09 / 1997
In West Bengal, the agricultural policies emanating from the Ministry are conveyed to farmers through a complex and hierarchical extension network, at the lower end of which come into play the KPS. Each KPS works in a given Gram Panchayat, the smallest unit of governance encompassing on average between 4 and 6 villages. Ganga D. is the KPS for Chandi, a small village of South 24-Parganas.
Apart from attending the meetings called by the Agricultural Development Officer of his block (which includes a total of 12 Gram Panchayats), Ganga is expected to pay frequent visits to the villages placed under his responsability. He follows the agricultural practices of the area, and works with farmers to introduce to them the newest measures.
KPS - as well as scientists as a general rule - seem to entertain closer links with a particular brand of farmers, termed progressive farmers. What makes them so unanimously progressive is their readiness to subscribe to the latest directives or to adopt new technologies.
Before entering into Chandi proper, we stop at the house of one such progressive farmer. The family lives in a brick house surrounded by several fields : chillies, rice, cowpeas and tomatoes. Hybrid tomatoes. What else? Some 99% of the tomatoes growing in this block are hybrid tomatoes.
All of the tomatoes remaining on the plant are green. No wonder : they are picked green. The farmer takes us to the roof of his house, and shows, with great pride, all the green tomatoes that have already been picked. Some have reddened, and they are being separated from the other by labourers. I inquire about how they get from green to red. Thanks to a chemical product sprayed on them. Left on the plant, 2 to 3 more weeks would be required for them to ripen, causing two disadvantages : a weather change may ruin the crop, and the next crop is dlayed due to this timely ripening process. With the miracle spray, within 24 hours later, the tomatoes are all red... and marketable. There is the issue. If sold now, they will fetch Rs. 10 per kilo. In three weeks, the price will have gone down to Rs. 2 to 4/kg. A loss that no farmer is ready to incur. Indeed, the initial investment in seeds and chemical must pay off.
"Do you yourself consume these tomatoes? "
The farmer seems embarassed. Finally, he answers with a hesitant "no". Not a surprise. I begin telling the story of a farmer from North 24-Parganas who sprays his entire eggplant crop a day or two before harvest (which is actually forbidden by law). One chemical he uses serves to enhance the colour of the eggplant. The other is a pesticide which will ensure his whole crop is not devastated by a pest just before harvest time. There, the farmer had given me a straightforward ’no’ when I had asked whether the family consumed the aubergines. In his tone of voice one could almost hear : "That would be a crazy thing to do! ".
Ganga and I can not refrain from laughing. Ganga intervenes, addressing the farmer :
"So you will sell your tomatoes on the market, declining to consume them because you have sprayed them, and you will buy eggplants, while the eggplant grower buys your tomatoes! "
We all burst into laughter. Laughter to accompany the irony, and to mask the drama.
On this note, Ganga begins a more serious exchange. To him, Bengal, and India as a whole, are walking along a deathtrodden path. And he nails down his claim :
"Death comes twice : once when the farmer is spraying his crop with a chemical and inhaling it at the same time, then a second time when he is consuming the crop". To myself, I think of how lucky we are in Western countries : machines take care of the spraying, so "death", as he puts it, only comes once, when we eat the food.
"Since when has India been walking this road, in your mind? "
"Since the 1980’s". He goes on to explain that farmers know nothing about the High Yielding Varieties the government provides them. This is where the role of the KPS comes in : they are meant to teach farmers the new techniques, the latest technology. But technology without the proper practice can serve no purpose.
"What about other roads?" I ask.
"There are no other roads. Look at your country ; the use of fertilizers and pesticides is widespread. There is no other way : people have to eat, farmers have to earn money. How to get out of that cycle? "
The endless cycle.
The unavoidability argument again. Dreadful argument.
Yet Ganga does not spend all his time ’selling’ hybrid technology to progressive farmers. He is implementing the Integrated Pest Managment programme which the governement has come up with recently. The principle : reducing the use of chemical pesticides in Bengal. The means : attracting birds to the fields so they eat the insects, leaving a light in the ponds at night so the insect drown, etc. Moreover, two trials for organic farming which have been set up in a nearby village on his initiative have given good results. Our progressive tomato grower probably does not assimilate any of these techniques to "the latest technology", because he is very skeptical about adopting IPM..... And perhaps farmers have reasons enough to be weary : more than one tactic has been presented to them as "the right one" over the past decade.
Ganga places much faith in science, I understand. Yet does this belief contribute to making the cycle go round? If answers come solely from the scientific entreprise, farmers will remain disempowered. They will continue to be spoken at in a language, "modern technology", presented as the one and only universal language, which they do not understand.
Green tomatoes is neither a staple food, nor one of the major produce that Indian farmers grow. Yet if hybrid rice makes a significant incursion in rice production, what fate are farmers to await? The catastrophe could well be not only ecological, but also economic and political, with farmers’ ability to multiply their own seeds being cut off.
This piece raises the issue of responsability : to what extent is the governement willing to take responsability for its acts? Is it not reasonable to claim that KPS’s ought to measure the impact of the orientation they defend? Do farmers have all the cards in hand to make informed decisions about the agricultural practices they engage in?
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.