13 Jan 2016

Whose survival? Wild animal vs. weakening farming households!

As a part of my usual field activities in Aga Khan Rural Support Programme- India, I have participated in a number of focused group discussion with the farmers to know challenges and opportunities across 4 districts of coastal Gujarat viz. Junagadh, Porbandar, Dwarka and Kutcch. The discussions in past one year have made me accustomed to, the presence of some common problems as visualized by farmers.  As widely spoken and encountered, the challenges include a poor turnout of rainfall, deteriorating ground water quality (specific to the coastal agriculture), poor market realisation, increased insurgence of different type of pests, and non-availability of the labour during the peak season of the crop cycle. There is this one issue which is iterating and frequent, and is largely a nuisance for the farmers and needs immediate attention, the problem of intrusion of wild animals (wild board and blue bull in particular) in the cultivated crops. The 4 districts as mentioned have approximately 80 per cent of the cultivated land under attack causing damages from 40 per cent to 100 per cent of the standing crop. Other than Gujarat the problem also persists in Maharashtra (approx. 10,530 hectares affected), Palamau and adjoining districts in Jharkhand, and Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh (as reported by national dailies), though the extent of area under the problem is unknown.

A flock of Blue Bulls (Nilgai) relaxing in fields
Gujarat a western state of India surrounded by Arabian sea with a coastline of about 1700. Out of total geographical area, 98.01 lakh hectares of land is under cultivation with an operational cultivator of 46.61 lakhs hectares. The major crops include Cotton, Castor, Groundnut, Wheat, Paddy, Bazra and pulses. The farmers in Gujarat in the previous one year has faced challenges of biotic stress such as deficit rainfall and escalated pest insurgence (pink ball worm and whitefly in cotton) which has resulted in lower crop yield. The prevailing situation is being made worse by the damage done by the animals as reported by the farmers. Farmers have shared their mixed response in regards to the escalating problem. “We no longer cultivate traditional crops such as groundnut; a large part of our village is left untilled as it is not economically viable to cultivate the land. Once you sow the seed the wild boar will enter your field at night and snoop-eat away all the seeds sown in the soil. Even if the seeds survive from the peril of the wild boar, once it grows tall blue bull will do rest of its job” says Bharatbhai in village Harmatiya of Dwarka district. As seen from the field observations in Porbandar district, farmers are now shifting their focus from agriculture to animal husbandry. A large number of farmers are now cultivating only fodder crops such as sorghum and lucern and but is affected too.  In another incidence from a village in Porbandar district, a village head pays Rs. 500 to whosoever kills a wild boar and brings its tail as a proof of the same
Damage done by wild boar
in Groundnut
. Knowing the chances of being caught up in the act the village head is very popular in the region. In another discussion, a farmer named
Maggan Bhai from village Bidra in Kutcch district, reported that how it has become a quest for survival for wild animals and farmers, former for food and latter for livelihood. “The salinity has increased in the ground water, TDS is escalating above 3500 and drought is worse this year, adding to our turmoil these animals devastate whatever comes out of the soil after its struggle with the salinity” he adds. The problems of the farmers have increased not only for the longing of a good rainfall but now have an additional pressure to prevent wild animals, many a time by remaining alert during the night hours.

Wild Life protection act of 1972 states in its Chapter-III, 11(b),

 “hunting of Wild animals to be permitted in certain cases when the Chief Wildlife Warden or the authorised officer may if he is satisfied that any wild animal specified in Sch. II Sch, III or Sch. IV has become dangerous to human life or to property (including standing crops on any land) or is so disabled or diseased as to be beyond recovery, by order in writing and stating the reasons therefor, permit any person to hunt such animal or cause such animal to be hunted”

The major challenge which comes across as the dilemma of implementation of rights of killing is the identification of the animals and getting the permission to kill the animal and in a case of non-compliance with Chief Wildlife Warden, the persons will be a subject of criminal offense. The farmers do not take chances to get caught in the activity of saving its crops. The question arises, why these two particular wild animals started intruding or has seen an increased incidence in the human habitat and damaging crops. This quest of mine, when discussed with the farmers got some light. The natural predator, Wolf, is nowhere to be seen now in the local region. Two veteran farmers educated me that the wolves which used to co-exist in the local region, have vanished as the shepherd and cattle bearer community locally called “Maaldhari” has eradicated them all, the wolves would attack their cattle herd otherwise. The salient feature of the two wild animals is that they are very quick, has strong horns used for defence and tough skin to survive any attack by predators. This gives an edge to these species to survive rough conditions and gives space for their progeny to multiply exponentially. The void of a potential predator has created dis-balance making a naturally living animal nuisance for human habitat.

Different methods are being adopted by the farmers independently or collectively which includes use of battery operated music players to imitate presence of human (Indian Express, 3rd December), use of chilly-tobacco mixtures treated rope, use of Amrit Pani (as reported by farmers associated with Aga Khan Rural Support Program-India), and use of solar wire fencing. The most popular method among is solar wire fencing which can be done either in groups or individually. In this technique, a 22 watt solar penal is used for generating the power and is stored in a 35 amp battery (enough for 6000 feet wire) attached. The system is further attached to border fencing of 14 gauge galvanized wire connected for power. To cover an area up to 20 bheega (8 acres) 22-watt solar panel is sufficient. The set up along with the wire can cost up to Rs. 4000/acre. The challenge for the adoption of the solar wire fencing are, non-availability of linkage to reliable and quality market players, with the farmers and after service, and high initial cost of the set-up to install. In spite being a major challenge in the agriculture as resonated among the farming community limited steps has been taken to include this in extension services or subsidy regime. A focused intervention of the government along with subsidy to marginal farmers can lead this activity to get popular, before more farmers change their cropping pattern or to start shifting towards animal husbandry, having repercussions on our food security. In the discussions, proposals too came such as confinement of these wild animals to safe places within forest range and suitable arrangements of food and water, and castration of the male to make sure their progeny are hampered. It is unclear how nature will be brought to balance with enough predators to keep these animals within acceptable limits, but seeing the gravity of the issue there is felt need of serious steps to be taken from the policy makers and government.