After several years of prolonged drought, it was expected that the situation facing farmers in the Jamkhed area today would have changed substantially. At the beginning of the year, a year-long research project was started that looks in-depth at the state of affairs regarding agriculture in this area. In this UN designated International Year of the Family Farmer, the results from this research will be used to design a range of new projects that will revitalise CRHP’s agriculture programme. The project is being led by Richard Grubb.
Jamkhed and the surrounding area provide the backdrop to some of the toughest farming conditions in Maharashtra, if not the whole of India. The past two years in particular have been especially tough with monsoon rains failing for two successive seasons. When I was invited to start this project, I was particularly interested to see exactly how these changes in weather patterns had affected agricultural practices and what effect they were having upon incomes. I was also keen to get an overview of agriculture within the villages in which CRHP works.
This year has been declared the International Year of the Family Farmer by the UN, and for CRHP, the year ahead represents a refocusing of efforts upon initiatives in agriculture. CRHP’s agricultural programme has suffered significantly as a result of multiple years of drought, and many of the demonstrations at the CRHP demonstration farm in Khadkat have ground to a halt. In addition, livestock have been sold and training programmes have been scaled down significantly. By investing in both qualitative and quantitative research, CRHP will be in a much better position to create relevant agricultural programmes that target specific groups and specific problems in the future.
My initial research was carried out in two stages that enquired into six different areas; farm details, organic farming, seed, water, livelihood, and nutrition. Surveys were used in the initial stage and focus groups were formed for the second stage.
In general, the results from the surveys followed an expected path; farm sizes were small, generally between 1 and 3 acres; five non-irrigated crops – sorghum, cotton, wheat, chick-peas, and pulses – dominated; and use of chemical inputs were high (fertilizer 94%, pesticides 88%, herbicide 40%). It also came as little surprise that 100% of respondents claimed to have been negatively affected by the drought, especially given that close to a fifth of farmers are totally reliant upon rains to feed their crops. Encouragingly, 70% of farmers do now have access to open wells but with little or no rain to percolate into them, there is a growing dependence upon groundwater, with 20% of farmers having invested in largely unsustainable bore wells.
One noticeable change seen by our research team, however, was the growing move towards livestock and away from arable farming. Ninety-four percent of farmers in our research area now own animals and use them to supplement their incomes from crops. India’s White Revolution has been readily embraced, with 55% of farmers owning cows and 45% owning goats. Representing a smaller proportion of farmers, chickens are owned by just 15% of farmers.
Even with livestock supplementing income, it was clear to see the damaging effects of the drought upon rural incomes. All farmers surveyed now have to supplement their incomes with activities away from their farms, with a little over two thirds (68%) of farmers working as labourers away from their own land. This volume of work away from individual farms is reflected in the amount of income derived from one’s own farm. The majority of farmers derive between 30 and 50% of their total income from their own farm, and just 30% of farmers are deriving more than 50% of their total income from their farms.
Moving into the second stage of the project, I wanted to start to move beyond basic statistics and discover specific problems that farmers were facing. Focus groups were convened in six project villages and were facilitated by social workers from CRHP’s Mobile Health Team. Each focus group concluded with a ranking exercise in which participants placed the top five problems within agriculture onto a ‘problem tree.’ Once again, we stuck to the same six themes from the first stage. We were able to produce a list of 30 common problems experienced by farmers in the Jamkhed area.
Though many of the problems experienced were specific to particular areas (hard water for example), several recurring themes appeared in all six villages. Unsurprisingly, water scarcity directed most discussions, but it was the linkage effects that proved the more interesting. Having already discovered that livestock numbers had increased in the first stage of the research, we discovered that a lack of fodder to feed these animals proved a common problem. With less fodder, the amount of organic material produced dropped too. This in turn has led to the overreliance upon chemical fertilizers highlighted in the stage one surveys.
What struck me more than anything, however, was a growing feeling of disillusionment amongst the farmers involved in the focus group discussions. Incomes had almost universally dropped and credit facilities were no longer available, especially to those farmers who were already in debt following crop failure during the years of drought. All six discussions drew attention to the lack of technical knowledge amongst farmers, and while many expressed an interest in training, for most there was none available be it from the government or non-governmental organisations. There is also a near complete lack of innovative farming methods amongst the farmers involved in the focus groups. Even relatively easy-to-adapt technologies such as drip irrigation had not been employed, and there was a poor understanding of value-added activities that could bypass middle men and increase incomes.
In order to best design future programmes, it is vital for CRHP’s work that programme designers know exactly what changes are occurring within agriculture, and what problems farmers in project villages are currently facing. Myself and a small team have spent the last couple of weeks analysing the data from stages one and two, and we are now beginning to make the relevant amendments to the current agricultural programme. Crucially, we are also in the process of creating new projects and demonstrations that tackle the problems highlighted in the focus groups head on. Over the next six months, things will be changing rapidly at the farm, with new training programmes being rolled out and innovative farming methods reaching the poorest of the poor. CRHP’s approach to healthcare is, by definition, comprehensive, and without improving agrarian livelihoods, health cannot be expected to improve. Our hope is that over the next five years, through interventions in agriculture, the expected improvements in health will follow.