A faint yellow bulb lights up a corner of Prathima’s kitchen. Sitting cross-legged near the stove, the mother of two roasts the last chapati she has rolled out. Today, her children will have to eat just half of their usual meal.
It isn’t a pleasant thought for a mother who along with her husband, had spent several months toiling in a plot of land, sowing seeds, spraying pesticides, and praying, that the rains showed mercy on her small Tamil Nadu village.
Last year was quite difficult for Prathima’s family, and now, they are up to their necks in debt. But what else can a farmer’s family do but strive through it all?
This is not just Prathima’s story. It is the story of hundreds of farmers like her, whose livelihoods depend solely on cash crops like cotton and rice.
These crops imbibe essential resources like water and nutrients but do not guarantee a high price in the market because the supply is, if not more, equal to the demand.
In fact, as of 2018, rice plantations made up 60% of the sown land of the delta districts of Tamil Nadu. Various studies show that those districts where rice cultivation is 40% of the sown land, are either suffering from acute groundwater depletion or nearing this status.
Tamil Nadu, a largely drought-prone state cannot afford to keep going in this manner. With the very evident climate change especially in terms of the distribution of rainfall over the state, farmers are struggling to keep their paddy water-filled.
And while many of them are trying to deal with the changing rain patterns and unpredictable markets, a small revolution against the rice crop is emerging within the women farmers in the state.
Sheelu Francis, a diploma holder in Gender Planning for Development from the University of London, is at the forefront of this revolution.
“The Green Revolution gave subsidies to farmers on seeds and fertilisers as well as an assured price on their crops. And many parts of India, including Tamil Nadu, saw rich and poor farmers converting their dry land into paddy fields. They dug deeper borewells to increase the water capacity of their farms and eventually this led to the water tables going down. The available water has also become salty,” Francis tells The Better India.
She also tells us that this is not where the issue ends. In fact, large scale cultivation of cash crops that have a monopoly over the farmland has also increased the use of fertilisers by nearly a hundred times.
As the fertility of land goes down, the use of chemicals has to be increased, and as this usage increases, the soil becomes more infertile. It is a vicious cycle.
“Where once, a person got about 30-33 bags of grains from one field, it is down to just 15-16 bags today. And if the processes that are followed today are continued, it won’t be long before the number comes down to 4-5 bags,” she adds.
If rice is draining the last drops of water from the soil of Tamil Nadu, it is millet that is feeding the farmer.
“We asked women farmers in the community what seeds they had. Then we learned about millet,” Francis told The Ecologist.
Millet is believed to have been domesticated in India since 1200 BCE and was once a staple crop species. It was only in recent times that the focus shifted to rice.
Francis says that millet is a great climate resilient solution that is uplifting women farmers through nutrition and family income.
“Millet, unlike rice or sugar, is not too vulnerable to temperature or climate. It was a major crop in Tamil Nadu at one point of time, and so, it is used to the natural resources available here. It also needs 1/10th of the water quantity that rice demands, making it a wonderful choice during these hard-hitting drought,” she explains.
And so Francis started the Women’s Collective in the state to advocate the cultivation of millet over rice or sugar. It wasn’t just the family income that she was targeting. Instead, it was the nutrition and diet of the family that she focused on with the women farmers.
“Many rural families are severely affected by malnutrition and diabetes. They rely on large-scale cultivation of a single crop for their income. A small portion of this crop, usually rice, is kept aside for the family. The unstable market does not give the farmer a good price, and the diet consists mainly of rice which has resulted in these problems. Millet is a great solution here too. High in fibre, iron, minerals, and proteins, it fulfils the basic requirement of a family’s diet,” Francis tells TBI.
And so she began her quest, going village to village and speaking to farmers—especially women—about how millet can make their family healthy again. A healthy family, after all, can work better.
“Ponnuchami’s mother and father-in-law used to cultivate millet. When they started receiving a hefty credit for sugar, they adopted new farming techniques and began the cultivation of sugarcane instead. A part of their land was converted into a sugarcane field and another into paddy. As the rates of paddy came down and sugar factories started cheating her of her money, she started realising what a mess she was in. The Women’s Collective encouraged her to restart millet farming, and that’s exactly what she is doing now. As a result, the health and income of her family have seen an upward growth,” she informs us.
Nearly 30,000 farming families, just like Ponnuchami’s, have now gone back to growing the all-natural, nutritional millet.
Another incredible thing about millet is that it grows best alongside other crops. So, with minimal land use, farmers can benefit from the cultivation of two, three or even more crops.
One of the main issues we face is that of land. Many poor farmers, especially women, do not have land of their own. Landowners lend them their farms when the soil is nearly infertile. Our natural methods help retrieve this fertility within a couple of years. However, when the land is fertile again, the owners refuse to lend them. The method that we use is called agroecology, and although it works against us after a couple of years, it has proven to be magnificent when while we cultivate millet,” says Francis.
Speaking to The Ecologist, she had said that agroecology is a chemical-free method of growing multiple crops like millet, grains, lentils, beans, and oilseeds together. Creating a bio-diversity of sorts, they utilise the land to the maximum to avail its benefits without causing permanent damage to it.
This revolution of sorts that is fighting climate change to empower rural Tamil Nadu is helping thousands of women and families survive through what can be said as one of the most incessant problems facing the humble farmer.
If climate change is a consequence of human actions, it is only obvious that we go back to the methods that did not damage the environment and personal health of consumers.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)