. “Quinoa seeds are very valuable and in high demand. I can make a lot of money from them. This is our first crop, and we are happy with the outcome,” says Shailaja, pronouncing the foreign word with ease.

“Two years ago, we could not even grow basic vegetables like onions and tomatoes for our consumption,” says Shailaja. “Today, my one-acre patch has 13 types of crops and vegetables, which we grow in rotation throughout the year. We are able to feed ourselves and also get a good income.”

Shailaja’s journey has been a long and hard one. Consecutive years of drought and water scarcity from 2014 to 2016 in the Marathwada belt had left the region’s farmers grappling with mounting debts and in distress. The drought was considered the severest since 1972, and the government’s relief measures were of little help. Close to 600 suicides by farmers were reported from the region in 2014. According to agricultural scientists, Marathwada is a victim of climate change. They opined that unless fundamental changes, such as a shift in crop cultivation, were brought about, there would be no solution to the calamity.

In the absence of government support, a few independent organisations stepped in to battle the crisis. The Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works on women’s empowerment in the area, is one of them. In 2014, the SSP began a small but significant movement that introduced the Climate Resilient Agriculture (CRA) method to help thousands of women like Shailaja.

The CRA method involves using adaptation and mitigation tools to build resilience to climate change. Besides increasing agricultural productivity and incomes, it helps ensure food security, provides a sustainable livelihood and reduces greenhouse gases.

Using the CRA guidelines, the SSP model promotes sustainable farming techniques, diversified livelihoods through agriculture-allied businesses, increasing the consumption and marketing of nutritious, locally grown foods and water management systems. The innovative aspect of this model is to bring to the centre stage women as farmers and get them to lead the way. Four years later, the results have been not just encouraging but positively successful, and the SSP hopes that the model can be emulated across drought-prone regions in the country.

In 2017, the SSP won the prestigious Equator Prize instituted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for its women-led, climate-resilient agro-ecological farming model. During a visit to several villages in the region, Frontline found that the benefits of CRA were paying off, although the journey had by no means been easy. Each woman’s tale of struggle in the drought-ridden region of Marathwada was humbling.

The CRA model created by the SSP currently covers 41,000 farmers in more than 530 villages in 16 blocks. According to the SSP, approximately 30,000 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) are under bio-farming. The average cost of savings on input is about 35 per cent an acre (about Rs. 40 crore) for all farmers in the rabi and kharif seasons. The increase in productivity per acre averaged 25 per cent. Annual household savings owing to food consumption from the farm was estimated at Rs. 30,000.

Women’s participation

“Our focus is on food security and then income security,” says Prema Gopalan, secretary of the SSP. “There was an urgency to ensure the availability of food to eat and fodder for animals.” Prema Gopalan, who has worked closely with global and Indian experts on climate-change agriculture, said the general impression was that small farmers who own one or two acres of land could not generate an income. “Our aim was to help this marginalised section and make it self-reliant,” she says. The SSP began by targeting the women in households.

“Unlike cash crops, local food crops take six to eight cycles to yield results. It requires a lot of hard work, and only women will invest their effort in a project such as this. Today, I think the biggest success is that 60 per cent of what is cultivated is for the family’s consumption. This has had a trickle-down effect—nutrition levels are better, there is a reduction in anaemia, and the overall quality of life has improved,” says Prema Gopalan.

Women who traditionally do not own land were encouraged to convince their spouses to lend them a part of their overall acreage towards growing vegetables, fruits, and local grains and pulses. They typically used local seed varieties to grow traditional produce using biopesticides and biofertilizers. Mixed and intercropping cycles ensured that the soil was replenished for each season. The use of simple drip irrigation, sprinklers, farm ponds and tree plantation was part of an efficient water management system. Most women Frontline spoke to said that it took some convincing, but their husbands or fathers eventually relented and gave them a small amount of land for the experiment. Some were given just a quarter of an acre. They grew both seasonal and perennial vegetables, and the borders of the plot were lined with fruit trees such as guava and pomegranate. The success of the little patch, which generated a substantial income, has allowed the male farmer to let his wife use the rows between the sugarcane stalks to plant vegetables such as spinach and tomatoes.

“It was not easy to convince our husbands to move from sugarcane as that generates an easy income if there is water,” says Parvati Narwade, also from Masia village near Solapur. “But we were so badly off that we were prepared to do anything to help our families. Some days, we had no food in our homes. When the SSP workers said they would help us start growing vegetables, I thought it would not be possible. After seeing Shailaja, I too decided to start farming. Anyway, what could we lose?”

From being in debt, Parvati Narwade now earns around Rs.60,000 from the sale of vegetables alone. Of the four acres her family owns, she uses one acre for CRA. She is also part of a producer company that supplies vegetables to Pune. Recently, they received an order for dals (lentils) from Kerala. Their company is working on the logistics of distribution in the south. An SSP volunteer said that a few years ago Parvati was so badly off that she would not speak to anyone.

“Now I do not have any more worries about sending children to school and college,” she says.

Komal Katkate from Osmanabad was on the verge of selling her one acre of land because she had no money to pay for her children’s school and college fees. “That was when I met some women who had started farming and were training other women. So I decided not to part with our precious land and give this a try,” she said. With some financial assistance from SSP’s resilience fund, Komal began farming in 2015. Initially, it was a struggle as some crops failed, while others succeeded. “We were still trying to understand what would work.” Komal’s family used to do single-crop farming on the 10 acres it owned. The benefits of CRA were so obvious that Komal began to use the method on five of the 10 acres. Last year, from both seasons, Komal earned Rs.6 lakh; she grows 13 types of vegetables and fruits and several types of pulses and grains. Komal says she wants to train women in the CRA method so that many more can improve their lives.

Mangal Waghmare has just won “Agrowon”, the best farmer award sponsored by a media group. A few years ago, she had slumped into depression with a mountain of debt and no food to eat. A meeting with the SSP staff who were conducting awareness programmes on CRA helped her snap out of her depression and move forward. She took a loan of Rs.25,000 and started farming on half an acre of land. She grew millet, soya bean and vegetables in a cyclical method through the year. Now she earns a couple of lakh rupees annually. Additionally, she rears animals, sells milk and runs a beauty parlour and a tailoring shop in the village.

Varsha Giran in Ghatangri village near Osmanabad grows roses and jasmine on half an acre. She says she earns Rs.6,000 a month from the sale of flowers. Her investment each season is Rs.3,000. Her neighbour, Mandakini Surveshe, specialises in goat rearing and making manure. She has three beds of manure curing, which could earn her up to Rs.8,000 each. Along with the fertilizer, the worms used for vermiculture are bred and sold at Rs.500 a kilogram.

“The amounts are not in the range of sugarcane or soya bean earnings. But it is some relief to the family, and more importantly, we have food to eat,” said Ashwini Ankesh, a farmer and SSP volunteer. She explained that when the CRA project began, most women who took it up came from self-help groups that the SSP had formed post the 1993 Latur earthquake. “We knew how to be there for each other and so we used the same approach in this case as well. Sometimes if one family needs more, we help each other.”

In water-deprived Marathwada, most farms have wells which feed the sprinkler and drip irrigation pipes that reach the fields. The rains, when they come, fill up the wells. However, the women say replenishing groundwater is critical for long-term progress. Towards this end, the SSP brings in experts to teach the women farmers water- and soil-testing methods.

Marathwada’s agrarian distress is well known. The region is largely rainfed, but when the monsoon fails, there is little support by way of irrigation. So if the monsoon fails or shifts, the cash crops that the farmers have been encouraged to grow fail.

Climate change

In February, hailstorms in several districts of Marathwada caused extensive crop damage. In fact, State Minister for Agriculture Pandurang Fundkar announced that crops on over two lakh hectares had been affected.

“For several years we have had so-called unseasonal rain in February and March. Similarly, September sees very heavy rain. We need to accept the rain is not unseasonal any more. Marathwada is a typical case of climate change and this has to be addressed,” said Atul Deulgoankar, an environmental journalist living in Latur. He claimed that farming and farmers’ issues were not a priority with this State government. “I am part of a State government committee that looks into environment change and agriculture. There was no meeting last year and there is no sign of one taking place this year. Undoubtedly, CRA needs to be introduced in the region to combat the distress. However, it must be done in a much more scientific manner. The crop, for instance, should be able to sustain water stress for 40 to 50 days. Those are the gaps in the current rainfall pattern. Moreover, sugarcane cannot be dismissed that easily,” said Deulgoankar.

For decades, farmers have been dependent on sugarcane. In a good season, it can give farmers almost Rs.1 lakh an acre. It is backed by a minimum support price, which was Rs.2,255 a tonne in 2017. Reducing the number of sugar mills, rather than constructing more, may be a better solution.

An Agriculture Department official said in defence of the State government that farm relief packages amounting to approximately Rs.12,000 crore had been distributed over the past three years. During the worst of the drought, they set up animal shelters and distributed drinking water through trains and lorries, the official said. In 2008, when the Government of India released the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), the Maharashtra government took a step towards formulating the Maharashtra State Adaptation Action Plan on Climate Change (MSAAPCC). “Not much has happened on that front,” said Deulgoankar.

Recently, the Maharashtra government and the World Bank signed a $420-million project to help small and marginal farmers in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. The project will focus on increasing climate-resilient practices in agriculture and ensuring that farming continues to remain a financially viable activity for them.

The project, to be implemented in 5,142 villages across 15 districts, will roll out in stages from 2018-19 and continue until 2023-24. The World Bank report on the Maharashtra Project on Climate Resilient Agriculture (PoCRA), published in February 2018, says: “The plan is to improve soil quality, develop food grain varieties which can sustain climate variations and effect necessary changes in the crop pattern as per the availability of water in a particular region.”

The World Bank report paints a bleak picture of climate change in Maharashtra and its effect on agriculture, and categorically states that action has to be taken immediately. For instance, data on weather analysed by the World Bank indicate that the annual mean temperature in the project area will increase by around 1.3 to 1.5 degree Celsius by the 2030s; the projected increase in monsoon rainfall by the 2030s ranges from 13 to 30 per cent across the project area, but distributed over a shorter number of rain days.

For instance, an analysis of weather and production data in Maharashtra reveals that a rise in mean temperature in the range of 1.0 to 2.3 °C will result in a 6.3 to 17.5 per cent decline in sorghum yield. An increase of 1.0 to 4.0 °C will result in a reduction in soybean yield of 11 to 36 per cent.

With the involvement of institutions such as the World Bank, hopefully the crisis will be addressed in a proactive manner. For now, though, the movement led by women like Shailaja Narwade is spreading organically and contributing its mite to pulling the Marathwada region out of years of misery.

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