“I am in tension all the time,” Rahiz Uddin, a 45-year- old tenant farmer of Bhokowamari village in Baksa District of Assam, said to us dispiritedly. We watched the shadows pass over his face on our phone screens during the video call we made to him with the help of friends engaged in relief work in his district in Assam. “I cannot eat,” he said. “I cannot sleep. I just keep thinking about the future and it frightens me terribly.”
This was a good farming year before the calamity hit without any warning. Rahiz Uddin owned no land, and each year would take on lease three bighas, or 0.40 hectares, of farmland from a bigger landlord of his village. The terms of the lease committed him to pay the landowner Rs 18,000 regardless of the fate of the harvest. The rest of the earnings were his. As were all investments and any losses.
This year, he cultivated perishable vegetables like bitter gourd, ridge gourd, cucumber and radish. He had just reaped his harvest and was readying to sell the produce in the market. He hoped to bring in at least Rs 50,000. Even after he paid the landlord his share, he would have enough to feed his family and invest in the next paddy cultivation.
But then, without warning, a complete lockdown was announced on March 24. He heard that an epidemic had broken out of some disease, so everyone was prohibited from moving out of their homes for three weeks. Helplessly, his heart sinking, he watched his harvest rot. His family ate some of the vegetables, they shared some with their neighbours, and fed some to the cows. However, most of it just decomposed and putrefied.
His “tension” – he used the English word – is for many reasons. Even though he will now not earn a single rupee, he still has to pay his landlord his agreed share. Otherwise, the landlord won’t lease him the land in future. To pay him, he may have to take a loan from the local moneylender at a high interest rate.
He also has to arrange for money for his next harvest, which is already due. He may have to borrow for this as well. Adding to his woes, he is unsure whether the government will even let him work in the fields. And with all of this, how will he feed his family?
On March 29 and 30, we undertook a rapid impact assessment on the vegetable growers of four development blocks in Assam’s Baksa and Barpeta districts. Our colleagues who are working with the communities spoke to 150 small farmers over telephone to understand the impact of sudden lockdown on their farming as well as on their life.
Rahiz Uddin has two twin sons, both 17, studying in Class 9. For years, many households in the village would send out their young sons to Kerala and other parts of the country to earn. It was their remittances which assured food on the plates of their children, spouse and parents who they left behind.
Riyaz Uddin is happy that at least his sons are with him today. Many people in their village heard desperate stories from sons, husbands, fathers who were trapped by the lockdowns in Kerala. They spoke to them on their phones many times a day. Although they were eager to return home to their villages in Assam, they were not permitted to leave Kerala.
In the first days of the lockdown, they were frantic about how they would feed themselves. But some employers promised them a little money. And the Kerala government stepped in quickly, establishing kitchens and offering them food for free. However, their families in the village were already despairing.
Those back in Assam survived on the remittances from their loved ones in Kerala and other parts of the country. They have no idea how long the lockdown will continue, and even after it ends, if and how soon work will restart.
Infrastructural and government failures
These are small and marginal farmers like Rahiz Uddin, who cultivate mostly small plots of land, sometimes taken on lease for one harvesting season. Of the 150 farmers we spoke to, around 75% or 112 farmers cultivated land less than 0.40 hectare, 36 cultivated less than 0.81 hectare, and only two planted a little more than 2 hectares of land.
These 150 farmers produce approximately 12,500 metric tons of perishable vegetables every week. The lockdown is causing them a weekly average loss of around Rs 20,000 per farmer.
Most of these farmers had cultivated in the winter months vegetables like gourds, cucumber, tomato, brinjal, beans, and ladies’ finger, alternating in the kharif season with paddy. These vegetables are perishable and can’t be stocked for a long time. There is no cold storage facility in the entire area. They have to sell their produce every week. Most, like Rahiz Uddin, have no access to banks. Tenants have no land papers, and therefore are ineligible for loans. Even landowners have holdings too small for them to access loans from the banks and other financial institutions. They are forced instead to knock on the doors of private moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates.
After the lockdown, the government of Assam promised that it would purchase the agricultural produce from the farmers. But among the 150 farmers we spoke to, not a single farmer has been able to sell their crop to the government.
In principle, the state government also exempted farm operations and procurement of agricultural produce from the lockdown. But on the ground, all farm work remains fully barred and interventions by our colleagues with senior officials have not helped mitigate the crisis faced by local farmers in both, Baksa and Barpeta districts.
Other sources of income
Many of these farmers use their income from vegetable cultivation to plant other crops, especially paddy, and to buy seeds, diesel, fertilizer and pesticide. Starting from late ’90s, small and marginal farmers, especially from the state’s char-chapori or river bank areas, shifted from traditional paddy cultivation to modernised cultivation practices, deploying high yielding seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. This change resulted in a manifold increase of yield and thus, helped a large number of people come out of abject poverty over the past decades.
But it also made them far more vulnerable to risk.
The most crucial component of this new paddy cultivation is assured irrigation. For this, the fields need to be kept wet all the time, and individual farmers typically ensure this using power-pump machines and shallow-tube-wells. They have mostly installed these with private loans, unsupported by government.
Since the shock of the lockdown, farmers, for instance, are unable afford the diesel to power their pumps. Their fields are fast drying up as they run out of cash. “This is the most crucial time for the paddy fields,” said Ainal Hoque, a farmer from Sidhuni village in Barpeta district. “I need to run the machine every day but I don’t have diesel.”
Ainal has taken 0.27 hectare or two bighas of land on lease, against an agreement to repay 4 quintals of rice after harvest. Now, he does not know how he will feed his five-member family if he fails to channel water into his still green paddy field. There is an unspoken fear of a long summer and a spell of hunger.
It is not surprising then that Rahiz Uddin finds it hard to sleep.