What ails Odisha farmers?

By Dr Sambit Dash*

In this second part of the essay based on the University of Pennsylvania Centre for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) study on agriculture in Odisha, we shall dissect few details about land, input costs, historical perspective of relations in agriculture and impediments like lack of irrigation facilities.

Land, a key determinant in agricultural viability and prosperity, is largely fragmented in Odisha with nearly a massive 75% of farmers owning less than a hectare of land. Agriculture census of 2015-16 reveals that 93% of landholdings in Odisha are small and marginal and the numbers of landless farmers is very large as per informal estimates.

In what can be seen as an unintended consequence of public policy, despite Odisha having enacted the Odisha Land Reforms Act 1947 to prevent exploitation of landless farmers tilling on someone else’s land, which was the norm since the colonial period, the activity just moved underground with sharecropping being widely prevalent to this date.

Despite well intended efforts of the state government, paperwork continues to frustrate these sharecroppers. Be it for the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme where sharecroppers frequently fail to show their cultivator status, or proof of tenancy required for the decentralized procurement system, a lot more needs to be done so that these ‘tillers of land’ receive benefit of several schemes, institutional credit, procurement schemes, etc.

The role of intermediary lobby has also been highlighted in the study. In the example of red chilli grown in northern blocks of Sambalpur, despite efforts made by Kuchinda Regulated Marketing Committee, trade on eNAM platform has not taken off owing to pressure by intermediaries as well as low prices and bureaucratic roadblocks in the use of the platform.

It is worthwhile to note that irrigation facilities in Odisha continue to hold the farmer to ransom. This is depicted by the fact that a mere 20-30% of what is cultivated in kharif season is cultivated in rabi season indicating that land is left as it is when there are no rains.

After the farmer protests, a lot has been discussed about crop diversity in popular media. Paddy dominates as the crop of choice in kharif season in Odisha (sowing in July), with a mere 10% reporting growing vegetables in that season. Things change in rabi (Sowing in January-February) season in Odisha due to lack of irrigation facilities and only a small number of farmers who have access to water cultivate, with  little more than half of them growing vegetables. Crop diversity is seen only in rabi season, and thus bettering irrigation would improve both quantity and diversity.

Prawn cultivation in Balasore district is mentioned in the study, a practice that is increasing by 400 hectares per year. This is a welcome step and further encouragement from the state government and in more districts in the coastal region, can provide newer employment avenues.

Another phrase that has come into much focus is ‘input costs’, which is cost of production. Odisha surprisingly has below national average use of fertilizer (57 kg per hectare as compared to national average of 123 kg per hectare in 2016-17) and so is the productivity. Regarding another input, seeds, Odisha farmers save a part of their last harvest to use as seeds; however the rest buy seeds from a local input dealer. These local dealers also happen to be knowledge providers, informing farmers on latest technology, newer variety of seeds, etc.

Credit, another important input cost is a dicey subject when it comes to agriculture. About 57.5% agriculture households in Odisha have outstanding loans as per NSSO-2013 data. Institutional credit from banks or cooperatives is largely availed, contrary to popular belief, by large farmers and not the small farmers. Both large and small farmers take credit from informal sources and end up paying larger interest in the bargain.

The take home messages from this important study are clear. That irrigation facilities have yet not reached wide population of farmers is an issue that should be deeply worrying and is also perhaps a proxy for corruption in that area, which has always been in the priority list of successive governments. The aim should be to help increase productivity in the rabi season. Why fertilizer use languishes much below the national average needs to be analysed. Had it been for traditional methods, and the productivity fine, it would not have been a concern.

But since the latter is low, access to fertilizer should also be prioritized. Information asymmetry too is a problem with local seed seller appearing to be a primary source. Credible government information should be provided at the smallest administrative units of the state. As evident from the study, the need for excessive paperwork, needless bureaucratic maze prevents the marginalized farmers to achieve their full potential and thus a policy rethink needs to be done in that domain.

Lastly, more studies need to be conducted, which are sound in methodology, and which can inform policy decisions that would help farmers of Odisha earn better incomes.



*The writer is a senior grade lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry at Melaka Manipal Medical College, Manipal University by profession and a blogger by inclination.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English

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