Agricultural distress in peri urban Gurugram

Aerial view of the Najafgarh drain. (Image: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0)
Aerial view of the Najafgarh drain. (Image: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0)
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Peri-urban spaces exist in an exploitative relationship with the urban, and this inequity is further exacerbated by the effects of climate change argue Pratik Mishra and Sumit Vij in their study from the chapter titled 'Changing agriculture and climate variability in peri-urban Gurugram, India' in the book 'Water security, conflict and cooperation in periurban South Asia' edited by Vishal Narain and Dik Roth.

The study highlights the impact of urbanisation and climate change on irrigation and agriculture in the peri-urban village of Budhera bordering Gurugram City, a place where villages are still largely agrarian but undergoing rapid changes. The village of  Budhera has two drinking water canals, one wastewater canal, and a large water treatment plant, besides being bordered by Delhi’s most important sewage channel, the Najafgarh drain.

The village landscape is a mix of agricultural land, urban infrastructure and farm-houses of the urban elite. The villagers depend on Gurugram for food, education and medical needs and marketing of their agricultural produce. Gurugram has been rapidly urbanising in recent years due to its proximity to Delhi and the domestic and international airport, and to the policies pursued by the state government to attract multi-national companies and real estate business.

Wastewater - a common property resource

One of the important impacts of urbanisation in the village has been the fast degradation and disappearance of common property resources (CPRs) such as grazing land and traditional rainwater harvesting structures. The wastewater canals are becoming part of the peri-urban waterscape and being used now for irrigation, and farmers engage in forms of collective action, devise rules on the use and management of water from this common “hydraulic property”.

The study looks at the impact of the gradual loss of common property resources (CPRs) and the current use of drinking water and wastewater canals in urban areas on agricultural practices in Budhera. These include the Gurgaon Water Supply canal and the National Capital Region canal (NCR canal)— and two wastewater channels —the Gurgaon-Jhajjar Wastewater canal (GJC Canal or wastewater canal) and the larger Najafgarh Drain that all cross the boundaries of Budhera village and the Chandu-Budhera Water Treatment Plant that has been constructed on the agricultural and common grazing lands of the village.

The GJC, is used by farmers in Budhera as irrigation water at a very nominal price. This canal conveys treated discharge from the Dhanwapur sewage treatment plant (one of Gurugram’s two major STP plants), passing through Budhera and several other villages before merging into the larger Najafgarh Drain (Delhi region’s major wastewater outlet).

The wastewater canal flowing through Budhera is located at a higher level than the adjacent fields aiding irrigation by opening the seal from pre-installed outlets in the canals and can be widely distributed through furrows that extend up to a few kilometres from the canal. Thus, it also irrigates fields located far off through an informal cooperative arrangement maintained among farmers.

There are, however, problems with wastewater irrigation. There have been examples where industrial effluents from another canal were mixed into the GJC and when farmers used this water unwittingly, heavy metals settled in the soil and brought down productivity drastically.

Farmers are forced to use wastewater for irrigation due to loss of traditional water harvesting structures, high rainfall variability and the high costs incurred to dig tube wells due to decrease in groundwater levels. They however have an aversion to irrigating food with wastewater, which they consider “dirty” and do not consume any produce from their own harvests of wheat and rice, when grown with wastewater. Many farmers are also leaving agriculture for other occupations.

Gradual destruction of agriculture and sustainable practices

Farmers inform that Budhera used to be famous for its cultivation of muskmelon, and that families in the village used to receive marriage proposals from elsewhere due to the rich market that muskmelon had. However, muskmelon cultivation had now completely stopped due to decline in rainfall and growing pressures on groundwater.

Wastewater irrigation also supports the Kann-bataai (sharecropping) arrangements among farmers where the landowner leases out his land to a tenant who makes a payment to the landowner when entering the agreement, or pays a fixed rent of grain and fodder after harvest. Both the Kann-bataai tenants and the landowners now find wastewater irrigation cost-effective. Farmers also say that crops grown with groundwater irrigation tend to spoil or rot when wastewater enters into the mix, and thus farmers of land adjacent to the wastewater canal are also forced to cultivate using its water.

Climate change too is adding to the pressure and Budhera is witnessing increasing unpredictability of weather cycles and extreme events, and this in increasing uncertainties for farmers cultivating their crops with wastewater.  Summers are getting longer, winters shorter and rainfall - erratic. The chaumaasa, or the 4 month monsoon period of rainfall has disappeared.

Traditionally farmers are classified into two types on the basis of their sowing cycles namely, the aggetas (early sowers) and pacchetas (late sowers). Pacchetas harvest later in the season and have a strategic advantage, but being a paccheta is now considered unwise. While a paccheta harvests the wheat in March or April for a rabi crop, farmers now find this period risky as it is prone to rainfall. Thus all farmers have now become aggetas, hastily harvesting the rice crop and sowing the wheat with very little time in between. They also resort to stubble burning in their hurry to clear the field. Stubble burning too has now been declared illegal in light of the air pollution in nearby Delhi, increasing the difficulties for farmers.

There has been a shift in the institution of  Kann-bataai. For the after-harvest payment system, the rates paid by tenants have gone down as a consequence of reduced productivity and greater risks in agriculture. For a long time, the rent in Kann-bataai used to be stable, but the rates are now going down. Kann-bataai labourers now do not work on small plots of land through a sharecropping arrangement as earlier. Kann-bataai  is now done by large sharecroppers who have a large number of labourers on large plots of land rented from either a single large landowner or from many small landowners.

This  greater scale of sharecropping operations helps manage risks in times of fluctuations in production, but is of no use in case of major climate shocks. Agriculture is thus becoming more and more uncertain and people from the village are shifting to alternative livelihood opportunities in the nearby city thus breaking the social fabric of the village.

The study argues that:

  • Peri-urban farmers need to be encouraged and supported by local authorities in practising sustainable forms of agricultural practices and developing innovative organic vegetable and food markets which can create opportunities in the cities.
  • City authorities and urban planners should implement zoning regulations to ensure that farming areas, green spaces and water resources are protected from urban and non-agricultural rural development projects.

The book and all the chapters from this book published by Springer Nature are open access and can be found at this link