Sep 1, 2011 – The most decisive actions of our life –those that are most likely to decide the whole course of our future – are, more often than not, unconsidered”. Andre Gide’s perspicacious comment is truer for farmers than any other community. Oftentimes instinctive decisions are bang on. At others, nature determines man’s fate. It may rain and give a bounty to the farmer or the heavens may dry up and bankrupt him.

Meet Balappa Basappa Belakud. I encounter him on a trip to Belgaum for a Bharat Krishak Samaj conference. Hospitable as ever, Balappa Basappa Belakud insists one evening that we visit his farm at six, the next morning. It is only a two-hour drive away, he informs us. It has been a busy day’s programme visiting an organic farm of Shri Abhaya Mutalik that was quite impressive. Yet the Belakud invitation beckons and, without a thought, we decide to leave at night itself.

The nocturnal drive over the smooth roads is soothing and we reach village Kalloli in Taluka Gokak of district Belgaum in Karnataka. During the journey, Belakut (as he is called by all) talks to us about the village. It is quite a large village with a population of 18,000. It even has a college. The main crop is sugarcane. Within a 40-kilometre radius there are 10 sugar mills. Within 60 kilometres radius there are 20. The crushing season is seven months long. I am awestruck by the numbers. Where I farm my kinnow in Punjab, the co-operative sugar mill runs for only two months. Punjab and Haryana together have only 29 working sugar mills. This reaffirms my belief that the most sustainable practice is to grow what grows best in an area and not to fight nature to grow a more profitable crop. Profit is determined by the factors unrelated to growing conditions like soil and climate. It is determined by factors of demand, supply and government policy.

It is to his warm home that Belakut welcomes us. He has four brothers, his wife and a son. The son is named Basaveshwar, after lord Basaveshwar, the reigning deity of the area. The house is a multi-storied one, on a small plot, with green marble flooring. It has a garage and a storeroom on the ground floor, kitchen and services on the first floor while the family lives on the second floor.

Belakut is a man of considerable importance in his village. He is the founder member and chairman (for two decades!) of the Shri Basaveshwar Urban Credit Souhard, Sahakari Ltd, Kalloli. The primary co-operative society pays a 25 per cent dividend to its farmer members and operates like a bank; giving loans. It has a 100 per cent rate of recovery: testimony to quality governance that is the key to all successes at all levels of work. There is a palpable community feeling here, probably inculcated through everyone getting together for community development and feeling responsible for it that, I feel, would be nice to have a little more of in North India.

The society lets out the meeting hall for marriages and other functions for a rent of on 2,000. It makes one wonder why primary societies do better in some parts of the country than they do in the north. Probably it is the insecurity bred over thousands of years of invasions and the wide variation in weather that makes North Indians accept authority only when it is enforced; as by the political class, today.

There is not much time for such thoughts though, for this is the sugarcane country and I am reminded of Eurythmics’ “Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree.” I certainly cannot disagree for things cannot get better than this. There are more than 650 tractors (above 50 hp) in the village that are basically used to transport the sugarcane to the mills. Unlike in North India, the mills pay the transportation cost. They pay Rs 141 per tonne for transporting sugarcane within a radius of 27 km of the growth and Rs 130 per tonne for transporting within a 15 km radius. The people, by and large god-fearing and vegetarian, pray to all the equipment that they own, including the tractors, plough and even the motorcycle on every amavasya (new moon). It goes without saying that the equipment is well looked after.

The two big mills in the area are the Godavari Sugar Mill and the Renuka Sugar Mill, each crushing 15,000 mts of sugarcane every day. The government rate for purchasing sugarcane is Rs 1,600 per tonne. Government units here are, however, uncompetitive and are closing down even though private mills are thriving; paying farmers more than Rs 2,000 per tonne for their sugarcane and still minting money.

The mills pay the labour Rs 150 per day for harvesting, loading the sugarcane and a 25 per cent bonus at the end of the season. The same labour that works for the sugar mill helps the farmer sow the cane. The money is satisfactory and enthuses good productivity as the labourers manage to cut up to 1.5 tonnes of cane a day. There are some interesting dissimilarities in sugarcane growing practices between Kalloli and rest of the country.

The sugarcane is paid for within 15 days of procurement. The farmer is free to sell his cane to any mill and is not hampered by command and restrictive area regulations. In most other states, the government directs farmers to sell their cane to a particular mill. The mills too are directed not to procure from areas not mandated to them. Yet the grass is greener just 60 km away, in Maharashtra. There the government pays a higher rate of Rs 2,400 per tonne of sugarcane and is also committed to compensating the farmer if there is no buyer for the sugarcane. Sugarcane farmers in the North cannot even dream of such a high price. The cost of diesel is Rs 39 in Maharashtra and Rs 42.64 in Belgaum.

Monsoon here begins in June and continues till October, helping enhance production of sugarcane. The water table in the open wells falls by between 30 feet and 40 feet in the dry season of April to May. As the dry season approaches, farmers cut their eight-month growth of sugarcane for the mill. The sugar mill, in turn, pays them on the basis of the recovery ratio of sugar: it reduces the payment with falling recovery. The recovery ratio of the sugarcane is 13 (the ratio of sugar recovered from the cane) compared to most places where it below 11. Water is available for around seven months and the cost of water provided by the government is Rs 1,500 per year for those who grow sugarcane and Rs 500 for other crops.

The planting practice is different too; once the eye of the sugarcane sprouts, the farmer slashes the new sprout. The replanted sprout stocks increase five-fold thereby increasing the yield substantially. They do not replant the sugarcane for up to five to eight years. The same sugarcane once harvested from two inches above ground level keeps growing.

Good black soil and access to water is the perfect recipe for successful farming. A normal farmer gets up to 40 tonnes of sugarcane per acre. Belakut gets up to 100 tonnes per acre by using a combination of organic practices and chemical fertilisers. He uses worms, mulching, fermented gobar and only 20 per cent chemical fertilisers (a far superior practice than those adopted by farmers who only use chemical inputs and do not combine organic practices and chemical inputs) to maximise yields. He is smart enough to use the best of whatever is available.

Yet questions haunt me: should the government continue to procure and announce a minimum support price for cane grown in areas where the recovery of sugar is less than 9–10. Sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop and, if the water is to be transported from hundreds of miles, it is an unsustainable practice and a failure of the command area authority, as is now evident in the newly-irrigated areas of Gujarat.

The cattle here, with horns usually painted blue and red, are an integral part of the farm and provide manure for higher yields. Belakut uses a gobar-gas digester. The fermented gobar is added to the canal water while watering the field. He grows a weed called ‘azola’ in the soil continuously submerged in water. Belkut insists that it is a protein for the animals and increases the quantity and quality of the. The fodder crop is Dharwad 9 Chara and can be harvested continuously up to five years.

What about the smaller farmers there? They prefer to grow grow rice because the gestation time is less. Also, just 100 km away, where there is less rainfall, people grow jawar (sorghum). The locals eat roti made of jawar; not wheat. Those enacting the Right to Food Bill need to learn so much more! Kolloli farmers do not grow the jawar but purchase it from villages close by.

As every other field trip, village Kalloli is an eye opener for me. Pity that there are no policymakers around to understand the grassroots reality. Practices and customs vary from place to place and government policy has to be specific to the land and climate and not be general across all states in the country. It is also difficult to replicate success and upscale pilot programmes due to multiple factors. Generalisation of policy and practice are what makes dreams turn to nightmares; something that the government is so adept at doing.