The challenges of grass root rural development in Tamil Nadu
Case study of D. P. Doddy
Looking at the adverse effects of pesticide use on health and farmer yields in Erode, Tamil Nadu state in India, the author highlights the needed measures to bridge the gap between the remedies available to the government, NGOs and civil society on one hand, and the sustainable options for the farmers on the other.
By Camille Maubert, 23rd November 2013
India’s outstanding economic development following the Green Revolution (1960s) was characterized by a remarkable increase in agricultural production. In the past decades, India’s crop yield was multiplied by four through the use of enhanced crop varieties, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals. However, despite such success on the global scale, concerns are emerging at the micro level regarding the sustainability if intensive agricultural exploitation. The biggest challenge facing farmers is the dramatic decrease in soil fertility. Indeed, after five decades of intense farming, some challenges have become alarmingly recurrent. These include disturbances in soil reaction, development of nutrient imbalances in plants, increased vulnerability to pests and diseases, decrease in soil life and so on. All of these problems are symptomatic of an excessive use of pesticides and chemicals by farmers.
On average, Indian farmers use 90,000 tons of pesticides per year. One of those commonly used is endosulfyn, which is banned by several health and trade organizations globally. This is the highest consumption rate in the world. The extensive aerial spraying of chemicals on fields has had devastating impacts on land and people. As a matter of fact, research conducted by the Energy and Resource Institute of New Delhi showed that 10% of sprayed pesticides is absorbed by plants and/or drained by rainfall in rivers and soil. This results in the extinction of natural enemies of pests (birds, insects) and the contamination of drinking water, cereals and vegetables consumed by farmers. This in turn led to a significant increase in psychological, neurological and congenital problems, as well as infertility, cancer and other medical conditions. In addition to damages to the ecosystem and health, the overconsumption of chemicals has nefarious effects on the farmers’ livelihoods. Not only does the excessive pesticide use impact negatively on the productivity of the land, but it also induces farmers to take loans with high interest rates. Indeed, the increased prices of agricultural technology and chemicals pushed many small cultivators to fall into debt, leading to a significant increase in suicide rates in South India. By and large, small farmers face an increased vulnerability to pests, soil degradation and low crop yield.
Attempts at improving the resilience of small rural communities have been implemented at the state level by the government of Tamil Nadu and the various subordinated gram panchayats through the development of infrastructure. The improvement of roads has for instance been a focal point of development as it allows farmers to access markets more easily. Also, the construction of public taps, bore wells and water tanks was successful in providing isolated villages with a decent water supply system. Nevertheless, some research and surveys suggest that efforts made by state institutions to boost the development of grass root farms are hindered by the frequent inadequacy of aid to people’s needs. It appears that parts of the top-down measures taken to improve the villages’ livelihoods are not suited to the basic needs of the populations they are meant to support. For instance, some families were provided with eco sanitation units – toilets which allow the collection of human waste to be re-used as compost and fertilizer- but are not using them, instead practicing open defecation. This is because villagers haven’t received adequate awareness education about the use and usages of the units, and therefore either utilize them for other purposes (i.e. storage) or destroy them. In other words, long term sustainability cannot be ensured unless the villagers take ownership of the development aid, which can only be achieved if the initiative comes from the bottom-up. In this sense, one significant challenge facing grass root development in Southern India is not to bring new technologies but rather to teach marginalized farmers how to better use the resources available to them in order to answer their main concerns.
In the past ten years, some initiatives have been taken to promote an alternative farming system which minimizes the use of chemicals and encourages the involvement of rural communities as a whole. Among them, the LEISA (Low External Input for Sustainable Agriculture) scheme had a significant impact on Tamil Nadu’s grass root agricultural practices. This project aims to reduce the consumption of pesticides and fertilizers by encouraging farmers to use organic methods. Incentives for such alteration of agricultural routines are substantial. Indeed, LEISA considerably reduces the input cost of cultivation by relying exclusively on organic components to enrich the soil, protect crops from pests and increase productivity. This process is known as Integrated Farming Development (IFD). IFD is an all-encompassing approach to grass root rural development which emphasizes on the recycling of animal, human and farm waste to produce bio production enhancers including crop pest repellent, growth promoter (panchakavya) and compost. For instance, pest management is one of the most pressing challenges facing small crop producers as they are most vulnerable to natural hazards. As mentioned above, exposure to pests is ordinarily tackled by the extensive and indiscriminate use of chemicals. However, this has proved to be both financially and environmentally unsustainable as it dragged many a farmer into debts and has led to considerable soil degradation and increased crop vulnerability.
IFD attempts to counteract this growing exposure of farmers by promoting the use of widely available resources to produce equally efficient pesticide. As a result, cow urine and weed extract constitutes an eco-friendly and effective pest repellent while the combination of cow dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee successfully replaces fertilizers by enhancing insect and disease resistance in plants. In addition organic matters (cow urine and dung, human waste, food waste and so on) can be converted into renewable energy through fermentation. Manure produces methane, a clean and efficient source of fuel for the production of light, heat and energy compared to other resources used by farmers such as cow dung cake and firewood. As such, it is an effective method in addressing the needs of farmers in energy, especially in isolated areas where central electricity supplies are often unreliable or inexistent.
In order to maximize IFD benefits, farmers are encouraged to work together by sharing knowledge and resources. This practice is already in place in most villages due to their social structure as family-based communities where members of the same village are usually roughly related to each other. In addition to these already existing solidarity networks, structures called Community Based Organisation (CBO) are created to facilitate cooperation. In technical terms, the purpose of a CBO is thus to increase grassroots action by empowering people to take control of their lives rather than relying on Governmental support. These CBOs can take different shapes depending on which people they represent and the type of activities it encompasses. Among them, the most widespread organisations are Self Help Group (SHG) and Farmers Association (FA). An SHG is a CBO based on the concept of microfinance; its goal is to enable those that are less economically stable to have access to funds in the form of low interest loans. The group comprises of similar, likeminded people who meet regularly to discuss their needs and problems with the goal of developing their village and improving their livelihoods through combining their financial savings and distributing low interest loans. A FA on the other hand is a CBO with the specific aim of making farmers more self-sustaining and financially efficient.
A group of farmers from the same local area unite and collaborate on production and marketing practices. The objectives of the group are to form links with various government agencies to avail farming services, to build their knowledge and skills on farming and its related technologies, and to establish cost-effective making services.
All in all Tamil Nadu’s government, NGOs and civil society are making some substantial progress in terms of promoting tools to help improve grass root development. Nonetheless, these initiatives remain localized and many challenges remain. As mentioned above, the state often brings tools and infrastructure which are not adequate to responding to local need and which villagers often don’t know how to use. The same problem is found in the creation of CBOs which puts people together without taking into account local interests, relationships and power dynamics. As a result, efforts and financial resources are going to waste. A more forward-looking strategy is necessary to ensure sustainable measures to be put in place, and this can be done through investing in education, not only of children but also among adults, to ensure that top-down measures are met by bottom-up responsiveness and impetus.