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Unfounded criticism

The grounds on which Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyaya Yojana is being criticized lack logic and stand contrary to a climate-smart agriculture policy; writes Ajay Deouskar

Unfounded criticism
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A run-off-the-mill sounding scheme, Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyaya Yojana (RGKNY) has lately been a topic of debate among environmentalists, some storm in the rice bowl, as it kicks off this Kharif season (2021) in Chhattisgarh. The scheme incentivizes farmers for shifting from paddy cultivation to other food crops like millets, pulses, oilseeds, sugarcane, scented variety rice; fruit crops like papaya, banana and other horticulture species as well as woody perennials that include bamboo and eucalyptus.

While the stated objectives of the scheme are to increase crop diversity, productivity and farm income, the state, by weaning away farmers from paddy cultivation, stands to save around Rs 10,000 per acre, after three years of supporting farmers for the same amount. More importantly, it will free the state's resources from the tedious process of arranging logistics for the procurement of more than 21 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of excess paddy that no one wants.

In 2020-21, in the state of Chhattisgarh, 92 LMT of paddy was procured as against 59 LMT in 2015-16 — a jump of 56 per cent in five years. At Rs 2,500 per quintal of procurement price, the productivity rate of around 15 quintals per acre ensures an income of 35,000 plus per acre, something that no Kharif crop comes even close to. The impact of this shift to paddy monoculture has been devastating for the state. Almost 90 per cent of the kharif crop is paddy now. From being a rice bowl of hundreds of rice varieties, the state's rich crop diversity has been reduced to a handful of rice varieties like Masuri and Mahamaya — the varieties that are most remunerative under the state procurement programme.

So, why this sense of distrust, when it looks like a policy shift, from competitive populism to pragmatism, something that was long overdue? Let's examine.

The first concern of some environmentalists is that relaxing norms for harvesting tree crops on farmland will promote illegal felling of trees from forest lands, as now the farmer has to only inform concerned authorities instead of seeking permission to do so. It's hard to believe that some still root for this archaic colonial forest law in this age of technology when you can monitor every tree by looking at an aerial picture taken from a drone or satellite. It's like saying, ban all private vehicles running on diesel and let this privilege be exclusively for government vehicles, to stop the theft of diesel from government vehicles. I know it's an oversimplification and things are more complex on the field, but why penalize a farmer for it. If at all, wood crops on farmland will share the burden. I have been practising agroforestry for the last three decades in Chhattisgarh and there hasn't been a day when I won't rue my decision to go for bamboo and khamar (Gmelina arborea) plantation. It has been a harrowing experience. Despite all the paperwork and registration documents of trees that I had planted with concerned departments, it took me months before a Transport Permit was granted for harvesting and transporting my crop. By then the buyer was gone. For a farmer who wants to diversify her crops, doing away with the archaic law is the most proactive policy decision that we have been waiting for.

The second apprehension is that monoculture plantations will lead to loss of biodiversity and degraded ecosystems. Replacing a variety or two of paddy with plantations of different species like khamar, bamboo, mango, guava, lemon, sweet lime, babool will lead to this? How come? Even a eucalyptus plantation, with all its allelopathic effect on soil, has a better environmental benefit to cost ratio. While acting as a carbon sink, it takes only 785 litres of water per kilogram of biomass produced. Paddy, on the other hand, needs 2,500 litres of water and significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. And yes, that debate is settled. Roots of Eucalyptus don't go beyond three meters of depth, so in areas where the water table is below five meters, as is the case with most parts of Chhattisgarh, the plantation can be carried out by all means. Extensive root structure plays a vital role in arresting soil and water runoff, making it a worthy species for both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Some civil societies believe that a shift from paddy to other crops will severely compromise the food security of tribal communities. Again, not true. Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are predicted to be the top two hotspots of climate change in the country. A shift from water-guzzling paddy to less water-demanding crops like maize, kodu-kutki, ragi will only reduce production risks as all of them are more drought resistant. Also, the fact that they are loaded with nutrition and well-integrated in local dietary patterns, a shift to millet cultivation stands to enhance food, nutritional and water security. The government is anyway providing 35 kilograms of rice per month to each family, almost free of costs and, with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) overflowing with surplus, water and nutritional security should be the top priority of the state.

Trends, ecosystem and conclusions

From 1987 to 2013, the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) reported a decreasing trend for foodgrains like rice and wheat, and a significant upward trend for non-grain food items like edible oil, milk, fish, meat and eggs for both rural and urban households. Therefore, in Chhattisgarh also, it is high time we move on from monoculture paddy to a more balanced Integrated farming system, a climate-smart agriculture strategy to mitigate climate change risks and to be in sync with the changing dietary pattern of the country.

India being a net importer of timber, an ecosystem of the timber-based industry will not only save foreign exchange but also provide a stable market to the farmers. In absence of demand for its products, the farmer is bound to shift back to tried and tested low-risk farming systems like paddy again. Farmer Producer Organizations, in consultation with timber research organizations, could be incentivized to set up timber industries in the vicinity of the produce.

With ever-shrinking common lands, bringing them further under plantation schemes will make livestock farming that much more difficult. Encouraging villagers to go for high yielding grass varieties like super Napier, with green fodder yield as high as 400 tons per hectare, might be a better option for commons.

The scheme promises to change the agriculture landscape of Chhattisgarh and make it climate change resilient, provided critical linkages like livestock are identified and strengthened. Also, with Chhattisgarh having three distinct socio-economic regions, species selection could be done in a more targeted manner according to the climatic conditions and needs of the farmers. Initially, only farmers with large landholdings or those who are into shared cropping would venture into it. But strategy should be to bring in even small and marginal farmers in due course of time as they are least equipped to deal with a crop failure.

Recent studies suggest that intermittently, flooded paddy fields might be emitting 30 to 45 times more nitrous oxide than current estimates. With a global warming potential of more than 265 to that of carbon dioxide, the carbon footprint of rice might be far more than a mere five per cent of a country's emissions.

I still remember the walk, way down the memory lane, through lush green paddy fields and the aroma of rice that would fill me with every breath. Now it has come to this. Fumes of nitrous oxide and methane. There could be no better time or reason for farming systems in Chhattisgarh to take a course correction.

The writer is an IIFM alumni and practices sustainable and integrated agriculture in Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal

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