In rural India, youths steer a crusade against food insecurity

March 22, 2013 0 Comments

Hyderabad – Braving dry climate, poverty, poor access to market and calls of Maoist rebels to join them, hundreds of youths from marginalized communities in rural India are turning into food growers, transforming dry, barren land into green, productive fields

Dalit youth Ramesh, 19, of Rayapally – a village 170 km away from Hyderabad city in southern India – isn’t a keen follower of news. So, when P Chidambaram, the finance minister of India presented the budget for 2013-14, Ramesh wasn’t following the analysts who pointed out the gaping holes in the budget that average farmers yearned for: missing financial reforms that ensure credit flow and proper extension mechanism, fair prices for farmers’ produce and better earnings and livelihoods.

Instead, Ramesh was busy helping his mother Ratnamma prepare compost manure in their 2 and half acre farm, built on a leased land. Dry, barren and filled with stones and gravels until two years ago, this little farm is today a tiny picture of lush greenery, thanks to the dedication of young Ramesh, who is also studying to be an agricultural scientist – the first in his entire community to do so.

Ramesh practices agriculture with a difference, employing his youthful energy, enthusiasm and the Knowledge attained from the school of agricultural he attends. He uses organic manure, organic pesticide made of neem extracts, grows multiple crops simultaneously and avoids any use of chemical pesticide. Thanks to this combined skills and knowledge, from the tiny farm Ramesh manages to produce enough vegetables and pulses that meet his family’s needs, besides a little surplus to sell in the local market once a week. But, what is more significant is that he already has decided to build a career out of farming and has also drafted a future plan to develop his agribusiness. The plan includes use of cell phone to source for agriculture information, e-marketing strategies to collaborate with the traders in the district market to receive orders, and, deliver in time when his produce is ready.

Not many of his friends share Ramesh’s enthusiasm for farming though. Some of them have enlisted themselves as Maoist cadres – their way to right the wrongs they had been subjected to such as landlessness, caste-based violence and poverty.

The rest of the boys of his age are studying to be software engineers – a career that has been a top priority for most youngsters in Hyderaabd. The reasons are not difficult to guess: instant employment, quick returns of the money invested in education, repayment of education loan taken from a bank and above all, a well-paid job with high chances of traveling across the world, especially in the US.

But, Ramesh says he has no regrets and is hopeful of making a decent living from his farming business. “It’s not true that justice can be easily earned by guns. You have to be brave, take risks, and struggle hard for it. So, why not put all that where you don’t endanger your life or the lives of those in your family? Agriculture can also be a tool to bring social justice. For example, we had been landless, working as farm laborers for generations. But now I am changing that, by owning this farm.”

Mallesh, 24, from the neighboring village of Malchelma agrees. Employed under the Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture – a government program that promotes farming to end rural poverty, Mallesh received training in organic farming for over a year. Today he is training over fifty families of his village into the same techniques, besides tending to his own farm.
“Agriculture is not boring. It’s the other way around. When all you have is a job, you are more worried about price rise, especially the cost of food which has been shooting up higher everyday. But, if you have a job and also are growing your own food, you have few things to worry about. Besides, when you are self-employed, it’s so much more fulfilling,” Ramesh explains, “You get paid what you’re worth. You can also change the course of your own life.”

The passion to break the status quo and bring a change also drives Rama Krishna of Kondapuram – a village in the rural district of Kurnool. The young farmer in his early twenties owns a 3-acre farm that was swamped by flood water and filled with silt in 2009. The flood had destroyed the farms of entire village, causing huge losses. An undergraduate student then, Krishna decided to de-silt and grow sunflower – instead of the conventional crop of rice – in the land owned by his family. “After the flood everyone was talking of giving up cultivation. But I had a sudden feeling of wanting to do something different and make a mark,” he says.

Three years later, Krishna is earning enough from his sunflower farm to stop looking for a job.

Krishna attributes his success to organic manure, the right amount of pesticides and judicious use of water. What, however, is visibly evident is that the young man also has determination and an indomitable spirit – a natural possession of every youth.

Youth – the untapped power house

Sadly though, this spirit of the youth has seldom been harnessed in Indian agriculture which forms the backbone of the nation’s economy. This is one of the many reasons why the sector is in doldrums today with millions of farmers caught in debt traps and thousands having committed suicide, feel many experts.

“In a typical industrial sector, there is always an effort to employ youths. Especially in Information Technology, youths are given a free hand to work and lead. In sharp contrast, agriculture, which engages 50% of our workforce, the picture is appalling: the very image of agriculture in India is an old, frail man tilling a land with a bull. You just don’t see the face of youths anywhere. They remain completely invisible,” says M Mary, a sustainable livelihood expert and founder of Telengana Mahila Samakhya, a Dalit rights organization based in Hyderabad.

According to Mary, if Indian agriculture were to make a turn around, youths must to be given a fair share of charge. “Agriculture is like a sick man on the bed. We need to infuse new ideas and new efforts to restore his health. The more we put youths in charge of this, the better are our chances of recovery.”

The government also seems to be thinking on the same line. A significant proof of that can be seen at Venkatnagaram – a village in West Godavari, another rural district. Recently, the government provided land, money and technical guidance to 125 youths here to take up farming. Each of these youths comes from a landless Dalit family.

However, the aid also came with a challenge: the land they received was never cultivated before and was full of sturdy bushes. But the combined youth power of hundred and twenty five men turned the land into a productive field in no time.

Says Naga Raju, one of the youths, “It was difficult. Clearing bushes and tilling a stretch of barren land requires more work than you can imagine. But, the thought of owning some land gave me a lot of good energy. Until yesterday, everyone called me a jobless fellow. A few times, I also was tempted to become a Maoist activist and was scorned at for not doing so. But today, I am a bread earner. My identity has changed.”
Raju and his fellow villagers received help under Indira Prabha – a land development program run by the government that gives on lease land to landless from Dalit and tribal families and also helps train them into farming.

Says C Venkata Rama Rao, Rajahmundry Agriculture Market Committee chairman, “All of these youths are from landless families. They would have migrated soon to the city to look for work. Now they can stay in the village. This is in a way to ensure village development and stop migration. We are ready to buy their produce any time.”

Passion alone can’t tackle food insecurity

Marketing opportunities like that is something Amrutha Bodapati of Hyderabad is longing for, but in vain. A media professional, Amrutha was always passionate about farming. So, when she inherited five acres of land in 2010 in a village in Chitoor district, she wasted no time in getting the land prepared for cultivating pea nuts – a crop that grew well in the village soil. She has just harvested her second crop – a total of two quintals – but is struggling to sell the produce as the price in the local market is very low.

Officials at the department of government agriculture say that Chittoor has been a focus area of Indira Jala Prabha – another government program that provides irrigation facility to farmers. But Bodapati says that without an easy marketing mechanism, even a bumper crop can’t bring enough cheers among farmers. “The government needs to take a holistic look at agriculture. Boosting production is not all; what happens to the produce is what decides the fate of the farmer,” she says.

Despite the difficulties, however, giving up isn’t an option for Bodapati who has been trying to build a clientele among her friends and well wishers in Hyderabad.

“People say, agriculture is not for the young people like us, especially those who live in the city. I say, these are obsolete ideas. If we, the educated youths, don’t think of agriculture, how can things ever change?” asks Amrutha.

However, Amrutha admits that though farming is beginning to sound like an appealing career, there are downsides. The work involves tough physical labor. Also, there are many inherent risks: Drought, flooding, wind and other weather extremes can all destroy a year’s work. And then there are severe challenges like lack of water to irrigate the fields and absence of an easy, accessible marketing mechanism.

In fact, it’s these challenges that are still forcing Amrutha not give up her job. Indian Agronomy needs a youth lens To help youths like Amrutha and engage more of her tribe, the government needs to start programs that look at farming from the eyes of youths and is designed to meet their needs, feels Kannaiyan Subramanium, Secretary, Tamil Nadu Farmers Association.

“The government of India has never consciously tried to make agriculture a viable career option for the youths. So, today, youths do not consider it to a career option at all. Few who do, and remain in villages to take up agriculture, will soon compare themselves with their friends who have moved out and are doing other jobs. For them, it is most important that they should economically do as good as those who are in services and businesses,”

Subramanium points out that rural unemployment is a growing menace which is directly impacting youths, forcing them to migrate to urban areas. If the service sectors in the rural areas can be expanded, a lot of income opportunities can be generated. Services like sale of farm machinery, processing of farm produce, extension of agricultural knowledge have a very good scope in rural areas and will also help generate income in rural areas.

V. Rajagopal, founder, Hunger Elimination and You – a social movement based in Tirupati that encourages youths to take up farming as a career option, agrees. According to Rajagopal, agribusiness is an emerging field for the youth to avail the excellent opportunities to take up farm related ventures. The potential areas to utilize youngsters are agriculture production, processing and marketing. If youth are given proper training in these areas and also helped to utilize the knowledge, they can become self reliant and sustainable.

In India, the total rural youth population is 296.2 million as against 130.9 million urban youth population. The latest World Development Report by the World Bank says India’s youth unemployment — as a percentage of the youth work force — was 9.9% for males and 11.3% for females in 2010. This is not a ideal picture that an emerging economy would boast about. But Rajagopal says that if this could change, a new revolution would be required. “We need a new green revolution – one that can completely revitalize the entire agricultural sector. And it’s time the youths were given their due rights to usher in the revolution,” he concludes.