Interview with Sunil Simon, Team Leader-Natural Resource Management for Caritas India.
Sadly, many farmers in India have committed suicide in recent years. Can you tell me more about this?
We weren’t sure why these suicides were happening. Everyone said, “It’s loans.” During the cropping season, farmers go to a moneylender for an advance to buy seeds, fertiliser, insecticide. They get into serious debt.
We did an assessment and we realised it’s not only loans. There are also other social and environmental stresses—mainly drought, delayed monsoons. Sometimes it’s health or family reasons. If they have a girl child to be married, what you spend on the wedding is a huge amount for a small farmer, even putting aside dowry.
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What happens when farmers to go into debt?
Banks and moneylenders put a lot of pressure on the families to repay the loan. It becomes a vicious cycle. The debtor may be pushed or threatened with having their land confiscated. Or there are threats to take their children and make them slaves. They may have to leave the land or sell the land.
Banks have special collection agents. And the moneylenders are there always. They are there always… They have Gundas—goons—who follow the people who owe money. It’s mental torture. So people end up paying whatever they have.
If a person in debt commits suicide and it’s a government loan or a bank loan, there’s a chance that the loan will be waived.
How is Caritas helping?
It’s usually men who commit suicide. The remaining family members are in shock after the head of the house has left them in such a bad situation. Sometimes, after the person dies, the family doesn’t even have anything to eat.
We started three things for the families, especially the widows. “Befriending”—providing psychosocial support to family members so they can come out of this trauma. Legal support with local lawyers, to fight the charges for not repaying. And finally, livelihood support—helping them start a small shop or learn tailoring. Giving them a sewing machine, for example, or providing a buffalo, cow, or goats.
In terms of prevention, what is the answer?
We have a programme called FARM: Facilitating Agricultural Regeneration Measures. We’ve run this programme in three pockets of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. We try to make sure the farmers grow their own seeds and create their own bio-fertiliser and pest repellents. It’s much cheaper than buying it at the market.
Our programme reduces their dependency so they don’t have to take loans.
But do the seeds sold from outside have a greater yield, so that farmers make more money from their crop?
Hybrid seeds cannot be used again, they don’t produce [another generation of] seeds. In that case, you always have to depend on companies for the seed.
In terms of production, the seeds may give a higher yield, but the hybrid seeds require more inputs like fertiliser, pesticides, insecticides, water and a favourable climate for optimum production. If you have a drought and don’t have irrigation, that crop will be lost.
The local varieties are more resilient in terms of small climate aberrations. They can withstand drought or floods, but the yield is less.
So what do you do in terms of local seeds?
We started seed banks. We have a centre in the suicide-hit part of Maharashtra. We also have a model farm we show farmers.
We searched many villages and could not find local varieties of seeds. This was a glaring situation.
After searching in many places, we found a few people who were still using local seed varieties. We bought those few kilos of seeds from them. Initially our “farmer field school” members grew it in our farm, and started multiplying it.
We distributed the seeds in villages. The community came together and decided that anyone who takes seed from the community seed bank has to return double the quantity after harvest. If they take 1 kg of seeds to grow, they must give 2 kg of seeds to the community seed bank later.
Our intention was to build a seed bank in each village that was their own property, 12-15 different varieties, such as local millet.
You also mentioned that farmers go into debt to buy fertiliser and insecticides.
We try to focus on traditional good practices to produce cheaper and environmentally-friendly, farmer-friendly things that you don’t have to bring from outside.
All the chemical fertilisers you buy, they’re basically salts and they kill microbes. If you put chemical fertiliser on an ant or earthworm, it will die. It’s quite acidic. If the soil doesn’t have living creatures, it makes the soil dead. An overdose of fertilisers and pesticides leaches into the groundwater and contaminates it.
There are proven traditional practices that we tried to revive to improve microbial activity in soil. We improve the cow dung by composting. We add all natural waste along with cowdung and leave earthworms in it. We also use kitchen scraps.
What about pests?
We can mix different bitter leaves that a goat will not eat. Goats are choosy. They only eat only good-tasting leaves. We identify the other leaves and mix them with cow dung and cow urine and spray that. We’ve found that to be a very good pest repellent. It’s true that it smells bad! (laughs). There are many similar mixes.
You mentioned that drought was a problem.
We did a lot of land treatment activities like bunding. Normally, when the rain falls, all the nutrient-rich topsoil is washed away. Bunding–water absorption trenches–allows water to collect in trenches and the moisture content increases. After it rains, the water will remain longer on those sections. Where the rainfall is erratic, these techniques are very useful. We’ve taken many other water harvesting measures.
With all these practices, you have to do it by hand, you have to spend time and prepare. But the farmers don’t need any loans for this.