Farmers turn to daily wage earning for sustenance

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By Azera Parveen Rahman

Loknath Naik doesn’t mince his words when he says that for farmers like him, working as a daily wage labourer has become the “main means of livelihood”. “I have a one-acre land on lease. Earlier I used to get 10-12 quintals of rice during harvest. But last year my crop was partially destroyed by cyclone Bulbul (in November, 2019). So I have got only four quintals this time,” Naik said, holding a fishing net over his shoulders. His catch—a handful of small fishes—would make for the family’s lunch and dinner that day. “Agriculture has become unreliable because the weather on which we depend, has become unpredictable. I have no choice but to turn to daily wage work in a construction site or elsewhere,” he said.

When the challenges stack up

When the challenges stack up

Frequent floods, cyclones, and an increase in land salinity—factors that indicate climate change—have had a catastrophic effect on land productivity in the coastal areas of Odisha, leaving farmers with no choice but to look for alternative means of livelihood. Farmers like Naik in Singiti village in the Bhadrak district, who don’t own any land and are already vulnerable, climate change has further pushed them to the edge. “The deal with taking a piece of land on lease is to repay the owner with 50 percent of the harvest,” he said, “How will I feed my family with the leftover harvest of this year? I go for daily wage earning and get Rs 400 a day. That is my only saviour.”

Rabindra Naik, another farmer, who was listening to the conversation agreed. “As summers approach, the groundwater turns very saline. The land also becomes so loona (saline) that not only can you not grow anything, you cannot even use that earth for building a house. So there is no way of compensating for the loss (to crops) due to floods—or cyclones,” he said.

Taking a chance

Taking a chance

Most farmers in these coastal villages grow local rice varieties, like Pattani and Swarna. They have a lower yield than hybrid varieties—locals yield 10-12 quintals per acre, hybrid yields up to 25 quintals—but are more resilient to floods and long periods of water-logged fields. “Yet, of my three acres, I grow hybrid on one acre,” said Bijoy Kumar Swain of Neduali village. Lying at a distance of 12 km from the sea, salinity ingress is a major issue in this village, amplifying the challenges against agriculture in addition to floods. “I have hope against hope that the hybrid variety will get me a good yield. But year after year it gets partially destroyed. Last year it was cyclone Bulbul and the floods, the year before that again floods . . . but I still take the risk,” he said. The risk however doesn’t bear much fruit because Swain has to rely on work as a daily wage earner in a house or road construction site to sustain his family.

Like him, Dolo Gobind Majhi, also a farmer in the same village, goes for daily wage earning to compensate for the losses in agriculture. “Some farmers have opened shops but the rest of us cannot afford even that. So we go for daily wage,” he said. Majhi has two acres of land—one and half his own, half on lease. Like Swain, he “gambles” with his fate and partially grows hybrid rice variety on his land too. “Savage” floods and frequent cyclones however doesn’t let him reap the benefits in full.

Taking a chance

It is a telling sign of the times to come when, in that gathering of farmers and curious children, none of the young ones responded in the affirmative when asked who would like to become a farmer in the future. “Agriculture is becoming more laborious and more unreliable,” Swain said, “Why should they (children) dream of such a future?”