By Parvaiz Bhat
While the rice yield per hectare of paddy land is increasing in Kashmir, the paddy land is continuously shrinking across the valley as per official figures.
From 1,35,000 hectares of land under paddy cultivation seven years earlier, the land currently under paddy cultivation has come down to 1,29,000 hectares, according to Director Agriculture Kashmir, Choudhary Mohammad Iqbal though he added that there has been a significant increase in rice yield per hectare.
“This year, there is going to be a record yield as our estimates suggest that the yield per hectare will be between 63 to 65 quintals this year as compared to last year’s 60 quintals per hectare,” he said. “This is because of the fact that the paddy plantation was done at the most opportune time this year (before June 15) and was later helped by timely rains and proper temperature for the crop to flourish. It is also because of the Prime Minister’s schemes being successfully implemented by our staff on ground with good support from farmers,” Iqbal told Kashmir Observer. “
He, however, accepted that there is a continuous decline in paddy land “which should end as soon as possible.” From 1,35,000 hectares of paddy land seven years back, he said, the land currently under paddy cultivation has come down to 1,29,000 hectares.
“But, it is not only because people are building houses over paddy land. The paddy land is also shrinking because of other factors such as shifting cropping patterns. For example, it makes more economic sense to some farmers to grow vegetables on paddy land or to some other farmers to convert paddy land into orchards,” Iqbal said and added that this is why there is a continuous decline in paddy land.
When asked if his department is doing anything about stopping the trend of converting paddy land into other land uses, he said that it is not his department’s job or mandate to stop people doing so. “Our job is to ensure that farmers get help improving the quality of crops and the yield. We are doing that job diligently,” he said and added that there are other departments which are authorised to allow or disallow paddy land conversion into other land uses.
The shrinkage of paddy land has been a continuous worry for the stakeholders in Kashmir. In a letter to the government in March 2016, the then director of agriculture, Kashmir, had reported that “due to the haphazard land conversion, the agriculture land has considerably shrunk as per door to door surveys conducted by the field workers of this [agriculture] Department.”
Researchers at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture and Technology (SKUAST) also corroborate that paddy land is shrinking in Kashmir and opine that it is because of the technological advances in recent years that the drastic decline in land availability appears not that threatening.
“Paddy land is indeed shrinking across Kashmir, mostly because of conversion of paddy land into orchards. But, the technology has made it possible to get far greater produce from agricultural land than we used to get earlier. Essentially, we now get a good rice production using least resources,” said Farhat Shaheen, an agricultural economist at SKUAST.
For example, he said that earlier it would take 10 hectares to get 10 metric tonnes of rice, but now technology and the extension programmes have made it possible to get as much rice over just one hectare of land. “Our breeders at SKUAST have developed SR4, a very high yielding variety of rice which has brought a revolution in rice production in the Kashmir valley thanks to popularization of this variety by our university and the agriculture department,” Shaheen told Kashmir Observer.
He said that these days, Kashmir is witnessing vertical growth in rice cultivation because of utilization of resource-efficient technology and our research and development institutions. “Having said that, it is a sad reality that we are losing agricultural land to built-up areas. I hope this trend stops very soon so that we are able to make good use of our land,” he said and added that it is not only about rice cultivation, “we can even grow vegetables on a far greater scale than we do currently if land resources are utilized properly.”
Because of the ongoing rice harvesting season, farmers can also be found discussing issues including declining paddy land. Abdul Rashid, a farmer in north Kashmir’s Nutanusa village has heard on radio that the central government has imposed a ban on rice exports from India. This, he says, was done because the government thought there have to be enough supplies of rice available to the people across the country before exporting it to other countries.
Rashid is not off the mark. The ban was exactly imposed by the central government to ensure enough stocks of rice are available within the country for keeping prices under control. Also, in December last year, the central government announced that it will provide free food grains to about 81.35 crore (813 million) beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) for one year starting from January 1, 2023 for which more than two lakh crore rupees will be spent as food subsidy.
On July 20, the union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution said that it had imposed a ban on export of non-basmati white rice “in order to ensure adequate availability of Non-Basmati White Rice in the Indian market and to allay the rise in prices in the domestic market, Government of India has amended the Export Policy of [non-basmati white rice] from ‘Free with export duty of 20%’ to ‘Prohibited’ with immediate effect.”
An intelligent and knowledgeable farmer, 56-year-old Rashid says that the rice export ban has an important message for farmers. “Farmers do not only hold the key for food security, but can also determine, with their hard work in farms, how markets behave,” Rashid told Kashmir observer as he and other farmers sat for the tea-break while harvesting rice. Rice harvesting is currently going on across Kashmir with entrancing scenes of farmers reaping the rewards of their months-long hard work.
“But, it is so tragic that we are wasting our land by going for a construction spree rather than seeking to improve upon our agricultural production,” Rashid said. “We have to understand that agriculture is our backbone both in terms of food and livelihoods as it provides some sort of livelihood to majority of households in our valley, Rashid went on to say. Ghulam Hassan, another farmer in the group who was curious to chip in while Rashid was making his point, said rather sarcastically: “For us Kashmiris, it hardly matters whether our local rice production survives or not, we should have large houses and large roads even at the cost of agricultural land.”
Hassan said that he has witnessed people selling off their small parcels of agricultural land and using that money for setting up grocery shops and Tata sumos (passenger cars are mostly referred to as Tata sumos in local parlance). “I also witness many of those people now staying idle as we can’t have too many passenger cars and grocery shops in small villages with all of them making money,” he said.
According to another farmer, Ghulam Rasool, it is not only the fault of common people, successive governments are also responsible for not doing enough for protecting the agricultural land. “If you go to any village or town, you can see people constructing houses or other structures wherever they wish. On paper, there has been a ban on constructing on agricultural land, but the fact remains that the ban has not helped protecting the land,” Rasool said.
Rashid interrupted him and observed that whatever has so far has done a lot of damage, but now it needs to be stopped. According to him, the government should seriously think of making a housing policy for each and every village in Kashmir. “As long as a proper policy is not in place, people are not going to stop constructing on agricultural land. Most of them do it with the plausible argument that their families are expanding which compels them to use their precious farmland for housing. But, my question is how long?”
Farmers in other parts of Kashmir narrate similar tales of built-up areas steadily stretching while more and more agricultural land is rapidly coming under housing. “Twenty years back, there were large swathes of agricultural land separating our town from Srinagar, but now, the two towns have joined with buildings and houses built on the agricultural land in these years,” said a farmer who lives near Ganderbal town.
Kashmir observer spoke with farmers in villages near Srinagar city and most of them talked about how farmlands are shrinking giving way to built-up areas. They said that they often hear lorries carrying land-filling material buzzing around their villages. “It has been happening for years and has entirely changed our surroundings, which are now in total contrast to when we were young,” said Abdul Samad, an elderly villager.
In global agricultural development discourse, “small is good” is a common refrain and small farmers anywhere in the world are considered very crucial for the global food supply chain. According to the World Economic Forum, the 600 million smallholder farmers around the world working on less than two hectares of land, are estimated to produce 28-31% of total crop production and 30-34% of food supply on 24% of gross agricultural area.
“Our over-reliance on smallholder farmers to feed our growing population cannot be overstated… the truth is that no-one has food security until everyone has food security, and the secret to achieving the levels of supply and storage required to feed the planet lies in policymaking and interventions on the ground that empower, rather than entangle, smallholder farmers worldwide,” says a policy paper of World Economic Forum. Small and smart farmers like Rashid understand it, but need the institutional support for helping all the regions of the world to attain food security.
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