The poor tribal farmers ploughing the rocky surface of steep hillocks at a height of more than 700 feet in western Madhya Pradesh belie the state government's claims about making agriculture a profitable profession.
Overcoming problems posed by the undulating terrain, rocks located barely six inches below the surface and the lack of irrigation facilities, the tribes people eke out a livelihood by growing maize, millet, urad, tuar and groundnut.
As the people depend solely on rains for irrigation, they can grow only one crop a year. They supplement their income by working in neighbouring Gujarat as labourers paid a daily wage.
Puniya Parmar, a farmer from Baad village in Jhabua district, said the tribes people have been cultivating the hills for generations as they did not own much land in the plains even before independence.
According to the agriculture department, 30% of the total crops in tribal-dominated Jhabua and Alirajpur districts are cultivated in the hills.
Jhabua agriculture science centre head I S Tomar remarked: "Last month, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan received the third consecutive national Krishi Karman award. Farmers, especially those who grow crops on the hills, deserve this award."
The state government has assiduously tried to cultivate a pro-farmer image by launching schemes whereby it gives loans at 1% interest rate to buy irrigation pipes, motor pumps and agriculture implements, and grants subsidies ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 to poor farmers under different schemes.
But in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts, the state government has taken no steps since Madhya Pradesh's formation in 1956 to help farmers develop irrigation facilities, such as installing reverse sprinklers or constructing tanks to collect rain water that can be released down the hills to grow crops round the year.
More than 90% of families in two districts have cultivable land but most of them do not own more than two acres as farms have been divided among members of families. Two acres is insufficient to earn enough income and feed families, experts said.
K S Khapedia, deputy director of the Alirajpur agriculture department, too lauded the farmers. "They could have easily become beggars. But they are ploughing on hills which are difficult to climb and descend."
"There are no out-of-box solutions," Jhabua district collector B Chandrashekhar said when he was asked about what is being done to develop irrigation facilities in the hills and to recognize the tribes people's feat of cultivating in inhospitable terrain.
Farmers who grow crops on low hills and shallow slopes use tractors and have installed sprinklers but they do not operate at high altitudes.
"We take light ploughs and lightweight bullocks on high hills because heavy bullocks will fall," said Haridas Ramesh, a resident of Akalkhara in Alirajpur district.
"Note the neat burroughs ploughed with the help of bullocks atop. Not all farmers can cultivate on hills," Jhabua agriculture department assistant director Heera S Chauhan said.
Hills surround most areas in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts, except for some places like Thandla and Petlavad.
Crops in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts
Maize: 1,08,850 hectares
Soybean: 77,000 hectares
Urad: 68,000 hectares
Cotton: 26,760 hectares
Millet: 22,000 hectares
Paddy: 17,000 hectares
Groundnut: 15,000 hectares
Tuar: 5,000 hectares
(Source: Agriculture department)