Making smallholder farming sustainably viable – A background note

In India a large proportion of farm land is with small holders.  The small holders eke out their livelihood by cultivating their small holdings, rearing livestock utilizing common lands and common water resources, in conjunction with income from tree produce and from wage labour. Even though productivity of small holdings is more in comparison to large holdings still the productivity per capita is very low. On the whole the farm productivity in India is much lower than the potential. The low productivity is partially because of poor natural resource conditions and partly because of inadequate knowledge base and other required resources. Thus small holders are constraint to live in poor conditions.

There have been attempts by the Government to reach out directly to communities to support them for their development.  The Panchayat Raj Act was a step towards that.  Even after making panchayats as third tier in governance, the likely destabilization of power balance between state legislators and panchayats and also in view of the power asymmetry within the communities to keep required check on activities of panchayat representatives, the financial and administrative powers could not get transferred to panchayats. There was a need to have proper monitoring system in place before transferring powers to panchayats.

Government’s programmes related to rural employment and community empowerment are now increasingly being implemented through panchayats with involvement of NGOs and a detailed monitoring system is being put in place. Similarly other development institutions have also started working closely with communities with involvement of panchayats either directly or through NGOs.  The programmes are designed to be demand driven and communities are being capacitated to demand and undertake these programmes. The programmes are being utilized to carry out activity for improvement of natural resource and farm income. In these programmes a major expenditure is being done on trainings and capacity building of community institutions and farming community. The efficacy of these is yet to be examined.

Farming has always traditionally been a knowledge based activity with farmers knowing best to utilize its resources under varied obtained conditions learnt over the history. The advance in agriculture sciences and technology has brought certain changes in farmer’s agriculture practices which have improved farm productivity. The technologies give the best result under the conditions for which these were developed.  Those conditions could not be obtained everywhere.  Since technologies have not been developed contextualizing various local conditions and with long term sustainability in view, there has been partial, notwithstanding sustainability, uptake of these technologies which at times has done more harm than good.

The question for all those individuals/institutions who want to improve conditions pertaining to farming and farm community is that what changes need to be brought in their functioning/focus area amongst network of  support organizations  so as to increase the farm productivity and farm income sustainably by co-evolving extensively context specific appropriate knowledge and community institutions?

Context specific knowledge would have certain general features and some specific.

General features

  • Natural resource conserving practices
  • Efficient resource use practices
  • Climate appropriate practices

Context specific features

  • Farm planning keeping in mind resource access and farmer’s needs.
  • Cropping pattern selection keeping resource conservation and efficient use in mind.
  • Crop mix selection keeping in mind climate variability specific to area.
  • Agronomic practices appropriate to sustainable production in the given context.
  • Planning for livestock number/type and grazing land required keeping in mind farm vegetation cover necessary for soil and water conservation.
  • Planning for farm trees to augment income.

The above describes the production aspects of farming but there are other aspects that need to be handled for instance farm inputs, farm produce processing and marketing. As for inputs farmers usually get only crop loan for purchasing seed etc., but there may be need for other inputs such as appropriate machinery for land preparation, irrigation, farm cultivation, plant protection, harvesting and processing. These require relatively large capital sum. Processing and marketing requires, in addition to necessary material, machinery and appropriate infrastructure for transport and communication, the knowledge regarding value chain of various products so as to select appropriate partner to upgrade value chain in a manner that would help smallholders get larger share in the chain.

Community institutions are known variously as women Self Help Group, farmers club etc. There are various committees like village development committee, forest protection committee, water users association etc., that has been formed under various development schemes. The intermittent histories of institutions/committees run parallel to phasing in and out of ‘delivery’ of various programmes/schemes. The delivery of programmes helped in taking technologies especially seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and canal irrigation to farmers. The shift in programme mode from delivery to demand and technologies from external input based to local resource use based requires evolving need based institutions around local specific relations. There may be need to pool resources especially land and water to make farming viable. There may be need for collectively purchase/produce farm inputs, processing or marketing of the produce.

Planning for farm activity needs to be done for agronomic practices including preparation for inputs. For processing and marketing inter alia there would be need for infrastructure (roads), communication and renewable rural energy. Planning common land use becomes crucial for infrastructure and energy. The planning for energy would be context specific depending upon potential for generating energy from different resources. The geographical unit for energy production and use would also depend upon the available resource potential. The planning and execution would require pitching in of various support institutions.

In view of the natural resource degradation, increased carbon footprint leading to climate change, farm sector crisis and looming food insecurity there is a favourable environment globally to support the decentralized sustainable development approach that depends upon local resources and renewable energy. India is signatory to various UN conventions such as for combating desertification, conserving biodiversity, climate change, Millennium Development Goal and more recently Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  Out of 17 goals, Goal 2 “End hunger, achieve food security and   improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, Goal 7 “Ensure access to affordable, sustainable and modern energy for all; increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix”, Goal 13 “Urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” and Goal 15 “Sustainably manage forests,  combat desertification and halt and reserve land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” are directly linked to the approach. Part of many other goals could be achieved in the implementation process through following the right strategy.

There is a need to understand thrust areas of various support groups – government ministries, apex bodies like NABARD, research institutions and NGOs; expectations from each other; and policy gaps that impede the progress to work in respective thrust areas.

Hardeep Singh, Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development