Soon after the first showers in mid-June, Sikul Naik was busy tilling his three bighas of land. I saw him while travelling through Odisha’s Kalahandi district to report on the militarisation of the bauxite-rich Niyamgiri hills.
Naik’s fields lay near the highway that connects the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary to Bhawanipatna, the district heaquarters. To the north, irrigation has resulted in farmers switching to hybrid crops of paddy. In the south, however, rain-dependent as before, farmers like Naik continue with traditional varieties.
It's a marginal existence. Naik gets about 12-15 bags of paddy from his three bighas. “This grain lasts just four months,” he said. The rest of the year, his family manages with Odisha's subsidised rice and by collecting forest produce.
Low incomes make it impossible for farmers like Naik to buy tractors or install tubewells. More than 90% of India’s farm work is powered by mechanical sources, according to a recent study by three professors at Bhopal's Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering. But Odisha remains in the “low yield, low mechanisation” category.
One of the biggest threats faced by traditional agriculture comes from nature. Rainfall patterns are changing in the state. Till about 15 years ago, the monsoon used to reach Odisha by June 10. It would rain heavily till the end of September before gradually tapering out by November. But now, most of the rainfall is getting bunched up in September, throwing cropping patterns out of gear.
That afternoon, while his bullocks took a break, Naik leaned over to chat with me, saying the rains worry him most. Then, conscious of losing time, he ended the chat and herded his bullocks into the adjoining plot to the till the land. An old man working like he always has, in an increasingly unfamiliar world.