Brainstorm Think

The Vicious Cycle of Ignorance and Poverty

Our farmers suffer as much from lack of knowledge as they do from lack of money. One illustration of this is their use of agrochemicals.

This is the fourth post in our Brainstorm discussion on ‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture’. Earlier posts: Intro12, 3.

Not long ago, I invited Dr VI Benagi, a director at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad, to visit an orchard at the village Ajmir Saundane. Dr Benagi was aware of the the excessive use of agrochemicals by pomegrenate cultivators, but was neverthess shocked. He could not believe the ‘spray schedule’ followed by the farmer. It had – hold your breath – 32 sprays, scheduled over the 4-to-5 months that constitute the crop cycle. That’s one spray of agrochemicals every fifth day.

Let me make it clear here, the overuse of agrochemicals isn’t a result of farmer’s ignorance. On the contrary it stems from the recommendations by various agriculture Universities. A case in point is the recommendation for management of bacterial blight of pomegranate by NRCP, Solapur. Page 2 lists 16 foliar sprays during one bahar season, and that too for management and control of one bacterial disease. Now add the several other pests & fungi to the mix, and what you get is nearly one spray every four-to-five days.

The story of grape farmers is quite similar, if not worse.

The good doctors VI Benagi and VB Nargund took hours to explain to the farmers that even the plants need to breathe, and the constant powdery layer on leaves is making them sick, preventing photosynthesis.

Does that mean that the Indian farmer is using excessive agrochemicals? No. Other than fruit crops and cotton, Indian farmers use barely a fraction of the world average of agrochemicals usage. Nevertheless, use of agrochemicals, rather misuse, is one of the major causes of the crisis in Indian agriculture. There are two factors contributing to the woes of farmers.

Lack of knowledge about scientific crop management practices

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one in every three Indian farmers is unaware of the best farm practices. Technological developments and groundbreaking research have passed by him, as has economic prosperity and, most importantly, common sense. While institutions like IARA, Pusa, the Agricultural Universities and ICAR are doing fine research work in crop protection, not much of it gets disseminated to the farmers. The knowledge related to measured use of agrochemicals, so important for productivity, remains buried in research papers. It seldom reaches the farmer.

The effort to take the research to the field is limited to holding the annual ‘Krishi Melas,’ where politicians get felicitated, and everyone has fun. A cursory look at the Visitors’ Book of these premier Institutes would reveal that very few farmers visit them. Information about plant-protection technologies, new scientific developments, and holistic and sustainable use of agrochemicals does not reach farmers. This leads to overuse/underuse and misuse, resulting in low yields. Everybody talks about the low productivity of Indian farms, but nobody pins down the contributing factors. Despite having access to world class seeds and one of the more conducive moderate environments, the yields are abysmally low when it comes to most crops other than wheat and rice.

The Low Consumption of Crop-Protection Products.

India’s consumption of crop-protection products is among the lowest in the world. Per capita consumption in India is 0.6 kg/ha compared to 13 kg/ha in China and 7 kg/ha in USA. Some of the reasons for low consumption in India are low purchasing power of farmers, lack of awareness among farmers, limited reach and lower accessibility of products. Even at these low levels the use of agrochemicals is unscientific. The Indian farmer’s basket of agrochemicals is dangerously skewed in favor of pesticides.

Typically, on a round of his farm, a farmer spots a pest, insect, worm on his crop. He rushes to the nearest retail dealer, shows him the leaves, twigs, fruits. The retailer, in turn, hands him over a bottle of pesticide with instructions about the dose, and the farmer sprays it on his crop. The farmer doesn’t bother, or isn’t educated enough, to remember the trade name, leave alone the technical name of the molecule. The same sequence is repeated when he stumbles upon a fungal attack, which he usually spots when a substantial part of his crop is damaged.

To make matters worse, a 2012 FICCI report pointed out that there is a huge mismatch between ratio of area covered under a crop and use of crop protection chemicals in that particular crop. Cotton and Paddy are the major consumers of crop protection chemicals accounting for 50% and 18% respectively of the total domestic crop protection chemicals market. Fruits and vegetables also account for a significant share of the crop protection chemicals market. Cotton, which accounts for just 5% of the cropped area consumes about 50% of the pesticides. Rice grown over 24% of the cropped area uses 18%, fruits and vegetables raised over 3% consume around 14%, plantation crops covering 2% of the area consume 8%, and cereals, millets and oilseeds extending over 58% of the area consume 7%. Sugarcane uses 2 per cent of pesticides and other crops grown over 6% of the cropped area account for another 1%.

And if you think that’s bad, here’s more: the top three states Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab account for 50% of the total pesticide consumption in India. Insecticides form the largest segment of the Indian agrochemicals market accounting for 60-65% of the total market. It is mostly dependent on rice and cotton crops. Herbicides account for 16-20% of the total crop protection chemicals market. Sales are seasonal, owing to the fact that weeds flourish in damp, warm weather and die in cold spells. Rice and wheat crops consume the major share of herbicides. Increasing cost of farm labor will drive sales of herbicides going forward. Fungicides, accounting for 15-18% of the total crop protection market, are used for fruits, vegetables and rice. Farmers moving from cash crops to fruits and vegetables, as well as government support for exports are increasing the fungicides usage. .

There exists a historical ignorance about the use of herbicide among Indian farmers, possibly, due to availability of cheap labour, mostly landless rural women. I remember, till about 2005, before the launch of MGNREGA, women farm workers were available on a daily wage of Rs 4o (Now Rs 150) in Nashik District. Obviously, in less developed regions the wages must have been lower.

The dichotomy is mind numbing. The maximum crop losses are due to weeds while the least an Indian farmer spends is on herbicide. On the other hand, the losses due to pests and fungus are less, but the Indian farmer spends a large portion of his crop protection budget on insecticides & fungicides, that too, often substandard. Although ICAR recognized the need for strengthening weed research in India in 1978 by setting up an All India Co-coordinated Research Programme on Weed Management (AICRPWC) in collaboration with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it did not do enough to educate the Indian farmer about the importance of weed management. As a result, the Indian farmer lags behind the world in use of weedicides.

In many advanced countries the average annual consumption of herbicides is 675 to 1350 gm / ha. In Japan it is as high as 5000 gm / ha. Against these high figures, in India at present the average annual herbicide use is hardly 40 gm / ha. This is largely because of poor purchasing power of most of our farmers and also due to lack of technical knowledge about use of herbicides. The cost of certain herbicides is also very high as the basic ingredients for manufacturing herbicides are imported from the developed countries. The present annual installed capacity of herbicide production in India is about 6000 tonnes. About ¾ of the available herbicides in India are used in plantation crops. At present herbicides use in field crops under our conditions is practiced in major crops like sugarcane, wheat, rice, maze, chillies and vegetables etc.

Take for example: losses due to weeds. Therefore, there is a compelling need for the State and its instruments to take stock of the situation and initiate  a ‘crop protection education drive’ on a scale of Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY)  — which I consider to be a con job. I bring it up only to indicate the political capital and state resources invested in it.

As if the sad state of affairs narrated above was not enough to heap misery upon him, the Indian farmer is fleeced, short-changed, robbed by the unscrupulous chain of agrochemicals distribution network. Here, everyone is making merry at the cost of the poor, gullible and unsuspecting farmer. The only solace is that other Indians aren’t much better off.

Again, let’s dive into FICCI 2012 report:

The crop protection industry in India is generic in nature with 80% of the molecules being non-patented. Hence, strong distribution network and brand image act as competitive factors. Crop protection chemicals are manufactured as technical grades and converted into formulations for agricultural use. The crop protection industry consists of technical grade manufacturers, formulators producing the end products, distributors, retailers and end use customers. According to Pesticide Monitoring Unit, GOI, there were about 125 technical grade manufacturers, including about 10 multinationals, more than 800 formulators and over 145,000 distributors in India in FY12.

Obviously, the FICCI report doesn’t mention the fact that a large number of formulators indulge in unfair trade practices. The contents of their products often do not match with the label. Needless to mention that, the substandard formulation becomes a major contributor to the crop losses, which result in low yields. The supervisory Government control over the industry leaves much to be desired as the end consumer is the village bumpkin farmer.

Allow me the luxury of saying : so far so good. The real culprit, in recent years, is the phenomenal rise in the use of PGRs (Plant Growth Regulators). A click here shows you 1029 sellers. A variety of stuff, just like in a Westside store, but with questionable credibility. Seaweed extract, seaweed extract powder, seaweed extract flakes, plant stimulant, Chlormequat Chloride, Gibberellic acid, humic acid, Triacontenol, Ployaspartic acid, plant growth promoter, and so on. The list is endless. So are the formulators and distributors. Till about 12 months back, there was no Government control over manufacture and sale of these concoctions, at least in Maharashtra. These are ‘magic potions’ sold to the farmers under enticing brand names and attractive packaging. They promise abundant flowering, great size, superlative fruit color, weight gain etc, a la Dr Batra’s clinic or a politicians election speech. But like them, the results are unfailingly disappointing. This thuggery is carried out through the village level agrochemical retail shops (often named as “XYZ Krishi Seva Kendra).

There are hundreds of formulators of PGRs in Maharashtra alone. The modus operandi is pretty simple. Buy bulk chemical, molecules and raw material from importers in Mumbai & Pune (mostly imported from China). Establish a small mixing and bottling plant. Print glossy labels for fancy plastic/pet bottles. Fill it. Shut it. Mint it. Forget it. These manufacturers/formulators offer handsome margins to the retailers. They also offer them ‘schemes’. A typical ‘scheme’ offers a Bangkok trip on a sale of 50,000 or a motorcycle on a sale of 60,000. In addition, credit of six months is a norm.

No wonder the retailer is more interested in selling PGRs. There are no regulations, no quality standards to be adhered to, no checks: anything goes. Once again, the farmer ends up being a prey to the various alligators who, to use the popular Twitter term, masquerade as businessmen. According to a report, the trade of spurious pesticides and spiked bio-pesticides has reached to a worrying 45%.

So the long and short of the entire discussion is that the Indian farmer is a “milch cow” — that too, a stray. Everyone is preying on the farmer to milk him.

Then they ask: why do the farmers commit suicide?


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About the author

Manoj Harit

Advocate Manoj Harit. Born at Bissau, a small village near Churn, Rajasthan. Schooling at Malegaon. College & LLB in Mumbai. A textile unit, horticulture, a pre-school with Educomp & fresh fruit export to Dubai, is the past. Horticulture at Malegaon and law practice at Mumbai, is the present.