Flowers or food?
The priority during drought years should be to protect crops suited to our local environments and to strengthen the village level food security, and not promote crops that are dependent on external markets.
EVERY now and then, the Department of Horticulture in Karnataka comes up with excellent ideas for the promotion of horticulture in the State. Whether the ideas translate into reality is another matter. The latest from them is its plan to start classes in roof gardening targeted at the housewives of Bangalore.
Three years ago, while inaugurating the horticultural week across the State, the department identified Mysore district and the surrounding hinterland as the major producer of horticultural crops. Many promises were then made to horticulturists which ranged from better marketing infrastructure, exploring export potential for local fruits and vegetables, starting shops with cold storage facilities to prevent the loss of perishables and, finally, support to farmers to venture into food processing. Now three years later nothing has come of these promises and the department, perhaps, now sees more possibilities for horticulture on the roof rather than on the ground.
Developing home gardens in the cities is useful in recycling water and kitchen waste while supplementing family diet with fresh herbs and vegetables. In these days of water scarcity, the cities are better provided with water and electricity compared to the rural areas. With assured water supply and in the controlled environment of home gardens, the plants may have a better chance of survival than in farmers' fields dependent on the mercies of the electricity department for water. When the monsoon was delayed this year, the Government of Karnataka announced 17-hour power cuts in rural areas with none at all in cities like Bangalore. Later, it "graciously" reduced the power cuts to 13 hours in rural areas. Throughout the summer, rural areas put up with power cuts ranging from eight to 13 hours. In a situation where cities are prioritised over rural areas in the delivery of essential services, the horticulture department is perhaps wise in thinking of promoting roof gardens in the cities.
In a gesture of tokenism to the farm sector, the Vajpayee Government recently announced a few sops that included low interest rate on loans and crop insurance packages. These concessions were announced by the Union Minister for Agriculture, Rajnath Singh, described as the "saviour" of farmers. Expressing concern over the inadequate production of oilseeds, the Prime Minister advised the farmers to diversify and take to floriculture since there was a great demand in the European countries for cut flowers. The Prime Minister surely knows that it is not the farmers but agri-business companies that can afford to venture into floriculture for export. Promoting floriculture seems a way of providing concessions to industry in the name of agriculture. A 1998 study of floriculture export units in Bangalore estimates the investment required to cultivate roses equipped with state-of-the-art technology like computer-controlled drip irrigation, sprinklers, air-conditioned cabins, water atomisers, refrigerated vans and so on to be anything between Rs. 20-25 million per hectare. According to the study, traditional floriculture units that have existed for a long time catering to local markets had better chances of survival and assured markets.
Farmers are always advised to grow new crops instead of being provided support through better marketing, storage and transport facilities for crops they are already growing. The problem lies not with the farmer's reluctance to grow different kinds of crops and in fact many are already growing "new" crops such as passion fruit, allspice, oil palm, bamboo, coccum, vanilla, amla, medicinal herbs and so on. High value fruits such as the Avocado and different varieties of citrus fruits were promoted at one time but nothing was done to help the farmer find markets for the produce. Avocado is expensive in most cities of the world including India and is used in the cosmetic industry. Co-operative societies started by the self-initiative of fruit growers are struggling to survive while government provides little assistance.
Further the suggestions to switch over to alternative crops hides issues of a much more serious nature such as the hidden motives of food multi-nationals in directing the policies of the WTO which advises India to withdraw the subsidies and the minimum support price given to grain producers. As if in support of such a view The Report of the High Level Committee on Long-Term Grain Policy argues that consumption of cereals has fallen among the well-to-do sections of the population and that growing of cereal has a negative ecological impact. While this may be true and is an indicator that the narrow nutritional base of Indians are changing to include a greater variety of foods, the fact remains that the poor are still dependent on cereals for their nutritional needs. Countries like the U.S. where the people's nutrition is not entirely dependent on cereals are growing them giving subsidies to their farmers and are not willing to risk the food security of their population.
Farmers are already suffering from fall in prices for most agricultural produce, be it cash crops, food crops or horticultural crops. Many floriculture units have closed down because of their inability to compete in international markets. Conversion to alternative crops and diversifying is a time-consuming, gradual process that should have been undertaken during normal times when the government promoted mono cropping. Flowers are not any more capable of withstanding drought conditions than our native drought resistant varieties of rice, wheat, millets, vegetables and fruits. Neither do flowers provide food for the family and fodder for the cattle. The priority of the government during drought years should be to protect time-tested crops suited to our local environments and to strengthen the village level food security. Considering the rainfall pattern is changing and the drought may last for a few more years, it might be dangerous to play around and promote crops that are dependent on external markets and endanger local food security.
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