A giant chimney spews black smoke into the sky. A shiny new building has blocked a canal, drying up water supply to the lush fields beyond.
The farms are under attack in Brahmanwala village, Dehradun.
Town houses and industrial units once just visible on the horizon have crept up to the farmers’ front doors.
“They’re buying up land that used to produce some of the best basmati rice and litchis in the country,” says Umed Singh Sajwan (44), his face creased with worry. “And the government has done nothing to help.”
In a country where agriculture directly employs about 60 per cent of the population — and where there are already over 1.14 billion mouths to feed — it’s time to give agriculture some special treatment.
One way to focus efforts and ensure they bear fruit is to set up Special Agricultural Zones.
Across the country, lakhs of farmers are giving up on agriculture and selling out to the highest bidder. A total of 8 million farmers quit farming between 1991 and 2001.
Often, the buyers set up special economic zones or industrial units on the land. The special economic zones get tax sops and subsidised land, power and water.The farmers that owned the land before them were lucky if they got a few hours of power every day and a government agent to buy their produce at a minimum rate set by the Centre.
There are no national statistics available for the amount of land lost to urbanisation, industries and special economic zones. But Brahmanwala has lost 15 per cent of arable land since the state was formed nine years ago.
And Brahmanwala’s farmers are better off than the average.
Across the country, a total of 1.82 lakh indebted farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2007, driven to despair by a lack of basic infrastructure like power, irrigation and access to markets.
As hungry realtors swoop in, the only issue that remains is price.
“What good is it being a farmer,” asks Sajwan. See full-size image: Ploughing for profit
Special Agricultural Zones could resolve that question, protecting fertile land from being lost and also focussing infrastructure like roads, markets and storage facilities in one area, making farming profitable again.
Setting it up
Each special agricultural zone could be run like a cooperative, with farmers retaining ownership of their land and acting as stakeholders.
The farmers’ cooperative would help administer the SAZ, with the government acting as facilitator. Together, the state and co-op would determine what additional facilities were needed — storage, cold storage, marketing, fish farming etc.
The government would either set up the facilities itself or help the farmers attract private investors to set them up.
Women could be involved — and empowered — through allied industries like food processing, making papads and pickles from part of the produce.
With better infrastructure, farmers could branch out into floriculture and horticulture, particularly in the non-crop seasons.
“The aim of the SAZ is to conserve prime farm land for farming and to bring about convergence among all ongoing government programmes,” says M.S. Swaminathan, agricultural scientist and father of the Green Revolution. “This will help us to launch an Ever-Green Revolution.”
The Uttarakhand government has already got the ball rolling.
After losing 240 square kilometres of agricultural land to urbanisation and SEZs over the last 10 years, the government is now finalising a policy on special agricultural zones, which will reserve a percentage of the state's total area for agriculture to ensure food security.
“Such land will be used only for agriculture,” says state Agriculture Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat. “Around the special agricultural zone, we will build facilities for food processing, packaging etc.”
The state is planning to create specialised cultivation areas based on climate and soil conditions. Thus, there will be a Pulses Valley, Apple Valley, Vegetable Valley, Tuber Valley etc.
“Development has to be uniform,” says Abhijit Sen, member of the Planning Commission.
While the type of special zone will be determined by the main crop that can best be grown there, the soil will then be studied to determine if any other crops can be grown in the fallow season.
Each zone will have state-of-the-art water management facilities, including rainwater harvesting, better management of surface, rain and groundwater and a focus on recycling of graywater and treating of waste water.
Inputs like seeds, fertiliser and credit will be provided in a single place, at subsidised rates, either directly by the government through Kisan Banks or in collaboration with private agencies.
The logistical infrastructure — highways, marketing, better access to markets — will help the farmer make more from his produce.
Currently, thanks to the complex chain from the farm to the fork, the average farmer gets only 15 to 25 per cent of the eventual selling price.
Ideally, training centres could also be built over time, to teach farmers better farming practices and bring them up to speed with the latest developments in terms of inputs (seeds, fertiliser) and technology.
A smile spreads across Sajwan’s wrinkled face as he listens to the details.
So many of the sales in Brahmanwala have been distress sales, he says. Crops fail, there are family emergencies, or weddings.
“I know that I will need money for my daughter’s wedding in a few years. If the government were to help me make my land more profitable, I would not sell to the highest bidder,” he says. “And I would not feel alone… [it] would make us feel like someone cares.”
With rising input costs and poor access to irrigation and markets, more and more farmers are turning away from agriculture, choosing to sell fertile land to the builder or industrialist that offers them the highest price. As India loses thousands of square kilometres of arable land to urbanisation and industry, food deposits have fallen to their lowest levels in 20 years.
* Create special agricultural zones, reserving land for agriculture and then pumping investment into the zone for infrastructure, marketing etc.
* These zones should be managed on the cooperative model, with the farmers deciding what additional infrastructure they need - storage, cold storage, fish-farming etc - and the government acting as facilitator. Private companies can be invited to invest by creating this infrastructure, or providing capital.
* Each zone must have guaranteed, subsidised power and water supply and state-of-the-art water management facilities, including rainwater harvesting.
* Inputs like seeds, fertiliser and even credit must be provided in a single place, at subsidised rates, either directly by the government through Kisan Banks or in collaboration with private agencies.
* Logistical infrastructure - highways, marketing, better access to markets - will help the farmer make more from his produce.
* Ideally, training centres could also be built over time, to teach farmers better farming practices and bring them up to speed with the latest developments in terms of inputs (seeds, fertiliser) and technology. The training centres could also help involve women to a greater extent, training them to work at packaging and food processing plants where they could make jams, pickles, papad etc from part of the produce.
Around the world
The government has framed policies towards setting up special agricultural zones. Each zone will have first-class infrastructure, technology and access to markets. The proposed zones are already attracting foreign investment, from companies interested in helping set it up and from agro professionals.
The Department of Agriculture has asked the Philippine Export Zone Authority to create a special zone for large-scale foreign investments in agriculture. This special agricultural zone will offer investors the option of helping build the zone or setting up shop within it.
Government Speak: Abhijit Sen, Member of Planning Commission
Expert Speak: MS Swaminathan, Agricultural scientist and father of the Green Revolution