Wednesday, November 10, 2004

From Laborer to Landowner

Kavitha Kuruganti
10 November 2004

Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh, November 9, 2004 (WFS) - Mailaram Padma, 38, bought her five-acre plot of land for just Rs 30,000 (US $1=Rs 46) in 1995. Years of unrelenting hard work has rendered this once-barren land into a productive, fertile agricultural plot. Today, the plot costs over Rs 300,000.

Padma and her husband Narasimha, 42, a Dalit couple from Chowderipalli village, Nalgonda district, were once landless. Narasimha was a bonded laborer. Their single desire was to own land that they could cultivate. In 1995, when Padma's father gifted her Rs 30,000, which he got from his pension fund, the couple decided to invest in land. They negotiated with a landowner for a five-acre plot that he owned. They bought it for Rs 30,000 and registered the land. The registration process cost them Rs 20,000 more (because the government does not waive stamp fees even when landless people or women purchase land).

By the time they had completed all the formalities, two years had passed. The first year of cultivation was very disheartening. They got next to nothing from the sesame crop they had sown. There was not a single tree on the land, and the topsoil had been almost completely eroded. By 1998, the couple had decided to sell off the land. Padma discussed the problem at the local women's self-help group (SHG). Peace - an organization based in Bolangir, Nalgonda, which takes up development work through SHGs - stepped in to help her. Organizations like the Hyderabad-based Centre for World Solidarity, which was already supporting sustainable agriculture in the area, also pitched in with technical and financial help.

These organizations helped the couple procure 50 tractor loads of nutrient-rich tank silt. Various tree saplings were planted around the farm to form a live fence. About five per cent of the land was converted into a pond. Field bunds, sown with green fodder for livestock, were built to conserve water. The hardened land was ploughed with a tractor.

With some help from Peace, the couple devised a cropping pattern for the land. Traditional knowledge, which has little place in modern cropping systems, stood them in good stead. They knew their soil and what the land required. Drought-resistant crops - like castor, sesame, jowar, pigeonpea and maize - were sown. Leguminous plants (that process nitrogen and enrich the soil) like pulses were sown between two cropping cycles.

The entire investment, including two rounds of tank silt application on the land, cost about Rs 9,000 per acre. The couple put in about a quarter of the investment, with the rest coming from NGOs. For investment calculations, the labour component is also factored in. This comprises the bulk of the farmers' contributions.

Did Padma ask banks for loans? Amused, Padma replies, "For people like us, it's very difficult to get any loan, leave alone for application of topsoil. They do not ever come to the fields and see what is needed."

Padma realized that it was necessary to look further ahead. She raised another Rs 6,000 from her SHG and purchased a buffalo in 1999. She had three calves from it, two of which draw the plough. She bought one more buffalo this year. There is enough fodder on the land to feed all her cattle. Besides milk for consumption and sale, the livestock provides her with precious organic manure -- up to 20 cartloads every year -- every application of which could last three years or so. She distributes this to different plots of the land on rotation.

The land yields have improved tremendously. Today, their annual income works out to about Rs 30,000. The pigeonpea crop has been their best bet so far, not failing a single time. They do not even need to use chemicals for pest-management on this crop. In fact, Padma and Narasimha have never applied any chemical fertilizers or pesticides on their land.

"The rains in our region are very erratic. Chemical fertilizers in this climate dry up our crops. Our neighbor used chemicals on her crops. Her maize dried up and the crop is much shorter than mine." This assertion is also borne out by scientific evidence that chemical fertilizers, during the process of assimilation and absorption, use up precious moisture and increase the heat content.

Owning their own land has transformed the lives of this couple. Narasimha was once a bonded laborer who earned about Rs 10,000 per year. He would even migrate to the cities for short periods when work was unavailable. Padma was a wage laborer, working on other people's lands. "Koolie bathuku kukka bathuku (A laborer’s life is like a dog's life)," she says. Today, their household is food secure. Five per cent of their land is devoted to paddy cultivation, which provides them with their staple food. They also produce most of the vegetables that they need.

In 2002, Padma required a surgery on her spinal chord, which cost the family about Rs 80,000. Two of her animals had to be sold off, along with some gold jewellery that she had bought with her savings. In addition, they borrowed Rs 30,000-odd from friends. Two years later, they have already paid off those debts with careful savings from their income.

Other farmers -- albeit only Dalit farmers so far -- in the neighborhood have adopted some of their farming techniques. There are even visitors who go there to see how these farming techniques work. Of course, not all is smooth sailing. Padma and Narasimha still have to contend with issues of farm credit, crop insurance and market support.

Yet, their story lends hope for fallow rain fed lands across the country. What is needed is a perspective that works with the inherent strengths of dry lands, instead of trying to convert them into irrigated lands by tapping into ever-declining groundwater levels. In a country that does not have a distinct and coherent policy on rain fed agriculture, Padma's story holds valuable lessons for such policy formulation.

Source: OneWorld South Asia, November 10, 2004

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