Have you had your daal bhat yet? Food and migration in the Eastern Gangetic Plains

by Claire Swingle

Today is International Migrants Day. Food and migration are often thought of together, mostly in the ways that migrants bring culinary traditions and flavors with them to new places, and the hodgepodge of delicious restaurants in areas with high immigrant populations. But food, especially food insecurity, is also a key reason why people migrate. This is true in Nepal, where rice is both central to food and cultural identity and also the face of food insecurity and a changing society.

Dal bhat khaanu bhayo?” (have you eaten dal bhat yet?) is an equivalent greeting to “how are you?” after all, and for good reason, since the lentil soup and rice dish is eaten at all times of day throughout the country. Rice keynotes important ceremonies that bookmark one’s life, too, from Annaprasana – celebrating the first time a baby eats solid food – to Antyesti, Hindu funeral rites where rice balls are offered to ancestors. Despite the ubiquity of bhat (known as chamala before it is cooked)in the most quotidian and the most sacred events in Nepali life, rice, and the socio-cultural traditions that surround its cultivation, is also part of the driving forces behind migration.

Harvest from rice fields in Saptari, Nepal (PC: Patrick Drown / IWMI)

Male out-migration, the so-called “feminization of agriculture,” is stark in many rural areas, where rising input costs, deeply ingrained caste and gender inequalities, and decreasing plot sizes, compounded by climate-change induced stresses and risks, has led to many men migrating either seasonally or full-time for work, primarily to India and the Middle East. Indeed, remittances make up almost a third of the Nepali economy.[1]

Improving food security can be a powerful tool for reducing the push factors that force migration. Improving water use for dry season agriculture by marginal and tenant farmers (DSI4MTF)[2] is one project working in the Eastern Gangetic Plains, which include the Nepal Terai as well as Bihar and West Bengal, to improve the resiliency of small and marginal farmers.

In the mountains, grains such as millet, barley, and buckwheat have been long been traditionally cultivated but are now being largely disregarded in favor of rice — despite it having fewer nutrients than the other grains, and being less suited to the marginal lands and harsh mountain growing conditions — because “bhateeys” (rice eaters) are considered more elite. The traditional recipes made from those grains, such as kaguno kheer, a sweet porridge made of millet, are also losing popularity. Nepal has gone from exporting rice (until the mid-1980s) to importing millions of rupees of rice every year, while chronic malnutrition remains a widespread concern.

Meanwhile, in the Terai lowlands in the south, Nepal’s “grainbowl,” growing rice is deeply ingrained. Accompanying this traditional cultivation are the equally entrenched challenges of limited irrigation, limited land ownership for a large portion of the (poorer, lower caste) population, and land fragmentation.

The majority of rice land in Nepal is rain-fed, which is to say completely dependent on the increasingly erratic rainfall and changing weather patterns.  Farmers in the Terai primarily cultivate rice in monsoon season and maybe lentils or potatoes with the residual moisture during winter season, and then leave land fallow the rest of the year because they have limited access to water to irrigate. Any delay in monsoonal onset has a huge impact on rice yield itself, and also disrupts the other crop rotations, which are reliant on remaining moisture in soil and surface water canals. This portends challenges for food and income security, and makes access to vegetables especially precarious since they are primarily grown in summer, when fields are often forced to remain fallow due to lack of water.

This system of agriculture is not enough to meet food and income requirements for many farmers in the Terai, like Md. Sakruddin, who then have to work as wage laborers or seasonal migrant workers to make up the shortfall. Prior to joining an agricultural collective as part of the DSI4MTF project, Md. Sakruddin was a landless tenant farmer cultivating paddy, wheat, and lentil on a sharecropping basis, meaning that the land owner did not provide any input support and received 50% of the total crop yield. He then worked as a wage laborer to meet his family’s remaining needs. With project assistance, he has joined a collective, gained access to irrigation technology and a fixed-cash land lease, and has started cultivating okra and mung bean during summer season. He is able to produce enough food for his family and can even sell some produce to meet his family’s cash needs.

Md. Sakruddin and a staff member from the local NGO, Sakhi, survey his field. (PC: Anoj Kumar / IWMI)

In Nepal, demand for rice is relatively new in the mountains, while cultivation of rice is deeply ingrained in the southern Terai; yet, in both places, rice is the face of a contestation between traditional cultivation methods, crops, and class, whether because it is usurping demand for traditional local grains, or continuing entrenched systems of agriculture that are increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of increasing climatic stresses. Certainly, crop diversification will be critical for increasing incomes and supporting livelihoods, promoting climate change resiliency, enhancing nutrition, and improving water efficiency. If these conditions are not met, migration often becomes the only option. In this context, I wonder if Nepalis will still ask, “have you had your daal bhat yet?” in the same way in the coming decades.

[1]At 28.9%, remittances as a proportion of GDP in Nepal is the 5th highest in world, and the highest in South Asia. Sri Lanka is the next highest, at 8.6% of GDP. (World Bank 2018)
[2]DSI4MTF is a 5 year project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) with the objective of improving the livelihood of women, marginal and tenant farmers in the Eastern Gangetic Plains, through improved water use and increased dry season agricultural production.

Gender field work on “Dry-Season Irrigation for Marginal, Tenant and Women Farmers”

After the annual project meeting in Kolkata, Stephanie Leder, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Dipika Das, University of Southern Queensland (USQ), conducted field work in Koiladi and Khoksar Parbaha, Eastern Terai, Nepal. Stephanie conducted Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with each of the five farmer groups as well as individual interviews and observations, applying a feminist lens on the functioning of farmer collectives and irrigation technology adoption. The outcomes for women and men within farmer collectives are ambivalent, as will be further detailed in a forthcoming article: on the one hand, several women are benefitting from project provisions such as solar irrigation technologies, agricultural and gender trainings, and seed provisions. On the other hand, the groups in Kanakpatti, in particular, have unequal power relations which threatens ‘technology grabbing’ and control over finances through private water selling by individuals which does not benefit other group members. Therefore, there is further need to strengthen institutionalization around the technologies and services provided. Regular social facilitation and monthly meeting support is still needed for the groups to function well. Similarly, documentation by project staff of market information and irrigation use need to be shared regularly with all groups as, currently, groups do not have access to this valuable information which is being collected by project staff.

Interview with women smallholder farmer in Kanakpatti village, Saptari

Dipika Das is a John Allwright PhD Fellow at USQ, who is using gender perspectives to explore women’s participation in agriculture focusing on women smallholder farmers’ bargaining power in agricultural value chains. Dipika conducted interviews with women farmers (both project participants and non-project participants) and conducted FGDs with the collective farmers group on their bargaining experience in Saptari. She is currently conducting similar studies in Madhubani sites in India.

CSIRO (Australia) will fund SLU’s student Sadiq Zafrullah to conduct master thesis research with the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) to follow up on Stephanie’s IWMI work on “Gendered groundwater technology adoption in Northwestern Bangladesh” in spring

After a FGD with a female collective farmer group

DSI4MTF-SIAGI Meeting

Useful meetings were held on 16 November 2018 between Mohammed Mainuddin, Michael Scobie and Erik Schmidt and members of the SIAGI team in Brisbane. DSI4MTF and SIAGI (“Promoting socially inclusive and sustainable agricultural intensification in West Bengal and Bangladesh”) have been working closely in West Bengal, where CDHI have a role in both projects.

The purpose of the meeting was to share progress and look at potential areas where we could work more closely in an extension period of DSI4MTF, planned for July 2019 to June 2020.

The diagram below, shared by the SIAGI team, illustrates the integrated assessment approach they are adopting. We discussed overlapping areas of DSI4MTF activity, in improved water management and access, agricultural inputs, production and income generation, and associated supply chain constraints. These activities are leading to better outcomes for our collectives. The importance of the human dimension, and ethical engagement, was a key discussion point.

Our research on smart irrigation practices and improved monitoring of water resources, using Apps, was discussed. Results from the DSI4MTF West Bengal team (UBKV and CDHI), presented at our Kolkata meeting, were shared.

We see good opportunities to work together from June 2019 to June 2020 in further collaborative work, including:

  • Impact on groundwater extraction using modelling (A proposal being developed by Mohammed Mainudddin);
  • Strengthening of collectives as institutions and integration into the value chains;
  • Scale out opportunities for climate smart irrigation.

DSI4MTF Annual Meeting – Kolkata

The annual meeting of DSI4MTF “Dry Season Agriculture for Marginal and Tenant Farmers in the Eastern Gangetic Plains” was held in Kolkata from 1st to 5th October 2018. The venue was ICAR’s National Institute of Research on Jute and Allied Fibre Technology. Delegates were welcomed by NIRJAFT acting director Dr Alok Nath Roy.

There were 28 attendees representing all partner groups. The program ran over five days with a focus on documentation and reporting. Participants agreed the key achievements and areas where we have had greatest impact include:

  • Introduction of collective farming systems resulting in improved nutrition security and economic situation.
  • Cropping system diversification and enhanced productivity.
  • Improved water management and irrigation practices.
  • Initiating a shift from traditional to diverse crop systems
  • Empowerment of marginal, tenant and woman farmers.

While the research approach has been successful in building collaboration and developing the capacity of marginal farmers, there remain important issues related to sustainability of the collectives and their ability to continue some of the cropping systems, and irrigation practices, once the project is complete.  Stronger linkages with the service sector and support agencies are crucial for scaling beyond project sites.

Participants at the Annual Meeting

Day 1: BioPhysical Planning Workshop

Day one of the program focused on reviewing biophysical data collection and reporting requirements. Discussions covered the value of data and the effort in collection, with a focus on adjustments that needed to be made in data collection, refining methods and confirming reporting requirements.

Mapping out the value of and effort in data collection.

 Day 2: Introduction, Cropping Systems and Irrigation Management

Project key goals, objectives and impacts were discussed and it was noted that while the project has been challenging there has been success working across 3 countries, 10 villages, and 35 sites. There have been an increase in dry season agriculture, and farmer capacity using cooperative farming approaches.

Focus for the remaining 9 months will be on core activities of farmer and stakeholder engagement, up and out scaling, analysis of results, maintaining essential data collection, and documentation through reports, case studies and publications.

Dr. Robyn Johnson (ACIAR) provided an overview of other ACIAR and DFAT projects in the Eastern Gangetic Plains, indicating that a review of projects would occur in early 2019 to set directions for on-going ACIAR investment in the EGP beyond 2020.

Each region presented useful insights on the changes in cropping systems across our sites, from traditional to current practice, and drivers for these changes were discussed.

There has been a decrease in fallow land area and increase in crop diversity with adoption of improved crop and irrigation management practices. Some good examples of scaling beyond the project sites were shared. Ongoing training and support will be vital.

Weather, market price and pest and disease have been a key challenge at many sites. Pleasingly collectives have been innovative in adapting to these challenges.

Sessions on irrigation and water management showed how groundwater is generally not limiting whereas ponds have limited potential for irrigation. A range of practices are resulting in better water efficiency, including better water conveyance to the field through flexible pipes, introduction of improved furrow irrigation and in some cases drip and sprinkler irrigation. The importance of improved pump efficiency to reduce energy costs was demonstrated and the potential for solar pumping outlined.

Participants shared results from a large number of irrigation system performance assessments, demonstrating significant potential to save water, pumping costs and increase production.

Day 3: Socio-economic, structural, institutional and supply chain issues

The importance of ethical community engagement and changing the traditional paradigm between the researcher and researched was emphasized.

Discussions highlighted that while supportive policies are in place there is often inadequate institutional development at the local level to support marginal community access to resources. Local institutions are critical to link local farmers to extension agencies, and support and promote the adoption of best practices.

With regards, supply chains there is limited value add/processing done post-harvest by marginal farmers and limited dialogue between traders and producers. The role of collectives in marketing need to be strengthened and better linkages to government, NGO’s and supply chain participants established. Opportunities for collection centers to provide marketing, technical services support, and promote good technologies were discussed, as were the role of community business facilitators.

Discussion of farmer collectives, gender and political and social justice implications of redistribution of land, labour and capital for marginal farmers.

Teams also shared experiences on collective farming approaches and different models of operation. Key challenges have been time keeping and labor management, especially in intensive vegetable crops. Groups are evolving and adapting through local experience. Successes including increase in average plot size under collectives, better negotiation with the landlord and improved access to claims for government services are evident.

Experiences in out and up-scaling were shared including establishment of farmer collectives in neighbouring sites and adoption of improved irrigation practices.

Opportunities to expand our work in alignment with broader ACIAR funding programs were discussed. Bridging funds have been allocated to maintain current demonstration sites and undertake further targeted investigations.

Day 4 and 5 – Case Studies

The final two days focused on case study preparation and cross cutting themes informed by the cases. These themes include:

Themes around opportunities/positive learnings: Skill development; Convergence/network building; Change in attitudes; Confidence building/ change in aspirations; Bargaining power; Leadership development; Empathy and solidarity; Women’s inclusion; Enhanced economic security; Nutritional intake/food security; ethical community engagement, scaling of technologies

Themes around challenges: Group dynamics; Ensuring ownership; Overdependence on particular leaders; Social conflict; Market integration; Appropriate technologies.

Discussion of Case Studies

Participants broke into geographic teams to progress development of existing cases around these themes.

The Annual meeting was well organized by Ajay Kumar and Anoj Kumar. Delegates valued the presentations, sharing of progress and interactive discussions.

Key focus is now on preparing documentation in readiness for our final review meeting in April 2019. Integrating results from a biophysical and social perspective and across different locations will be important.

Six women with endless ideas and unbound aspirations: UBTMS-CDHI inspires entrepreneurial innovations

On August 31st, months of hard work culminated at the Women Entrepreneur Innovation Awards Programme’s award ceremony, co-organised by the Centre for the Development of Human Initiatives (CDHI) and Uttar Bango Terai Mahila Samitee (UBTMS). The 500+ seats were completely full and there was standing room only for later arrivals. Two women from the DSI4MTF sites Uttar Chakuakheti and Dhaloguri competed, showcasing their “solutions to emerging issues.” The attached article by Mitali Ghosh and Dhananjay Ray demonstrates the strengthening of institutions and value chains and the empowerment of women within these sites. In the words of Professor Rajeshwar, in attendance, “self-efficacy is what would make the difference. The route to gender equality is challenging but innovation and efficacy may make the route easier.” Indeed, the pride on the women’s faces speaks volumes to how encouraging innovation and unleashing aspiration and action may help in developing self-efficacy and well being.

Read the full article here.

 

Update on Project Progress, August 2018

The DSI4MTF team look forward to annual meetings in Kolkata 1st to 5th October 2018. The main focus will be on consolidation and documentation of our findings.

The 2018 annual report submitted to ACIAR in July 2018 outlines the significant impact that we are making across our regions. Thank you to all Partners for your significant contributions.

The attached information sheet provides a summary of progress, activities and achievements as well as two brief impact statements on the work we are undertaking.

Looking forward to meeting in October!

Collective rice farming in Saptari, Nepal – photo Conor Ashleigh

Crop farmers form a fishery group in Saptari, Nepal

by Manita Raut

A year ago, if you had told the  fishery group that their first sale alone would amount to almost Rs 10,000, it would have felt like a distant dream. The group formed when members of crop-farming groups established in Saptari under the DSI4MTF project decided to organize themselves into a fish farming group with the aim of diversifying livelihoods. While crop-based farming has been a livelihood activity for a long time in Saptari, Nepal, these farmers tried their hand in fishery for the very first time in March 2017.

The group of 14 women and 1 man formed a Pond Management Committee and agreed upon lease terms with the landlord, a fish feeding schedule, and construction of a bamboo house to guard the pond at night. After two training sessions led by the fishery officer from Department of Agriculture Development Office (DADO) Saptari, the group purchased fingerlings of different species (Rehu, Naini and Common Carp) from a fish farm in the neighboring district of Lahan and put them in the pond, a rehabilitated surface water pond already located in the village.

Unfortunately, despite the well coordinated work among the members, the continuous and heavy monsoon in 2017 led to gully formation and soil erosion, severely damaging the pond intake. The members learned early on that the true test of collective action is during such uncertain times.

In response, the Pond Management Committee organized a meeting and carried out urgent repair work. Farmers gathered together and worked for two days to divert flood water to avoid further damage. They added soil in the intake area and installed two 6-inch diameter polythene pipes to channel the water into the pond. Support from the Department of Irrigation at Rajbiraj and the landlord were crucial. Farmers contributed labor and got material cost support for the piping through reimbursement by the Department of Irrigation. The landlord provided the necessary soil for repair work.

One of the members observing the pond after the repair work

This coordinated effort has started showing results. The group’s first sale earned Rs 9950 by selling 49.75 kg of fish for Rs 200/kg at the village market, an encouraging indication that fish farming could serve as an important source of supplementary income for the members, who also continue to crop farm. Two tables depicting details of expenses and income made from fishery is given below:

Although the investment and revenue are almost the same at this point, it is encouraging that the group has reached a break even point at this stage in their first season. More sales are anticipated in coming days,  and they have also initiated conversations with a trader in order to access a larger market for future harvests. Moreover, some of the income benefits are not captured, such as some of the fish the members personally consumed (and, therefore, did not need to purchase elsewhere).

The group has come a long way since the  pond damage in 2017 monsoon and farmers are excited to move forward. They have already collected Rs 500 from each member to purchase the next batch of fingerlings.

Presenting on Water Productivity Improvement in Bangladesh at International Irrigation Conference in Australia

Dr Manir Maniruzzaman, a Principal Scientific Officer at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, took advantage of the opportunity to attend the Irrigation Australia Conference (IAL) in Sydney, Australia on 13-15 June to present on the DSI4MTF team’s project work.  More than 80 local and international speakers presented on different topics related to advanced irrigation and agriculture, turf and landscape, key national areas, future planning and international matters, rainwater harvesting, and energy-efficient irrigation systems, with the goal of advancing the state of knowledge within the sector. Side events showcased solutions across the entire irrigation value chain, with more than 165 exhibitors from the agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, parks and gardens, landscaping, and water lifting and distribution sectors, displaying the latest irrigation technology, products, and services.

Manir presenting on improving water productivity in Bangladesh

Dr Maniruzzaman presented the paper titled, “Water Productivity Improvement in North West Regions of Bangladesh,”in the ‘International Matters’ session of the second day of the conference. He  explained that how the Bangladesh irrigation sector is developed will be critical to sustaining the crop production. The north-west region, in particular, is facing water scarcity during the dry period, requiring improvements in water productivity.  Dr Maniruzzaman also had the opportunity to meet other delegates and learn about varying experiences concerning autonomous irrigation system and crop production, knowledge that he will take with him back to Bangladesh.

His travel also included project meetings in Brisbane and Toowoomba, where he had an opportunity to spend an afternoon at Farmfest, a large farming and agriculture field day held once per year on the outskirts of Toowoomba. Here he was able to see up-close some of the large-scale irrigation systems and machinery used in Australian cropping systems, noting, “I have never seen such large and diversified irrigation and farm equipment before. Besides the big size of bullocks, the horses and cows were also very attractive.”

The national conference is held every 2 years, and the next one will coincide with the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) congress in September 2020, where the DSI project will be presenting more of the project findings.

Visiting FarmFest

Visiting the IAL Exhibits