Gowramma is a slightly intimidating, enterprising woman, and a panchayat member in a village in the water-scarce Kolar District of Karnataka. She flashes a warm smile at us as we meet her at her kirana (provisions) shop. Even though it is September, the end of the monsoon, the earth is parched and only those with access to borewells for protective irrigation can grow tomatoes and beans.
Gowramma's shop: Only farmers with initial capital, a sense of entrepreneurship and matching agency in local political circles are able to diversify into non-farm livelihoods that help buffer families. Photo: Chandni Singh
"Agriculture has changed a lot since I came into this village as a young bride in the 1990s," says Gowramma. "We used to plough the land by hand and fished in the village lake. We grew ragi in the rainy season and had enough vegetables to eat."
The villages we are visiting are a far cry from Gowramma's reminiscing. Village after village, we hear a common story unfold. It is a story of falling water levels and borewells running dry, of decreasing soil fertility, of fluctuating market prices, and mass plantations of the ubiquitous nilgiri (eucalyptus). Its protagonists include a fast-aging farmer population and a swathe of rural youth eager to move out of farming. This disconcerting story unfolds against the backdrop of erratic rainfall: monsoonal rains have become so uncertain that cloud readers are no longer able to make predictions as they once did.
According to farmers interviewed in Kolar, eucalyptus trees require 6-12 litres per day, depleting water reserves. They also do not allow other plants to grow under them and change soil composition, further discouraging farming in the vicinity. Photo: Devi Kalyani.
With agriculture giving such poor returns, people are diversifying, as best they can. But only those who have some capital, are educated, and have some agency can aspire to make a living off other sources. And so we come across Yogesh, a lanky 22-year-old boy who has completed his Bachelor's degree and is now working as a medicine packer in Bangalore. Securing the job through a distant relative, he works six days a week and earns Rs 8000 a month. To reach his workplace every day, Yogesh takes the bus from his village to Bangarpet from where he catches a train to Bangalore. Once in Bangalore, he walks 4km to his office to reach in time for the morning shift. And he repeats the routine to return to his village every evening.
It is the assurance of a monthly salary that sustains him, says Yogesh. "Farming is a lottery. Only if it rains do we get returns," explains another farmer. Since rainfed farming, especially for smallholders in developing countries, is an inherently risky business, the reassuring regularity of a monthly salary cannot be emphasised enough. And with more than 60% of India's agriculture dependent on rainfed farming, growing discontent with the support for rainfed farming is no longer an isolated anecdotal case of Yogesh or Gowramma in Kolar.
Field stories from across semi-arid rural India, whether Rajasthan, Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh, reflect a now-recurring narrative of an agrarian crisis replete with crop failure, people moving out of farming, and increasing systemic vulnerability to climatic and non-climatic risks.
Only farmers with irrigation infrastructure - access to wells, an engine to pump water, and pipes to channel it - can weather dry spells within the monsoon. Photo: Chandni Singh
There is a growing desperation in rural India, and it is manifesting in various ways - from farmer suicides across drylands to violence in tribal-dominated lands and sporadic riots. These incidents are symptomatic of a deeper problem - one of shrinking work options and the undermining of existing farm-based livelihoods by erosive policies and rapid natural resource degradation.
Policy response to such "eruptions" from the rural population is similar to how one might treat a bunch of scroungers - either complete eradication of the problem by "skilling" people and enabling a shift from rural to urban areas, or doling out temporary relief in the form of loan waivers and post-event, reactive relief packages. The skilling approach has at its heart the notion of rural inhabitants being "unskilled" because their livelihoods of farming and livestock rearing render them "unemployable" and thus misplaced in India's growth trajectory. While this is not an attack on the Skill India initiative, we do caution that such an approach tends to reinforce perceptions of agriculture as a non-viable livelihood.
The relief-centric approach equally undermines rural livelihoods and lives. For example, one of the central government's answers to the recent deficit monsoon is providing a diesel subsidy for farmers in drought and deficit rainfall affected areas. Such measures indicate a dangerous myopia where repeated investments are made in short-term strategies instead of uncovering and addressing systemic problems of the agricultural sector.
Farmers are not passive "victims": in the face of decreasing rainfall and drying ponds, farmers choose to dig more wells, often at the cost of Rs 4-5 lakhs each. While this helps them cope with water scarcity in the present, it potentially erodes the agricultural system at a larger scale. Photo: Chandni Singh
However, it is erroneous to assume that farmers are passive victims of a hostile system. Farmers across India use ingenuity to exploit the politico-legal institutional landscape, negotiating a fast-changing environmental and climatic landscape on one hand, and the eroding socio-cultural base and changing aspirations on the other. They use experience and indigenous knowledge systems, local safety nets as well as available state-sponsored subsidies and ICT-based weather forecasts to manage risks and meet personal goals. They do this in spite of the relief packages and loan waivers, not as a result of them. And here lies the opportunity our policies miss out on - boosting this ingenuity with a robust policy architecture to enable adapting to current and emerging problems in rural India.
Although semi-arid regions across the world are poised to be highly impacted by climate change, they are also places with diverse livelihood and inherently resilient agricultural systems that have encountered and overcome multiple risks. Such a history positions these systems not as casualties of climate change but as potential forerunners of what natural resource-based livelihood systems could look like in a rapidly changing climate and socio-economic regime. If only we let them.
*All names have been changed to respect respondent anonymity.