Saturday, June 11, 2011

West Bengal Farmer Consultation

One of the two projects on which I'm working with TERI deals with how climate change affects water resource availability in north-central India. The project has multiple components being handled by several partner institutions in India and Europe and includes climate and water modeling, socioeconomic scenario development, field visits and stakeholder consultations. In brief, the idea is to 1) downscale global climate model projections to a more useful regional level, 2) use these regional predictions to model the likely impacts on water resource availability (both in terms of glacial melt and monsoon precipitation patterns, 3) think about how things like population growth, income change, and urbanization over the next 50 years will interact with changing water resource availability, and 4) to go talk to people in a couple of case study sites to better understand the local situation and what climate change may look like in that particular place. Finally, 5) wrap it all up with a bunch of reports/workshops/information-sharing.  

All the case study sites for this project are in the Ganges river basin. The Ganges river has a significance in India that is difficult for westerners to understand. It is a holy river in Hinduism, worshiped as the goddess Ganga. Over 400 million people live in the river's catchment area, making it the most heavily populated watershed in the world.  Stretching from the Himalaya in northern India through the Gangetic plain to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is a critical artery through the subcontinent with massive cultural, biological, and agricultural importance.  

The four case study sites were selected to represent a variety of agricultural landscapes within the basin. The district of Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand state is in the upper basin. From the middle basin are the sites of Delhi and Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh state.  And in the lower basin is the town of Kharagpur, near Kolkata in West Bengal state.

In March I attended a community consultation in a village near the Kharagpur case study site. Rousting ourselves early from our guest house at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, we drove for 3 hours to a village in Midnapore West district.  Our first meeting with about 10 district-level officials and agricultural scientists was held in the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), an agricultural extension office run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.  The researchers from IIT Kharagpur and TERI explained how we were there to learn from the local experts and to connect on-the-ground fact-finding and human stories with the output of the impersonal computer models. For the next hour, the researchers lead the workshop participants through a discussion of what environmental problems were impacting agriculture in the area and what some possible solutions might be.  

Overall, the participants were fairly pessimistic. The discussion focused on the increasing cost of cultivation due to both labor shortages and small land holdings.  Poor farm laborers are migrating to the city in search of better jobs, leaving insufficient manpower to cultivate even the small plots of land held by most families. Efficiencies of scale through mechanization are impossible due to the high cost of equipment and the small farm size. The area is highly water-stressed - the water table has been over-exploited and the local characteristics of the soil make recharge a very slow process.  Rainwater harvesting has been going on in the area since 2005, but the structures are very expensive to build. Increasing temperature and decreasing humidity have negativity affected the cultivation of fodder grasses for livestock, impacting the health of cattle.

The participants were also very pessimistic about the ability of the government to help them.  They also questioned the value of our visit. Over the years, many NGOs and researchers have come to ask about their problems. But then off they go to publish their papers, never to return with assistance or information.  I felt very self-conscious during this discussion - a large white lady expressing intellectual curiosity but with very little understanding of the problems these people face every day. Although none of these problems can be firmly attributed to climate change, these issues are vulnerabilities that decrease the resiliency of the area to the eventual inevitable climate change impacts.  

The Krishi Vigyan Kendra office 
IIT Kharagpur researchers consulting with the district-level officials 
The district level meeting concluded with lunch - dal, rice, and vegetable stew delivered from the kitchen in massive buckets. We all sat at long tables, shoveling up the sticky mixture with our fingers and depositing it in our mouths with the minimum of mess.  Eating rice and gravy with your fingers is very much an acquired skill, and more of my rice may have ended up on my face and the table than in my mouth.  I asked one of the Indian researchers why people ate with their fingers when spoons, which are not exactly advanced technology, are not hard to come by.  "When you eat with your hands, you enjoy your food more" was the answer.  "The feel of the rice in your fingers enhances the experience, and allows you to eat with an additional sense, the sense of touch".  

After lunch, it was time to consult with the farmers themselves.  The KVK officials had recruited about 20 farmers to come and share their experiences with us.  Their comments were much the same as the district level officials.  They told of increased problems with elephants raiding their crops and of high-energy rain events that it was impossible to store and that just ran off straight into the ocean.  Rice seeds had failed to germinate in recent years due to high temperatures.  Overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had killed all the earthworms, causing a decline in vermiculture.

The farmers were much more enthusiastic about the session than the district level officials had been.  They seemed ecstatic to have such a strange group of people interested in hearing about their problems.  We tried to communicate clearly that we didn't have anything to give them, that we were just here to learn.  They accepted this, and were still excited to share their story.

Last activity of the day: to visit the village.  One farmer guided our research group through a sal forest plantation to his family's fields.  And there it was, iron-age agriculture.  Buffalo-driven plows and hand-picked potatoes.  And in the village, mud huts with equal proportions of wide-eyed children and goats peering out of them.  More than half of India's 1.2 billion people live in rural villages such as this. This is the real India, and seeing it first hand, far removed from the tourist sites most visitors to India experience, was uniquely special.

Disclaimer: Before I inadvertently give the impression that my Hindi is amazing, I should reveal that due to the mixed language abilities of our group, simultaneous translation of most comments occured in Hindi, Bangla, English and Dutch.  Fortunately for me, I can speak at least one of these languages fluently.

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