Economic Rationale for the Genetic Diversity in the Drylands of West Bengal
09 / 1997
In Bhoktavan, a village of Northern Bankura with a population of about 1300 people, rice cultivation is fully dependent on rain waters. The returns from agriculture are therefore uncertain, and farmers have tended to be cautious in their practices. The adoption of high yielding varieties has been slow and today, about 75% of the total rice growing area is cultivated with folk varieties. Jhingasal, Raghusal, Sitashal, Rupsal, Govindabhog, Tulsi-mukul (a scented rice), Murgisal, Burdwan-sal, Kobiraj, Latisal are among the varieties cultivated in the village. Chandrakanti is popular due to its high yielding property.
A small farmer owning four bighas tells that he only devotes one bigha to Lalsarna, the most commonly used high yielding variety in the area. Two years ago, he had sown 1. 5 bighas in Lalsarna, but incured a heavy crop loss due to a pest attack. He therefore decided to only sow one bigha in Lalsarna the following season. As a result, he could save not only on inputs, but also on labour, since transplanting local varieties require less care, and therefore less time and people than it does for HYV’s (labourers are paid between Rs. 30 and 40 per day, depending on the amount of paddy and puffed rice given).
In fact, a number of small farmers made a collective decision, while working together in the field, to devote less land to Lalsarna because its economic returns had not proven satisfactory in the previous season. Enjoying a greater level of economic flexibility, medium farmers tend, on the contrary, to grow Larsarna whenever possible.
Tribal people are often among the poorest and the most marginalized people of any community.
This means that as cultivators, they rarely have the means to buy inputs in order to grow high yielding varieties. In the village, a tribal farmer owning under two bighas of land grows a HYV on 30% of his land. Even then, he is obliged to borrow money from big landowners before the planting season starts. Growing 100% HYV would jeopardize his ability to repay a much greater loan if the rains failed. Not surprisingly, areas which are populated by a large number of tribal people have retained a great diversity of seeds (rice as well as other crop). It is perhaps towards these areas that poor farmers would turn for folk varieties in case the latter disappear from their villages. Many farmers also seem to place a fair amount of trust in science to devise new alternatives if the modern high yielding varieties came to fail them. The great majority of farmers is however more concerned about the next day’s food supply than about the sustainability of an agriculture based on non-locally adapted high yielding varieties.
The rice situation is somewhat different in Lapuria, a neighbouring village of about 1800 people. What sets the two villages apart is the fact that in Lapuria, water can be stored in a large reservoir located in the vicinity of the village. Consequently, Lapuria played a pioneering role in the Green Revolution era. About 10 to 12 years ago, the villagers were the first to adopt high yielding varieties in the area, and the new seeds subsequently spread from this community to other villages. In Lapuria, about 70% of farmers own 2 or 3 acres of land, or between O.8 and 1.2 hectares, with the landless making up some 25% of the villagers.
Four or five types of high yielding varieties are grown with an average yield of 2.5 tons per hectare in the first year, 2 to 2. 2 t/ha in the second year, and below 2 t/ha in the subsequent years of using the same seed. Over ten varieties that were in use before the advent of "modern" varieties could collectively be named by the farmers : Sonlira, Kalamkatti, Bhasmanik, Sitasal, Nona, Jhuloor, Kasiful, Malik Kalma and Raghusal (two glutinous rices), Brahmakanti, Ashonlia. Out of these, only the last three are still grown on a very limited land area. Ashonlia - the most popular of all three - may well no longer be cultivated in three or four years.
A large number of small and marginal farmers can not afford the costs of seeds, inputs and labour associated with the cultivation of high yielding varieties. Moreover, the poorer the farmer, the lesser the chances he or she can take to lose part of the crop. As margins decrease, farmers tend to go for local varieties featuring low and stable outputs rather than high but undependable yields. This is where the relevance of traditional varieties in subsistence farming lies. Agricultural policies focusing primarily on crop output seem to have been designed with little attention to the conditions of subsistence farmers who constitute the majority of rural India.
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