Wednesday, December 6, 2023

India’s small-scale farmers hold out on city’s creep

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An hour from the choking sprawl of central New Delhi is a world of villager-farmers and landowners, the backbone of India.
While his land would be worth considerably more if sold for development, New Delhi farmer Gulab Singh says the money could not replace what it provides for his family, and what it means to keep it in the family.
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Farming on the edge of New Delhi’s 32 million sprawl of people, Gulab Singh feels at times that he and his fellow farming villagers are under inexorable urban siege.

With a surging growth rate of over 2% a year for the past decade, the city is rapidly consuming the countryside it depends upon to feed it as it becomes the planet’s largest urban mass. 

It is also rapidly consuming itself within its own boundaries, with Delhi’s forested city area having declined by half to 5800ha in the 20 years to 2018.

Gulab, with wife Shalu and three daughters, Geetila, Charu and Mansi, live in the small village of Bazidpur Saboli only an hour, give or take in the city’s chaotic traffic, from the city centre. 

They are typical of India’s smallholding farmers, who combined amount to 85% of the country’s landowners, despite only owning 45% of the farmed land area.

To New Zealand eyes their half-hectare block may seem closer to a smallish lifestyle section than a farm, but for the Singh family and millions like them it’s food on the table and the opportunity to help the next generation fulfil their aspirations.

“For us, we have had three generations farming here. But I have often been offered quite a lot of money by land buyers to buy the property, and we see this happening more and more,” Gulab said. 

He said he has no intention of selling, with the ties that bind him to the land and the village he grew up in proving stronger than the lure of a lump of capital, and family agreement is also required before it could happen.

The incentive to keep the land in farming is helped somewhat by a tax on land sales that varies, depending upon what it is to be used for when sold, with no tax paid if it remains farmland.

But the proximity to the sprawling city also holds some prospects for farmers like Gulab wanting to hold fast against its creep. 

As the city has crept closer, so too have the opportunities for Gulab to build another business. In the past couple of years he started Incredible India by Car, offering guiding services to westerners and compatriots around Delhi and the northern states. 

His daughters, all aged in their teens, have mastered the family motor scooter, with the two eldest busy studying in the city, one in public affairs and the other to become a cardiologist.

“To become any larger, that is something I really do not wish to do. With the size of the farm it is, Shalu and I can still run it, and I can also run my other business,” Gulab said.

The Singh property has a spectrum of feed crops growing, some to feed the family’s Sahiwal cow, milking buffalo and two heifers. 

On the boundary a maize type of grass grows high; it is cut daily to be fed to the cattle who also enjoy a high-energy seasonal rye-type grass that springs up over the monsoon season that finishes next month. 

Their diet is further supplemented by a stew of lentils and chickpeas Shalu cooks up every day. She has cranky livestock if they miss out on their daily brew.

A small crop of rice is coming along well after the good monsoon rains, growing about 20t and due for harvest in October. Gulab also looks to turn the remaining land over for wheat in the coming season.

While trying to be as organic as possible, he supplements the dried cattle muck fertiliser they spread with light applications of urea and DAP, both subject to significant government subsidies in India.

“For urea and DAP the prices farmers pay are fixed by the government. For urea that is 300 rupees [about $6] for a 45kg bag, for DAP it is about 1500 rupees for a 50kg bag.”

It is a rate that would gobsmack most kiwi farmers, equating to about $130/t for urea and $600/t on DAP. 

While Gulab’s use is sparing, India’s policy of subsidising urea to the tune of 200% has resulted in excessive consumption, with nitrogen pollution a major problem in his state of Haryana. In the past 50 years it has surged to account for 80% of Indian farmers’ total fertiliser use, up from 10%.

The Singhs’ property is also bedecked with abundant crops of lauki, a type of cucumber used in cooking, and ladyfinger or bindi, similar to okra.

Being Hindu and vegetarian, all their dietary needs are met from their farm, with the cow and buffalo generating abundant milk for lassis, yoghurts, cheeses and cooking.

For Gulab and his family, greater scale is far from the goal; rather it is preservation of the family plot as his key motivation for continuing to farm and live where he does.

“I have a pretty simple life, I enjoy my  family, my friends and my  land.”

• Richard Rennie travelled to Delhi with the India-NZ Business Council trade delegation, with funding from Asia New Zealand Foundation and Zespri.

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