The agony of fragmentation of agricultural land holdings in India is an old story. What is alarming is that, today, almost 67% comprise small holdings – of less than 1 hectare. Add holdings of 1-2 hectare to this, and the figure comes to a whopping 85%. Most worrying is that just 44% of this 85% is actually cultivated. Compounding this is the decline in the total area of agricultural land holdings from 162,178 hectare in 1970-71 to 159,181 ha in 2010-11, largely due to urbanisation.
Clearly, marginal and small (M&S) farmers need to be taught how to grow more with less (both land and water), else they will get further marginalised by large landowners and politically powerful people.
M&S farmers, points out IDFC’s India Rural Development Report – 2012-13, have already begun to discover their unique strength in growing vegetables. This is because of three reasons: First, they can fetch higher prices than, say, grain. Second, because they are more labour, than capital intensive, and allow for the use of family labour, they give marginal farmers an edge in the marketplace. Third, you can have two crops a year with grain, while vegetables give faster and more regular returns.
Not surprisingly, M&S farmers currently produce 70% of the nation’s vegetables on just 41% of the total cultivated land.
But vegetables need to be delivered quickly to the markets. And that is where most state governments have failed them. There are not enough good roads. Moreover, farmers are compelled to sell their produce through middlemen (often in the guise of the Agricultural Produce Markets Committees, or APMCs). Thus, despite the perceived advantages, M&S farmers get terribly shortchanged. States need to find new ways to empower such farmers.
Gujarat’s government succeeded in introducing a new approach to this problem with amazing results. It set up the Gujarat Green Revolution Company (GGRC), which was mandated to work with the private sector to empower farmers. It began releasing subsidies to private companies supplying inputs to farmers only if they also contributed to their upward mobility. To achieve this objective, GGRC began shortlisting vendors, and also started monitoring the work they do. But more on that some other time.
Some of the most amazing successes have been reported by Netafim, the world’s largest micro-irrigation company. For instance, Netafim began working closely with GGRC and Gujarat Agro Industries Corporation (GAIC) in Moti Tokri, a tribal village of Kawant Taluka of Vadodara district.
Here they taught farmers not only how to improve their yields through the use of drip irrigation and targeted fertiliser application (fertigation), but also how to earn more money for their produce. Within a few years, the output of the farmers increased more than two-fold, even while using less water than before. Farmers were encouraged to pool their resources together to take their produce to the mandis (agricultural marketplaces).
In some other villages like Trakuda tehsil – Gondal, district Rajkot and Monpari Nani tehsil – Visavadar, district Junagadh, both in Gujarat, Netafim encouraged farmers to come together to collectively grow watermelons in a staggered manner — so that there is a decent crop of watermelons from the aggregated lands every day. The produce is then taken from Gujarat to the markets in Delhi where they fetch a higher price. The revenues are apportioned to each farmer on the basis of the land he puts into the pool, and the labour inputs he and his family provide.
But all this has been possible only because the state both allowed and helped farmers discover markets. Private initiative was not restricted just to middlemen as in many other states, including Maharashtra. The result: many of the ill effects of land fragmentation were overcome through (a) a judicious application of appropriate cost-effective technology, and (b) a market- and ownership-friendly approach towards cooperative farming which combined the benefits of large scale farming, yet allowing small farmers to retain the titles to their respective lands. One wishes other states could also come up with such initiatives.