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Bihar: Climate Change Aggravates Agrarian Crisis For Small, Marginal Farmers

The case of Rehua village makes it amply clear how rapidly changing climatic conditions, coupled with the apathy of local bureaucracy leaves small and marginal farmers deep in the lurch.

Overview of Rehua village

Near the Gaya International Airport, a village called Rehua has people mainly working as agricultural workers, owning small amounts of land and managing their income by engaging in other forms of labour work. Just right at the road leading to Rehua, Birendra Kumar is working on the construction site of a small house in the village. He says he has been working as a farmer for the past ten years on his own land.

"Dhaan and gehun (rice and wheat) are the main crops I grow. The biggest problem is water, the rain patterns have been drastically changing over the years, and they are decreasing year by year. We have to ask the bade (big) farmers to help us, as they have borewells. Nowadays, who helps anyone anyway? We keep on waiting for them to supply us with water," Birendra said. The groundwater table in the village is also said to be receding. "When I was younger, some 20 years ago, the borewells could get water out from 40 ft below the ground. Now there are years when the borewells themselves dry up. I guess that the water level has gone down to 70 ft," Birendra said.

Population pressure on land here is high - there are 116 households in the village, among which 85 bighas (roughly 52 acres) of land is distributed. Few hold more than five bighas, and most people have land through which they can only grow crops for themselves to eat.

Small farmers are a majority in the village of Rehua, and it is always compared to a larger village nearby, called Bishnuganj. “Bishnuganj has a lot of farmers who grow vegetables, all the Thakurs and Koeris have a lot of punji (capital), and they are better off," Birendra said. Prakash Ram, another farmer who works with Birendra at the construction site, says that no one can survive on farming. "No matter how large the land one may have, I don't think one can survive on farming. You invest a certain capital and earn nearly the same, and there is not much profit. Whatever you earn, then you invest again," and so goes the cycle.

The capital that a farmer invests majorly goes into buying seeds and fertilisers. Birendra says that costs for all have been running up day by day and "Even if one has five bighas of zameen, no one can survive only through farming with such prices." The rate of fertilisers, which are supposed to be bought at a government-fixed rate, is skyrocketing, according to Prakash. "One sack costs around Rs 450, and sometimes even Rs 500. The government price is not known. We have to simply follow what the retailer asks of us," Prakash said.

A recent report on the botched up prices of fertilisers in Bihar, such as urea, revealed that the problem is a whole lot more complex. The wholesalers, retailers and the farmers are stuck in a deadlock of passing the buck of inflating prices. Wholesalers blame the government for not providing them with enough subsidies for the transport of the fertilisers to the centres, and the retailers end up buying the sacks at a much higher price which, in turn, they have to sell at a price higher than the MRP to the farmers. The government seems to have no grip on the problem, and the woes of the farmers continue unaddressed.

Another farmer, Ram Dahin Yadav, informs that the price fixed for a sack fertiliser is Rs 266. "Now we get it for more than Rs 350 at some retailers. Some are even selling for even close to Rs 500," Ram said.

Ram Dahin Yadav explains his plight

Ram Dahin Yadav explains his plight

The role of climate change and state apathy to the many loose ends that disadvantage the farmers greatly form the basis of the agrarian crisis that grips rural India. Farmers are perceptive of the changes in weather patterns and the decline of their produce as the crops get ruined due to shifts in precipitation and increasing heat. “The increase in heat is also a major factor. The type of soil is important. The kewal soil can retain a lot of water, even in the heat. But balsundari cannot, and hence the gehun that grows on it ripe prematurely, and hence it affects the productivity. For we have to cut the crops before time if they ripe faster," Birendra said.

The premature ripening of crops leads to less productivity as crops deteriorate faster. Ram Dahin says that the heatwave is one of the major causes of the gehun produce getting dried up and spoilt. "It all depends on the weather. You see, now, in the months of March and April, it should be cooler than it is. But as the temperatures are rising, we will have more heatwaves that will affect the crops," Ram Dahin said.

Winters, too affect the crops on a large scale. "Heavy dew in winters over crops affects growing vegetables. Frost damage is becoming more common over the years," Ram Dahin says, who grows dhaan and gehu in Rehua, "The potato crop gets damaged due to harsh winters. So does mustard." The ever-growing problem of changes in weather patterns is worsened by the larger unavailability of resources to sustain crops, Ram adds.

"People say that they want to leave farming, but the only reason is that people are not able to get enough out of it to make their ends meet," Ram continues, further saying that "You see, we don't get resources such as fertilisers, pesticides, etc. on time. Fertilisers are costly and above the price of MRP because the supply of fertilisers is low and the demand is high. The same goes for pesticides and other medicines such as DAP, urea, etc. and also electricity supply is not continuous. The government doesn't care for the farmers at all and does not give any benefits regarding this."

Ram Dahin and a few of his family members at home

Ram Dahin and a few of his family members at home

The farmer's movement that went on for more than a year culminating in November 2021, was a huge victory for farmers resisting the corporatisation of the agrarian sector and overturned the tyrannical laws proposed by the Central government. "We saw a victory, but we are yet to receive the benefits; when would we get MSP?" Ram Dahin asks.

The current state of the agrarian economy is yet plagued by private players and businesses that directly affect the strength of the farmers. An elderly farmer from the village, Naval Kishore Yadav, explains that the rising prices of all the resources in the cultivation of crops are profiteered by big businesses and companies. Speaking about the new variety of seeds that are packaged by big companies, he says that the yield of crops has improved as compared to the raw seeds they used from the previous year's produce of gehun.

"We buy the modern packaged seeds of gehun for Rs 30-50/kg. When we finally grow it and sell it in the market, we sell it for between Rs 15-20/kg. The packaging comes from big companies, and all the benefits simply go to retailers, businessmen, and transporters. They are the real profiteers," Naval Kishore said. He further adds that the only reason the farmers invest capital in buying packaged seeds is that it improves yield. But only improved yield doesn't aid much of cultivation.

"Our investments have gone up. The seeds are costly, and so are the fertilisers and the cost of running the tractor on the fields. The cost of diesel is also skyrocketing," Naval Kishore said. Naval Kishore adds that the state employees themselves act as middlemen and extract commissions and bribes in any process. "If one has to take loans, they have to be ready to commission the officers to get a loan and then pay the interest for a loan for the rest of the time," Naval Kishore said, "Everyone is corrupt and is against the interest of the farmers."

Village elders watch over the irrigation of fields

Village elders watch over the irrigation of fields

In a rather humorous instance that happened in Rehua, Naval Kishore notes the apathy of the state towards the immediate problems of the farmers. In 2021, locust or moth attacks in the summers were a cause of worry among the farmers of Rehua. They asked for help from the district administration, and an agriculture advisor duly came with government orders.

Naval Kishore narrates, "The officer gathered everyone in the village. He instructed everyone to bang on thaalis, and he clicked photos of us doing so. So that has been the help they have given us. Now tell me, will the moths go away when you bang on thaalis? But he got his work done as instructed by the government. He also told us that we could not give any benefit if we don't do this and had a photo with everyone doing this activity. That's all they did."

Not only were the farmers not helped in any way, but they were aided in a way that is reminiscent of the Modi government’s response to COVID-19 in India. The increase in pests is also a symptom of increasing temperatures. "In Gaya, the temperatures climb to touch 50 degrees. Some crops like corn cannot be even ripe in such temperatures and get spoiled. Heat also gives rise to more pests in the field," Naval said. The fact of the matter is that the pesticides to prevent moths and locusts are expensive. If the state cannot aid the farmers with expensive resources such as pesticides, how could the farmers buy them for themselves? "Us farmers cannot buy such expensive pesticides. The profit we could get out of growing moong on our farms is equal to the cost of such pesticides. So if we buy it, only the companies will benefit from it, then what benefit will we get?" Naval Kishore said.

Naval Kishore Yadav (extreme right)

Naval Kishore Yadav (extreme right)

The extent of the ignorance of the state administration of the conditions of the farmers of Rehua is reflective in the spread of the state-mandated efforts to aid farmers. Jalvayu Anukul Krishi Karyakram, a guidance programme inaugurated in 2020 by CM Nitish Kumar to aid farmers in sowing crops according to the changes in the climate, hasn't reached Rehua and many of the adjacent villages such as Bishnuganj, Karmatikar, etc. "I haven't even heard of any such programme," Ram Dahin notes.

Other schemes such as installing solar plates in villages across Bihar too haven't reached Rehua, while Bishnuganj has some solar plates installed. " The schemes of the government are for radio, TV and perhaps for newspapers. They have not reached the ground at all," says Naval Kishore. Ram Dahin says that support from the government is rare. Local politicians only think of the people when they have to ask for votes.

Thus, sustaining oneself as a farmer is nearly impossible. Most of the villagers of Rehua engage in labour work in the city of Gaya. "In the afternoons, we cannot even gather ten men to do a thing in the village. Everyone is out in the city from morning till 8 PM at night. Everyone has very little land. That's why everyone goes to work in the city," Ram Dahin said.

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