Bundelkhand : the worst place in India to be a farmer

Bundelkhand : the worst place in India to be a farmer


“I have made up my mind. I cannot repay my loans. I cannot free my land. I will die,” Ram Bahadur Singh said, with a casual chuckle. The neighbours seated around did not react; after all, this was not the first time that the 52-year-old from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh had talked about taking his life. Similar thoughts have, in recent months, crossed their minds, too, especially after unseasonal rain ravaged standing crops this year, adding to a debt crisis.

Singh lives in a region that is possibly the worst place in India to be a farmer. The Bundelkhand region, spread over 70,000 sq. km in 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, was blighted by continuous drought between 2003 and 2010, floods in 2011, a late monsoon and deficit rain in 2012 and 2013, and a second spell of drought in 2014.

And unseasonal rain just around the time the winter (rabi) crop is harvested in 2014 and 2015 spelt ruin.

What makes Singh’s story unique is the process through which he and others ended up in his current predicament—ironically, they were the consequences of rational but risky bets that Bundelkhand farmers undertook to fix farming problems as to better their lot.

Faced with the choice of either continuing to depend on erratic rainfall for their regular summer crops or invest in irrigation to free themselves from the dependence on rain, and grow the more lucrative—yet riskier—winter crop of wheat, the farmers of Bundelkhand opted for the latter.

Unfortunately, demand for irrigated water outstripped supply, with the result that the harvest was inadequate to cover even the investments, leave alone any surpluses. Worse, the unseasonal rain then dashed what little hopes they had of recovery. And without the cushion of adequate safety nets, they sank into a debt trap.

Singh, for instance, owes banks more than Rs.12 lakh in addition to other amounts owed to the local moneylender. Most of his 10-acre land is mortgaged. Singh has borrowed to buy a tractor, to pay for bore wells, for the marriage of his daughters and to repay past loans. “I hear the government is paying Rs.7 lakh for every dead farmer. If I die, my family can free some land with that money,” said Singh.

The choice

Over the years, the luckless farmers of Bundelkhand have tried everything in the book to meet the challenge of unpredictable weather.

The chronic drought from 2003-2010 and then again in 2014 prompted farmers to shift from growing a mix of dry crops—like millets and pulses—during the monsoon-dependent kharif season (June-September), to input-heavy and irrigated winter rabi crop of wheat alongside cash crops such as chickpea and mustard (November to April).

In the seven Uttar Pradesh districts of Bundelkhand—Banda (where Singh lives), Chitrakoot, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Mahoba—the area under wheat cultivation increased by 60%, from 550,000 hectare (ha) in 2007-08 to 877,000 ha in 2013-14.

This means that today, the irrigated winter crop and not the rain-fed kharif is the main cropping season in Bundelkhand. For a region bypassed by the high-growth years of Indian agriculture beginning in the new millennium, the change in cropping pattern was the only option available to farmers—at least those among them who chose to stick to their land.

Despite the absence of a support system that could aid this transition, these farmers put everything at stake. In the absence of irrigation facilities, they invested in bore wells. They purchased tractors and threshers on credit and paid for costly inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. Formal credit came in handy in the initial years (starting in 2007), but debts piled on on non-repayment.

As in many other parts of rural India, there was little support by way of crop insurance or relief for crop damage.

“The long-standing belief that the Indian farmer is risk-averse no longer holds today. They are experimenting and investing to better their lives and to help the next generation move out,” said Ramesh Chand, director of the National Institute for Agricultural Economics and Policy, Delhi, and member of the national task force on agriculture under the NITI Aayog.

“The choices that the Bundelkhand farmers made were rational but risky. Farmers across the country are exposed to price and weather risks. In such a situation, increasing access to credit cannot be the only solution. They need public investments in irrigation, marketing support and insurance.”

Governments did roll out a number of irrigation schemes in Bundelkhand, but these were insignificant before the grave needs of the region, notes a 2014 study Bundelkhand Drought: Retrospective Analysis and Way Ahead by the National Institute of Disaster Management, Delhi. Only 45% of the crop area in Bundelkhand has any access to irrigation—that too with ground water as the primary source.

“The prolonged drought forced farmers to look for an alternative. They started digging wells and bores after taking to wheat. It took a toll on the ground water and many bore wells have dried up,” said Raja Bhaiya, who runs Vidya Dham Samiti, a livelihoods and rights based non-profit organization from Banda district, Uttar Pradesh.

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Courtesy: Livemint