In the past, agriculture was not just a commercial operation. It involved a culture of people working together in a celebratory mode. When it was the day to plough, there was a ploughing song and dance and a particular celebration. When it was the day of sowing, there was another kind of celebration with a song and dance. Harvesting is still a celebration – Pongal and Sankranti. As recent as the previous generation, song, music, dance and celebration was so much a part of rural lives.
But that has almost entirely disappeared today and agriculture has become a heart-breaking job. Most of our farmers are doing it because they don't know what else to do. You can see this in the number of farmer suicides that have been recorded – 300,000 in 20 years.
A massive health crisis
Another thing that has changed in rural India is people’s health. Our usual idea of a villager is that though he may be poor, he is a strong, robust person. But today, if you walk into a village — let’s say in Tamil Nadu, one of the better off states — for at least 60 percent of the men, their physical bodies have not grown to full stature. The women are in worse condition. This is simply because the nutritional value of what they eat has dropped dramatically.
Earlier, when they were doing subsistence farming, a farmer grew what he needed on his 3-4 acres of land, and he ate a more wholesome diet. Now, one problem is that the average landholding in India has come down to 2.5 acres. With 2.5 acres, you cannot grow much. But even those farmers who have more land are generally growing cash crops. When money comes in, they don’t realise that they should spend it to eat in a more nutritious way. For example, the staple diet in southern Indian villages is rice, onion, chilli and tamarind.
Poverty and lack of nourishment have created a huge health crisis. India has the largest number of undernourished children on the planet. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, bronchial problems and many other ailments are common.
In fact, in many ways, the rural people’s spirit has dissipated. Mental ailments were once rare in rural India, but they are rapidly becoming common, mainly because earlier when someone faced a problem, they were never alone. There was support from the family and community. Today, this cultural support through entertainment, dance or psychological support has been rapidly dismantled without providing a substitute.
Bringing farmers together
If we have to transform rural India into a place worth living in, a key aspect is to make agriculture a lucrative process. The greatest impediment for this is scale – the land holdings are too small. The two major problems driving farmers to poverty and death are investments in irrigation and lack of negotiating power in the market. Without scale, these two vital aspects stay out of reach.
We are looking at how to change this by bringing farmers together into Farmer-Producer Organisations (FPO) with a minimum of 10,000 acres of land. Farmers can cultivate their land individually, but micro-irrigation and marketing of produce are taken care of for them together by companies that have the necessary competence for it.
For health interventions, we have taken up initiatives where we educate villagers about planting one drumstick tree, one papaya tree and a patch of green in their house. This has brought a dramatic change in their health situation. We are also introducing herbal gardens in villages so that for the simple issues that people – especially women and children – have, they have a solution in their own backyards.
We are in the process of transforming a few existing villages into model villages, which will cover all these aspects and much more. There will be playgrounds, gymnasiums, yoga shalas, computer centres, libraries, craft centres for women and of course, toilets! These model villages can be used as a basis to transform villages throughout the country.
This process of rural transformation has to be driven and centred around the FPOs because farmers make up the majority of the rural population and agriculture is the major activity. And any transformation that takes place will be sustainable only if it is driven by the villagers themselves. Fundamentally, we want to equip and inspire the rural population so that they can create their life. They don’t wait for life to happen to them.
This is not something one organisation or the government can do. The industry has to partner with the government, NGOs, and the concerned people and put it into action on the ground. We always think India is 130 crore people. That is not the way to think. Think of one district, and just transform it. We have been talking about it for too long. It is time to make it happen.
The author is a yogi and founder of Isha Foundation.
Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 15:06 PM