BHUBANESWAR, India, 1 December 2009 - Under a shed made of bamboo and corrugated sheet metal, Purusottam Sur feeds his two bullocks and a cow with a bundle each of dry paddy plant. A fifth of his five-acre paddy harvest will be used only as cattle feed; the rice seeds just did not develop because of untimely rains this monsoon.
He has never felt more desolate at his farm or in his four-room, mud-plastered house. Three of his four grown-up sons have left for Yamuna Nagar district—a national hub for plywood production—in the northern Indian state of Haryana to work as hired labour. Two of them fell ill and recently summoned their mother to cook and look after them. Sur is now left with only his eldest son and daughter-in-law. At 66, he does the major part of cultivation, unable to afford more than two hired help during sowing and harvesting.
The Pejagala river, a distributary of the major Suvernarekha river, just 500 metres away from Palasia—Sur’s village in Balasore district of Orissa on India’s east coast—flooded in 2005 and 2006. In 2008 water came rushing eight times, taking down the sidewall of his mud home.
That year in this village of about 100 families only two could garner some harvest. In 2007, just when the paddy spike was emerging from the stem in the middle of the monsoon season, rain completely vanished for a whole month. The wasted crop was burnt in the fields—it was not even fit for fodder.
While Sur has an outstanding bank loan of 75,000 rupees (1,630 U.S. dollars), every other farmer in his area has loans ranging from 40,000 to 80,000 rupees (870 to 1,740 U.S. dollars), taken after mortgaging land ownership papers.
Short-term private loans come at 10 percent interest per month, or five percent if gold ornaments are mortgaged. These Shylock loans are only taken when the bank repayment defaults become imminent and the banks come beating the drum on the village lanes, announcing the defaulter’s name to auction his mortgaged land and even his bullocks and goats.
Successive years of crop loss and the consequent mounting family farm loans are the two major factors driving the out-migration of younger people. Mrutyunjay Pattnaik, chief functionary of the Balasore-based Janajagruti, a non-government organisation which conducted a migration survey in February, estimates more than 30,000 men between 18 and 35 years old have migrated from the district to Haryana’s plywood units; Hyderabad’s biscuit factories and to Gujarat. They manage to send home half their monthly earnings of 2,000 to 3,000 rupees (43 to 65 U.S. dollars).
"It is a tough life—we lived inside plyboard stores, sleeping on the planks, cooking in a cramped corner and working 12 hours a day to earn a little extra to send back money to repay our father’s loan," says Manas Patnaik, 31. He soon quit work in Haryana and returned home last month, forced to resume farming in his family’s 20-acre land, having tasted a hardscrabble existence as a migrant.
Patnaik, like many other individuals that have fallen prey to migration, does not fit the prevailing stereotype of a migrant poor. For he exemplifies an emergent social phenomenon—which has been observed in many agriculture-rich regions of Orissa over the last three to five years—that involves migrants belonging not to some marginalised economic groups but to farming communities whose average and hitherto fertile landholding is between two and five acres.
Until the late 1990s, when erratic weather patterns had begun to manifest, most of the farming community in the coastal belt of India’s ninth largest state earned decent incomes and never imagined they would be forced to leave home in search of the proverbial green pasture.
Dekheta, a 100-family village in Nimapara block of Puri district, typifies the situation in Orissa’s economically better-off coastal districts. Dekheta, which hugs the Dhanua River, is used to floods. In the past, water levels receded within three to four days, marginally affecting paddy crops, which can withstand up to seven days of submergence. But for two years in a row, beginning in 2006, the river swelled in late monsoons just when paddies were flowering. Waters remained standing for almost three weeks, leaving the standing crops to rot in the fields.
Grown-up sons, nearly 200 of them, have left Dekheta—some to the flourmills of Hyderabad, others to soap and oil factories of Kerala and the motor garages of Tamil Nadu. Padmabati Parida’s son Satyanarayan, 32, having finally given up on being a farmer, took off to permanently reside with his in-laws, leaving his 55-year-old widowed mother to fend for herself.
Bishnupriya Parida, 38, whose family is one of the larger landholders with 10 acres and a modest rice mill in nearby Nimapara town, illustrates the irony of many a farmer family in Orissa who own land but were left with no choice but to let their grown sons toil for other masters at 10 rupees (less than a quarter dollar) an hour.
"Over the past few years, the traditional seed-sowing timetable, the government’s rain forecast—nothing has been working for us," says Parida. "We women have borne the brunt of crop loss year after year. We have to put something on the plate for each meal; grown-up sons are leaving home to work as daily wage labour when here we hold high status as landowners."
With its entire eastern flank of 450 kilometres facing the Bay of Bengal, the state of Orissa has been one of the hardest hit by worsening climate change impacts.
Increased frequency of flood is undeniable. Between 1834 and 1926 floods came once in four years; once in two years after 1926. A government report, 'Status of Agriculture in Orissa', records that in 48 years, from 1961 to 2008, floods came 21 times, drought 15 times and cyclones five times of varying severities, many of these natural calamities occurring together in the coastal belt. Historically, for the first time in 2001, traditional drought-prone hilly districts saw severe floods. This was to be repeated in 2006.
Monsoon rains have not only become patchy and erratic, the "normal" annual rainfall amount of 1,502.5 millimetres over the last two decades sharply fell to an average of 1,482 mm between 2001 and 2004 and to 1,451 mm from 2005.
Agriculture is the livelihood of 65 percent of the population in Orissa; 83 percent of cultivated land is held by marginal and small farmers; and 67 percent of farmlands are rain-fed. Too much or too little rain takes little time to translate into increased poverty, food insecurity, indebtedness, mass out-migrations and loss of primary education and healthcare. Over the last 10 years, barring two, Orissa has been rice-deficit owing to natural disasters, states the report.
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