In Delhi, how urbanisation, economics and environment eroded agriculture

Rajesh Shokeen, a resident of Dichaon Kalan village in the south-west periphery of Delhi, started a YouTube channel in June last year, sharing tips on organic farming. However, he himself quit farming.

“I used to own around seven acres of land and cultivate crops that included wheat, potatoes and cauliflower. In 2019, I sold 5.5 acres and kept 1.5 acres for myself. In 2020, I gave up farming as a profession and started to invest full time in property business. Now I grow some vegetables, which my family consumes. However, I have a decent knowledge of organic farming. So, I started a YouTube channel,” said Shokeen.

Shokeen’s YouTube channel has 844 subscribers and four videos – in three of them, he can be seen sharing tips on organic farming of onions and groundnut among other crops, and, in one, he can be seen talking about his village’s fight against Covid-19.

“The cost is too much against the revenue that can be earned. Farming is no longer a feasible profession for a large number of farmers in Delhi. Hence, they are moving out,” said Shokeen.

Shrinking farms

The dip in farming in Delhi is now established by data. Cropped area in Delhi dropped from 33,700 hectares in 2010 to 29,000 hectares in 2020, according to the government’s statistical data records.

Also, between 2010 and 2020, production of wheat dropped from 92,480 metric tonnes to 82,870 metric tonnes (MT). The production of paddy dropped from 28,512 MT in 2010 to 25,200 MT in 2020. The government does not maintain production and yield data on the cultivation of vegetables, fruits, etc.

Between 2010 and 2020, the estimated number of farmers in Delhi reduced from around 40,000 to 21,000, said government records.

To revive agriculture in the Capital, the Delhi government has opened bids to hire an agency to commission research on farming patterns, costs, revenue, farmers’ economic conditions, harvest, sales, access to procurement agents, source of technical advice and awareness of minimum support price (MSP). The survey is supposed to include a detailed survey of at least 1,000 farmers randomly chosen from 25 or more villages scattered across the city, said another set of documents that HT has seen.

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“The government proposes to conduct a comprehensive research study on pattern on farming and to assess the costing and income from cultivation of major crops in Delhi with an objective to know the major crops being grown along with grade and quality, an average yield of various crops, main channels of sale, price realisation of the last two years at least both for Kharif and Rabi crops, the proportion of tenant farmers, etc. The aim is to identify problem areas and revive agriculture,” said a senior government official.

The urbanisation challenge

Delhi is constantly growing, with people arriving from states across the country in search of livelihood – essentially translating to a demand for more housing. As per government records, Delhi had 3.3 million households in 2010, which rose to 4 million in 2020. In the same period, the government’s socio-economic surveys showed, the city’s population is likely to have witnessed growth from 16.3 million to 20 million.

“To construct more houses, people need more land. So, the number of villages are declining. Builders are exploiting farmers by offering them lower prices for their land. Most farmers accept the offers because they often weigh the one-time amount against a profession (agriculture) that no longer earns them any surplus,” said Paras Tyagi, co-founder of Centre for Youth Culture, Law and Environment, a public policy group that works on rural and urban villages.

Over the last few decades, Delhi has witnessed colonies — most of them unauthorised and lacking legal backing — coming up in erstwhile open land in the peripheries of the city, essentially leading to an outward expansion. The city had around 1,800 unauthorised colonies in 2010 with a population of around 3.5 million, government records showed. In the next few years, 567 such colonies were regularised on paper. However, as of 2019, the total number of unauthorised colonies again stood at 1,797 – which means more such colonies came up in the five years. Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2020, the number of rural villages in Delhi went down from 225 to 49.

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Places such as Karala, Alipur, Lampur, Narela, etc which were purely part of the rural belt in the city at one point, now have numerous colonies, largely inhabited by migrants. According to government estimates, 40% of the city’s population are migrants from other states.

The financial and environmental challenge

“The changing nature of the city and its demography is not the only issue here in terms of declining cropped areas. People who want to continue with farming are confronted with a wide range of hardships and it is difficult to make a living,” said Tyagi.

Between 2010 and 2020, the share of agriculture income as part of Delhi’s gross domestic product dropped from 0.19% to 0.07%. Delhi’s estimated GDP for 2020-21 is 798,310 crore and the share of agriculture income is likely to remain at 0.07%, the government’s economic survey records showed.

Farming in Delhi relies largely on rainfall – and shortages and excesses both turn out to be problems. In years of deficit rain, it becomes difficult to draw groundwater through borewells and pumps, especially for farmlands that are not located close to the Yamuna or canals leading to the river. “With groundwater level going down during years of rain shortage, farmers have to deploy heavy pumps – which means higher kilowatts. So, they have to pay higher fixed charges on power which increases their input cost significantly,” said Kishan Rana, a farmer from Qutabgarh village in the north-western peripheries of Delhi.

Farmers whose lands are away from the river often invest in crops such as wheat, jowar, bajra and vegetables such as bottle gourd, potatoes, which require relatively less water.

While this monsoon has been the wettest for the city in 46 years, with around 1,140mm rainfall recorded till September 13, Delhi witnessed a significant rain deficit in 2019, 2015 and 2014. These years recorded rainfall between 370mm and 524mm, India Meteorological Department records showed.

Farmers who cultivate land close to water sources can grow paddy and a wide range of vegetables – cauliflowers, green peas and onions among others. But they have their own share of problems.

“Farmlands get easily flooded with excess rainfall and there is no facility to channel out the water. So, farmers have to deploy pumps on their own. With fuel prices going high, it has further increased input costs. But it does not end here. Getting water out through own pumps takes time and often the crops get damaged. Also, toxic particles are high in the water, which makes consumption of such vegetables risky,” said Brajesh Bidhuri, a farmer based in Delhi’s Badarpur.

There are solutions that have often been discussed but they have not yet materialised, said Shokeen.

“For instance, the government has a scheme for helping buildings in urban areas set up rainwater harvesting systems. There should be similar schemes for rural areas too. Proper drainage systems should be developed to drain out water from farmlands in case of surplus rain and flooding. The government can also use gram sabha lands to develop its own nurseries.”

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