Kachchh: A desert oasis under peril
The westernmost district of India, Kachchh was long known as the arid deserted region and seldom received mention for any important economic activities. But, with the earthquake in 2001 that brought in new development policies and interventions, the region witnessed a three-fold increase in the value of production at constant prices since 2001.
The farmers here have to not only cope with harsh climatic conditions and water shortages but also have been incessantly involved in innovative farm practices for sustainable agriculture production with limited resources. In recent years, groundwater, the only dependable source to meet water demand is getting depleted at an unprecedented scale. The groundwater depletion was as rapid as 10-15 ft/year through the continuous dry spell during 2014 to 2019.
Farmers tryst with destiny for horticulture farming
Due to falling water availability and quality, the farmers have to experiment with new horticulture crops that 1) can be suitable for the arid climate, 2) can withstand saline water, and 3) also yield better economic water and land productivity. This propelled the self-propagated horticulture boom in the district of Kachchh.
Much of the horticulture growth could be envisaged through the introduction of technologies such as tissue culture, micro and precision irrigation, ultra high-density farming, sand filtration for salinity moderation, micronutrient treatment for the fruits etc.
These were made accessible through increased lending from banks to farm sector that increased from Rs. 368.76 Cr in 2001-02 to Rs. 6,108.41 Cr in 2017-18. This has yielded great results for increasing the production of high-value horticulture crops. This has silently transformed the region, which tops in fruit exports to other parts of the country and other countries.
The struggle for economic stability still continues
Although the farmers have succeeded in yielding better output, the said high-value crops are not fetching higher values anymore. The sudden surge in output of the perishable horticulture crops such as fresh dates, pomegranates, water melon, musk melon, papaya etc., have limited local consumption given the low population in the Kachchh region (~ 45 people/km2). Also, it is 400 km away from the major metropolis of Ahmedabad. The market failure makes it hard to realise the presumed economic benefits from the high-value cultivation.
The farmers had to invest much in terms of money, time and efforts to transition to horticulture crops. For example, farmers need to install a drip irrigation system, and then wait for 2-3 years during the gestation period before the plants are mature. They also need to employ more semi-skilled labour to retain soil fertility, maintain the orchards and pluck the fruits at the right time. The increasing maintenance costs and falling incomes lead many farmers to prematurely chop down the orchards and return to traditional crops with reduced yields. This continues to deplete the groundwater further, leading to increased water stress.
The intensified struggle due to Covid-19 lockdown
Through Prayaas: The Movement for Grassroot Changes, an organisation set up to work with the farming community for agriculture innovations, we have reached out to farmers of the region during the lockdown. The Covid-19 lockdown was imposed at a time when the major summer horticulture output of fruits such as musk melon, water melon, pomegranates etc., were about to be harvested. The lockdown caused the deals for the fruits to default as the movement of goods was restricted.
Even with the allowing of movement of agriculture output, the post lockdown society has reduced the consumption of these fruits, as the consumption bucket of a normal household has a preference for staples (grains and pulses), followed by vegetables and milk, and thereafter fruits. The last-mile delivery of the goods is disrupted and the high perishability of the product is difficult to manage under the extreme summer heat in the region.
Nikunj Senghani, a farmer is Bidada village of Mandvi tehsil in Kachchh made a deal for his pomegranate harvest for Rs. 12,00,000 just before the lockdown. But now, he is expecting barely 20 percent of that amount as most of the harvest has no buyers. Fruits with shorter shelf life such as water melon and musk melon are on the verge of being dumped, as many farmers need to sell them below Rs. 5-6/kg if they are fortunate to find the buyers. In normal situation, just before the lockdown, these fruits were being traded at a minimum of Rs. 20/kg. The current prices are not even able to match the input costs.
Understanding the possible cure to the condition
Prayaas has carried out several experiments while working along with the horticulture farmers of Kachchh to understand the hurdles and nitty-gritties associated with the marketing of horticulture crops. While it is true that this year’s lockdown has crushed the horticulture market further, this has been a near-perpetual pattern for Kachchh even in normal years.
Our experience with the marketing of the fresh dates in Kachchh revealed that the limited capacity of the markets and sudden surge in output of the produce slashed the prices of the fresh dates to Rs. 5-7/kg for the farmers. However, consumers were buying them at almost Rs. 100/kg. It is not the case that the middlemen are reaping off all the benefits. The high perishability and low infrastructure to process and store on top of the limited local consumption of the fruits in raw form are causing much of the harvest to perish during the intermediate stages of transition from farm to the final consumers. The crop that is getting perished was grown using scarce water resources.
In one instance, out of 10 metric ton (MT) of the fresh dates harvest under the observation of Prayaas, not more than 5-6 MT could reach the market in sellable condition. A further, 20-30 percent harvest would have been lost during the transition from the market to the final consumer. This calls for local processing and storage requirements for these products.
Farmers with access to cold storages could time their output in the market when the prices were stable and a few industrious farmers could try a variety of value-added products such as juices, candies, dried fruits, pickles etc. This would not only increase the shelf life but also increase the consumption of fruits that is not happening in raw form.
Prayaas has attempted initiatives through communities of Kachchh to change the farmer's plight by working on two parallels, 1) Create an instant market for raw fruits. 2) Improve value-addition for increased shelf-life and earn premium for value-added products. The value-added products can double the total consumption of the products. Till now, Prayaas has worked with 10 farmers and 9 different crops (fresh dates, pomegranates, mangoes, papaya, musk melon, water melon, dragon fruits, guava and berries).
The experience indicates that wholesome farm management, where best quality output is directly marketed to final consumers, combined with processing and value-addition in secondary products can help realise 50-60 percent higher incomes from the same farm outputs.
It is very much evident unless adequate marketing strategies are involved, it is not economical for farmers to switch to crops that can reduce water requirements. The very case of farmers in Punjab and Haryana who continues to grow the traditional cereals even after high water depletion vouches for the same. Agriculture being an economic activity, if the clear economic benefits are not feasible, the groundwater depletion and looming water crisis cannot be tapped.
Praharsh is a co-founder and advisor of Prayaas: The Movement of Grassroot Changes functional in the Kachchh region and works on agriculture, education and rural skill development. He leads the "Farm to Plate Initiative" that focuses on bringing the farm products directly from the farmers to consumers by developing a common brand marketing strategy. He is an alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, IIT Kanpur, and St. Stephen's College, Delhi. (www.imrc.co.in/prayaas)