Tumudibandh is a remote administrative block in the southwestern part of Kandhamal district in Odisha. Tumudibandh village, the block headquarter, is over 100km from the district headquarter Phulbani. The village, like most in Kandhamal district, has a highly undulating topography, surrounded by sal (Shorea robusta) forests. The place receives an annual rainfall of more than 1,200 mm.
Scheduled tribes constitute more than half the total population in Tumudibandh and Kandhamal district. Kandha tribes, from whom Kandhamal district derives its name, form the largest group among scheduled tribes in the region.
Lack of access to irrigation has resulted in underutilization of surface and groundwater, and the tribes practicing rain-fed agriculture. As growing kharif crop is the only option, the farm households are steeped in poverty, unable to progress beyond subsistence farming.
Kandhamal district falls in the bottom-most quadrant in Odisha, on several socioeconomic indicators. As per 2011-12 data, 90% of Kandhamal’s population is rural, of whom 59% fall below the poverty line (BPL), as against the state BPL population of 35%. As for severity of poverty in the state, Kandhamal ranks seven, as per a 2017 government study. Tumudibandh has 72% of its population below poverty line.
As per the annual health survey 2012-13, Kandhamal has the second highest infant mortality rate and highest under-5 child mortality rate in Odisha. Kandhamal held the penultimate position in Odisha, in the last district-wise human development index ranking, carried out in 2004. A 2008 UN world food program report puts Kandhamal at the bottom in the state, in terms of food security.
For people in Kandhamal, agriculture is the primary livelihood. Census data shows that 68% of total workers in Kandhamal and 65% of total workers in Tumudibandh are engaged in agriculture, either as cultivators or as agricultural laborers. However, other statistics on agriculture do not paint a healthy picture.
More than 85% of farmers in Kandhamal are small and marginal farmers; less than a fifth of the geographical area is available for agriculture. In Kandhamal and Tumudibandh, the area under irrigation is about 5% of the total net cultivable area as against Odisha’s average of 27.58%.
Given the small landholdings and negligible area under irrigation, why didn’t the majority of farmers in the region shift from subsistence to commercial farming practices, to increase their income from agriculture?
A recent survey that the authors conducted in eight villages of Tumudibandh explored the issue. The survey was conducted to assess the challenges faced by farmers in adopting modern organic farming practices.
A majority of the surveyed farmers practiced organic farming by default – never having shifted to chemical use from their traditional methods involving the use of naturally available material. While abstinence from chemical inputs and use of natural inputs is considered a virtue if done consciously, many of them do it out of poverty, rather than out of consciousness or choice.
Surath Majhi, a 40-year-old farmer from Saradhapur village does not use high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds and any external inputs. He is afraid of the recurring annual investments these would incur. Surath Majhi’s neighbor Somnath Majhi (55), said, “I don’t use chemical pesticides because I can’t afford to buy a spray machine; if I get one, I’ll start using chemical pesticides.”
Odisha Agriculture Statistics 2013-14 indicates that Kandhamal district has the lowest area under high-yielding varieties in Odisha for the major cereal crops. It also finds the per-hectare consumption of fertilizers for Kandhamal least in the state. The same report records the lowest rice yield in Odisha for Kandhamal for 2013-14.
Interviewed farmers, in six of the eight surveyed villages, practice subsistence agriculture and rarely have surplus produce to sell. In these villages, even those farmers who sell their produce reported earning meager incomes from the trade.
Almost all farm households are engaged in wage labor. Youth from two-thirds of these households migrate to Kerala and Tamil Nadu during the non-agricultural season and work at construction sites there, to supplement the household income.
Some farmers have transitioned from subsistence to commercial farming practices. Close to 75% of them have switched from paddy broadcasting to line transplantation, after training and capacity building by various agencies working in the region. Recently, farmers have started line sowing of millets, as part of Odisha Millet Mission program. These changes have increased crop productivity.
Lack of irrigation facilities
However, migration among youth and a significant dependence on wage labor work continues even after these positive changes. Additional investigation into what prevented them from intensifying agriculture further, revealed lack of access to irrigation to be the reason.
Surath Majhi and Somnath Majhi attribute the wavering agricultural returns primarily to lack of irrigation. They represent the plight of a majority of farmers in the region. Farmers of Indrimila hamlet in Sodakia village also pointed out the urgent need for irrigation facility.
Uncertain returns from agriculture, owing to a lack of assured irrigation, prevent farmers from investing in agriculture and earn better profits. Resulting economic poverty makes it further difficult for them to invest in irrigation facility, making poverty cyclic.
Residents of the remote hamlet Bhuturgaon of Dadang village find themselves in such a vicious cycle. A perennial stream flows in Bhuturgaon. Outlets for lift irrigation were visible in few of the agricultural fields. However, all the agricultural fields were fallow after kharif. The villagers said that they could not make use of the outlets provided since they were not able to pay the minimum community contribution.
Bidibuli Majhi from Bhuturgaon, an old Kandha woman, who does not remember her age, but appears to have crossed 60, said that the lift irrigation facility is non-functional. Hence, she and the other women collect forest produce after the kharif crop is harvested or take up any labor work, if available.
Although Bidibuli Majhi may prefer this to being the beast of burden in agriculture as most women reported, she wished that the irrigation facility would work.
Irrigation boosts income
Agriculture is different in Badabandha and Tumudibandh, having access to irrigation through a canal. Dhaneshwar Patra in Badabandha, Chintamani Beruka in Tumudibandh and the others in their neighborhoods cultivate the same set of crops as the farmers in the other six villages, but with a higher intensity.
They raise a vegetable crop as well, after harvesting the kharif crop. They use HYV and external inputs, and cultivate crops with the intention of selling a part of the final harvest. Migration was lesser in the farmer households of these villages.
This survey highlights the poor access to irrigation across the survey villages; comparison across these villages also highlights the nexus between lack of access to irrigation and poverty. The access to irrigation for Tumudibandh block and the Kandhamal district, at close to 5%, is no better than across these eight villages; similar will be the plights of farmers across the district.
The government has attempted to implement a few solutions in the past to break this nexus. In a recent move, the state government has started providing monetary support under its flagship Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme to assist farmers to earn better from agriculture.
However, by providing financial support for input purchase, separately for kharif and irrigated rabi, without addressing the irrigation needs, it misses the opportunity to build a sustainable agricultural economy in districts like Kandhamal, where rain-fed agriculture is practiced.
If not resolved, it may lead to an economic disparity between the monsoon-dependent tribal farmers in Kandhamal and their counterparts in the extensively irrigated coastal Odisha.
To improve the irrigation scenario in Kandhamal, its exposure to high rainfall and a lower groundwater utilization, at 12.45%, offer one feasible solution. These factors make the district suitable for irrigation through shallow wells, using small pumps.
Coupling these wells with water harvesting structures in the undulating forested terrains in Kandhamal for groundwater recharge can make it a sustainable solution that will facilitate farmers’ transition from subsistence to commercial farming.
Shashank Deora and Siva Muthuprakash are researchers at VikasAnvesh Foundation, Pune. Views are personal.