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Well Being By Eating Well

A Report from Chittoor District (Andhra Pradesh)

Presented at the Conference ‘Tracking Hunger’

(Delhi: 25-26 February 2013)

Dr. Uma Shankari



(This piece of writing is not a ‘scientific’ study of the village; it is informed by 25 years of farming, living, observing, and dialoguing with the community in a village in Chittoor District: Author)

Agriculture is about food. This is to state the obvious, but it looks like everyone has forgotten it. The farmers, the planners and the consumers (those who eat food - is there anyone who doesn’t eat?) have all come to believe that farming is about making money. Money is of course important, but it is a by-product of agriculture. The primary goal of agriculture is to provide ourselves with good, nourishing and safe variety of foods. But alas, these are times when we have to state the obvious.

Coming to the report on a village in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh, one can divide the time span of the last 50 to 100 years into three periods:

1.      Bullock period - pre-electric pump-set

2.      Borewell period 

3.      NREGA period

But before we go into the three periods, I need to give a brief background of the terrain, climate and social structure. The village and the district in general is part of the Eastern Ghats, and wherever you stand, you would see small and big hillocks, near and far, within one to three kilometers. Tiny hamlets and villages (20 to 100 families) and farms are located in the small valleys in between the hills, covered with forests.  The district enjoys the benefit of two monsoons, intermittent rainfall of around 700 to 900 mm for six months - June to November - and the climate is cool through the year except for two months.

The social structure is constituted of peasant castes like Reddis, Kammas and Kapus; trading-cum-peasant castes like Balijas; service castes like barbers, washermen, potters, etc., and Dalit castes like Malas and Madigas. Each of these castes lives in well-defined separate spaces - either separate  hamlets or in a group of houses of their own in one part of the village; only larger villages have two or three castes living next to each other. Hence, there are Kamma hamlets and they would not be found living with Reddi hamlets; Malas would not live with Madigas; and so on. Brahmins are quite rare and Karnam (or the village accountant caste) often officiates as the priest in rituals of non-Brahmin families. Today, most families in the village have some land, including the Dalits, due to the program (started in the British period, but executed actively in the 1970s by the state government) of “assigning” government lands to poor people, particularly the Dalits.

An important thing to remember in the context of nutrition and health, is that farmers have a certain mindset; if they grow something they will eat it, or if some food item is freely available in the vicinity, they will collect it and eat it; otherwise they will go without it; but they do not usually buy and eat. This is of course also changing, but it still continues to a large extent, even in the highly monetized context of today. For instance, if the cow goes dry, they will go without milk. A rupee saved is a rupee earned. There is reluctance to spend cash on food. Even from the PDS, they take minimum food items; they will take full quota of rice, but just one kilo of pulses, one kilo of oil, and half kilo of sugar. Cash is meant to be spent on “luxury” items, or on needs which cannot be fulfilled locally, i.e., allopathic doctors, English medium education, college fees, plastic/aluminum/steel vessels, machinery, foot-wear, clothes, mobile phones, motorbikes, house construction, etc. Therefore, even if a son is earning comfortably, the money would be saved to build a house, to perform marriages, to buy gold, or for health emergencies, but not on food. The only exception to this rule is the meat on Sundays and festivals; that is readily bought and eaten.

1.      Bullock Period (Pre-Electric Pump-Set - Upto 1970s):

I am stressing on water as much as on agriculture, since they are intimately related like man and woman - some plants need a lot of water and others less, but no plant can survive without water/moisture.

a.       People reported that there is plenty of water in ponds, tanks, lakes, fields, wells and soil. Wells supplemented surface irrigation, wells had water at the depth of 30 to 60 ft. Only one-third of the land got assured irrigation for wet crops like paddy and sugarcane, and these were occupied by dominant castes; the rest were rainfed lands, but soil moisture was good, and yields were good too.

b.      Wide variety of crops grown in both wet and dry lands:

·        Paddy, sugarcane, coconut, vegetables, under assured irrigation through tanks and wells.

·        Millets: jowar, bajra, ragi, maize, korra (foxtail), aarikalu, etc.

·        Pulses: arhar, broadbean (only seed is cooked), cowpea, horse gram, green and  black gram.

·        Oil seeds: peanut, sesame.

·        Vegetables: brinjal (a few varieties of brinjal), bhindi (two varieties), gourds of various kinds - pumpkin, ridge gourd, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, different kinds of beans - cluster bean, creeper bean (a few varieties); some experimented with beetroots, carrots, radish, cauliflower, and cabbage. A dozen or more varieties of green leaves, berries and fruits were freely available in nature.

·        Herbs and spices: chilies, onions, garlic, turmeric, ginger, betel leaves, tobacco.

·        Milk and meats: Meat was a highly preferred food, but exactly how much a person got to eat is anybody’s guess. Every family, even the landless Dalit agricultural workers, kept cows and bullocks for ploughing, water lifting and milk; buffaloes were kept for milk. Since milk was not sold, there was plenty of buttermilk, after ghee had been extracted. Sheep were raised for dung as sheep manure was highly valued, and sheep meat was of course highly appreciated in Andhra Pradesh especially during special occasions.  Poultry was raised for eggs and meat. Fish was available for free in paddy fields and ponds. Dalit agricultural workers ate beef quite frequently. The meat of wild pigs, deer and rabbit was a luxury for hunters. Specific communities/families ate some specific meats; the caste of bangle sellers ate cat meat, the nari kuravars ate birds, some Dalit families ate field rats and termites during monsoons, many families ate mushrooms during rainy season.

The point to be noted here is that although many Dalit families did not have land and were dependent on upper castes for employment, there was enough food because of three factors:

                                 i.            The main mode of payment was in kind (crop and food).

                               ii.            The poor, Dalit families too kept livestock.

                              iii.            There was not much of a market for everything, so most of the produce was consumed locally.

                             iv.            Many foods were available for free.

                               v.            Food was readily shared - anybody who came asking for food would be given either cooked food or grain, nobody would be turned away. This opinion was confirmed by Dalit families - that there was enough food; what was in short supply was land and cash.

Cash payment was very rare; clothes were given by the employers. Since cash was scarce, even the farmers had only two or three pairs of clothes. Farmers who had surplus produce sold the produce and bought gold which was a status symbol, given to daughters as dowry, but it was also a fixed deposit which could be encashed at any time for emergencies, to buy land, to raise money for construction work, etc.

There was year round cropping. Starting from June, paddy would be sown in wet lands; groundnut, millets, pulses in rainfed lands; mango and coconut gardens were ploughed and sown with legumes like black gram or horse gram, to loosen up and fertilise the soil. Weeding and watering these crops kept the people busy till October-November when they were harvested; the second crop was planned – legumes in rainfed lands, chilies and vegetables in lands with water; sugarcane in wet lands. Another round of watering and weeding till March, followed by harvesting. In April and May farmers are busy harvesting tamarind, de-seeding and cleaning, which keeps them  occupied for two to three weeks, followed by harvesting pongamia (karanj) and neem seeds for oil (karanj oil was mainly used for lighting lamps) - both of which grow wildly and can also be used as fence crops. Then came mango harvesting, and even while that was going on till the end of June, paddy lands were being prepared for the next season. In between, coconuts were harvested and oil was extracted; ropes were made out of ambadi; cows and sheep were coming to heat or calving, etc. I found the farmers and their wives working hard all the time, all through the year, the only difference was that they were not rushing like the city folks, time was measured not by clocks but by the Sun and the Moon, by seasons and festivals. For 30 odd acres of ours in which there were only seven acres of field crops of annuals, we employed five workers on a monthly salary basis, and one or two families as sharecroppers at 50:50 shares, and 10 to 30 workers on daily wage basis for weeding, harvesting and other such work. Of these, many were women workers.

2.      The Borewell Period (1970s to 1997):

The electric pump-set to lift water was truly, literally a watershed for the village. The 1970s not only witnessed electrification of pump-sets but also introduced the concept of cropping for cash. In our area sugarcane, milk, meat and mango became the main cash crops.

From then on, water started depleting gradually but surely. Basically, the fact of the matter is that before the electric pump-set came into being, the discharge was roughly equal or even less than recharge. In this region, because of the hard rock geological formation, water did not percolate too deep except in certain pockets/blocks, and typically in good rainfall years, open wells would get filled beyond capacity and overflow, while streams would flow for about three to six months, filling pits and ponds, lakes and farms, and recharging the wells. In fact, keeping the farms from water-logging was an issue and care was taken to drain out the water from them. Periodic droughts were also common, people do talk about a seven-year drought in the ‘40s, but much more commonly discussed is the abundance of water. Only one-third of arable lands received assured irrigation through lakes and wells, water was drawn by bullock power, from wells 30 to 50 feet deep, to grow wet crops like paddy and sugarcane. The rest were rainfed lands growing millets, pulses and oil seeds, and tree crops like coconuts and mango, but since the soil moisture in rainfed lands was of healthy levels, there were good yields and no one complained of water shortage.

By the late 1980s, borewell failures were already becoming a reality, just within fifteen years after electric pump-sets were introduced. This is the period we went to the village (1985). Cash needs were increasing. Wages and payments to workers included both food and cash, roughly half-and-half.  Milk cooperatives were opened (1983) and milk became a cash crop. Since then milk practically disappeared from farmers’ diets, except for tea and coffee. Goats replaced sheep, and broilers replaced backyard poultry. There was still a fair amount of rainfed groundnut, millets and pulses, as well as paddy, supplemented by the PDS.

Look at the following maps:

(The maps are from a study of the village: Community Mapping and Empowerment: Case Study of Water Management in a South Indian Village by Nagesh Kolagani, Dr. Palaniappan Ramu and Dr. Koshy Varghese, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai 600036, India.  Presented at the 3rd International Open Source GIS Conference, Velp, The Netherlands, June 25-28, 2012.)






Even as water was steadily going down and under, an additional disaster struck: a seven-year drought between 1997-2004! There was neither crop, nor food, nor cash! It was a period of mass migration. This is also the period when opportunities in cities and towns were opening up. A few things happened in this period:

a.       Farmers and farm workers began to realize that there is future in agriculture and rural areas, and started educating their children and sending them away from home to residential schools with a vengeance. Committed family labour became scarce.

b.      Sensing water problems and worker shortage, farmers also started shifting to perennials like mango, and to cows and milk. Milk gave them short-term cash flows and mango long-term lump sum money.

c.       The DWCRA or self-help thrift groups of women got started and made a big change in the rural economy by putting some money in women’s hands and putting some self-confidence in women’s hearts. Some of the money hopefully goes into food!

3.      Now Comes the NREGA Period (2006 – the present):

The district government introduced and supported on a very large scale mango plantations in private lands as part of NREGA without any assurance of forward linkages. NREGA also hiked up the daily wages for workers from Rs. 50 to 100, to now Rs. 200, and this made the farmers decide in favour of mango, as it is a less labor-intensive crop. The problem with perennials, unlike annuals, is once you plant them, you cannot go back to any other crop; whereas annual field crops gave flexibility to shift to different crops as per the demands of the market. Yet another problem with mango is that you have to water it during summer for up to seven years, till the plants are established, as well as to get good yields. Therefore, another round of borewells, pipes and drips started off, depleting ground water further. Last year, a desperate farmer drilled 6 borewells without striking water, and two more borewells were dug down to 700 ft. without striking water. Farmers are getting weary of the borewell, but do not know how to continue farming without it.

Most farmers have become milk farmers; they sow jowar or fodder grass for cows on a small piece of land, graze them here and there on naturally grown grass, and buy feed. Milk production it seems has already reached a “glut” (so the milk companies claim), and they are refusing to raise the price of milk, in fact even lowering it (!) even as farmers who sell 4 to 8 litres of milk a day hardly keep 200 ml. to half a litre of milk for tea and buttermilk, or none at all.  The average milk availability in Andhra Pradesh is 280 ml. per day, but the average milk consumption is 100 ml.

Today, typically a farmer is a male, 30 to 50 years of age, with a motorbike, one or two cows, a mango garden and a wife (if she has not gone away to the town to educate her children). He goes about doing practically everything (a to z) without any help from his children, cannot afford workers, is jittery about the prices of milk and mango, as usual indebted to private money lenders, and short of committing suicide. The farmers endlessly discuss among themselves the bleak present and future, pitching all their hopes on educating their children, hoping they will be able to go to places. Educational institutions are laughing their way to the banks.

In the meantime, landless agricultural workers have fled even faster to the cities, as they cannot remain on hungry stomachs. Mango plantations cannot give them year round work, and MNREGA is able to give employment for hardly 20 to 40 days in a year (the state average of Andhra Pradesh is 60 days per year, but it is estimated that probably 20% of the workers do not go to work at all, and their wages are being claimed by some middlemen). In our village, MNREGA typically happens for about two to three weeks in summer, and that too with all the corruption, nobody knows who is organizing the MNREGA work and whether and when they will get work. Remittances from brothers and children working in the cities are becoming common, thanks to Manmohanomics. Those remaining in the village go around in groups as contract labour, to nearby villages, and sometimes even as far as the neighbouring districts, wherever there is work. There are no takers for sharecropping since daily wage is more profitable and less risky.

With food inflation ranging in double digits since the last three years (although food grain production is all time high at 250 million tons), people have become dependent on PDS as an important source of food items. The PDS gives them 10 days’ supply of rice for a song, at Rs. 2 per kilo. Almost everyone has a BPL card (as well as a job card!). The rest they buy, reluctantly, and “adjust” with minimum quantities. At this juncture direct cash payment instead of food is a cruel joke on the people. More cash flows have meant more alcoholism among men. Not only the women but also men are against it, but are uncertain about how to voice their dissent and whether it will be heard.

Let us look at some state figures: Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of Andhra Pradesh grew at an average rate 8.2% per annum during the last decade, i.e., 2002-2012, while agricultural sector grew at 4.6%, while industry and service sectors grew at 9.5% and 9.3% respectively during this period. There are regional differences too, for example, per capita income of North Telangana and Rayalseema regions have been consistently below the state average since 1990s.

As for nutrition levels, around one-third of the children under 5 years of age in the state are underweight, about 43% of the children in the state are classified as stunted, and 12% of them are classified as wasted. Around three-fourths of the children in the state are found to be anaemic. The state had witnessed a marginal reduction of 4 percentage points in underweight children in the state. Andhra Pradesh has a share of 3% of underweight children at the national level. The nutritional status among the women in the state shows that more than one-third of them are below 18.5 BMI (Body Mass Index). Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, there is a marginal decline in the percentage of women who are having BMI below 18.5 – a four percentage points decline. Increasing incidence of anaemia among women is an alarming concern. In 1998-99 almost half of the women in the state who were anaemic were in the reproductive age group (15-49); and it increased to two-thirds in 2005-06! In Andhra Pradesh there are about 90,000 Anganwadi centres, yet its impact on under-nutrition among women and children is not evident.  

What questions are being thrown up by the above write-up?

Should I grow crops or should I buy food? Farming has become so unviable because of cost of cultivation being higher than returns resulting in year-on-year losses, that many farmers feel you save money keeping the land fallow and buying the food rather than growing it. But if you do not cultivate you have no income. Therefore, it is a catch 22 situation, if you grow you lose, if you do not grow you lose even more! Joan Robinson said, “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

2.We are moving from self-grown food to purchased food, whether from the PDS or from the open market. The question is, how much nutrition can the market or the PDS deliver? Obviously, the PDS even in the best scenario will have limited reach. The ICDS are doing their bit and people are using them but can they deliver enough? Poor people who have the resources and the knowledge to produce food are becoming consumers at the mercy of the market, which is fine if the market practices are fair, if all the citizens have equal access, can afford  the prices, and are organized well enough to influence and play the market. The question is: Do these conditions exist?

3.Women farmers were doing a lot of work: planting/sowing, weeding, harvesting, and most importantly, food processing at the homestead level, including cooking. After all, no one can eat paddy, brinjal or tuvar straight from the plant. They have to be processed and cooked. A lot of agriculture operations were at the homestead level. These were operations on a huge scale, but they go unrecognized, just because women do it. Increasingly, food processing is being done by machinery, in the mills. If food crops are not grown and processed locally, they have neither employment, nor cash, nor food. Transport costs and profit margins would force food purchases to the absolute minimum. Should we not bring back crop and food processing to rural areas to the hands of women? Light machinery, technology – friendliness, and cooperative as well as private management of enterprises have to be promoted.

4.Perennial-horticultural-industrial crops in the place of annual-food crops are happening with the active support of the governments. Is this a foolish thing to do? In the last five years, the number of children going for higher education has jumped from 30 million to 60 million. They will all want employment in towns and cities. Can the government generate employment to this scale? Decadal growth of workforce in agriculture has predictably declined from 2.28 to - 0.37 to -1.32 from 1983-94 to now, but the rate of growth in employment in the non-agricultural sector has also declined from 3.08 to 3.22 to -0.47. Hence, people coming out of agriculture and rural areas, what is happening to them?

5.At the national level, shortage of pulses and oils leading to imports is a well-known fact. However, if this trend continues, would we become a net importer of food? Many countries, after they have taken to export-oriented growth, have become net-importers of food. Are we moving towards the same situation? 250 million tons of food grain production is a consolation, but can this continue, with land being diverted for non-agricultural purposes, agricultural workers fleeing to cities, and water shortage becoming worse?

6.There is a view that areas which are suffering from water shortage should use their scarce water resources for industry, forestry, and other services and domestic purpose, rather than for growing food, which takes up on an average 1,000 litres to produce one kg. of food. In fact, this is rapidly happening even in our place. Farmers are finding it more profitable to sell water for drinking and construction than to grow food. Should the supply of food be left to better water-endowed regions? This is what we did to Punjab and Haryana. However, today they too are witnessing acute water shortage due to unsustainable use of ground water. There is wisdom in using rainfall to the best use to produce less-water-intensive crops, like millets and pulses, and we really need to strengthen our rainfed agriculture.

7.But the other question is: Why import food and therefore water as well, why not move people to uninhabited areas with less water stress? Look at the following maps: water stress is happening typically in areas with very high population densities (except deserts). (Source: Water: Adapting to a New Normal, by Sandra Postel, in The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010.)


Population Density Map of the World. (Source: ig.wikipedia.org)



8.I am not suggesting, go grab land in Africa, but what about uninhabited places with very low populations? Should this become a part of WTO negotiations? Right now unregulated land grab by Indian private companies is happening, especially in Africa, and civil society groups are protesting both in India and in Africa. Why not bring them under some regulation at the global level? 

9.When people grew food, there was also more sharing of food. The first thing people would say at any time of the day to a visitor is “come and eat”. And there was always extra food at home. Food was never wasted, the leftovers from one meal were eaten at the next meal, and if there was still some thing left, it was given to beggars, cows, dogs, cats, birds, etc. These days women calculate and cook just enough food for the family, because everything has to be purchased and the incomes are meager and uncertain. Beggars have become rare; they too seem to have moved to greener pastures, to the traffic signals in the cities, where people in cars can be generous donors.

10.Cultural attitudes obviously influence nutrition and health in communities. Women and children are often victims of such cultural restrictions. Very often illnesses are traced to what one has eaten, and when combined with poverty, these restrictions can be very harmful. Brinjal, groundnut, eggs and chicken are often forbidden foods, at certain stages of life, whereas chily-spicy food is seen as good for better digestion, and a little curry with a lot of rice is the usual pattern. For instance, we have been eating brown rice since twenty odd years but we have not been able to convince others to do so. Similarly, the youth have lost touch with the tradition of eating millets, since millets are not grown anymore; and they are considered less prestigious. Manual labour has always had a low value in our culture. People are also working less, and on less hard tasks. And therefore, eating less too. How to inculcate dignity of manual labour? How to encourage better eating traditions in this context of deep-seated cultural attitudes?

11.Corruption and inefficiencies in the PDS is making the GOI to think seriously of cash support. I think they could certainly experiment with direct cash for kerosene, but not food.  This would be a cruel joke on the poor people of India in many areas, who are becoming more and more dependent on the PDS and on purchased food for their food supply. Instead, there is a case in the short-term for supplying more through the PDS rather than less, as in fact some states are doing already - giving pulses and oil. There has been a long-standing demand that locally grown nutri-cereals (millets) and pulses should be supplied through the PDS, but that has not come to be.

In the long term, everyone would agree that we should not imitate the way of Midas and that we should provide ourselves good safe enough food, but the question is: can it be done by starving the farmers?




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