Rahul Devnath
Published: May 2014

The Harbinger of Good Tidings for India’s Family Farms

Family farming is critical to developing economies, especially when we consider the reliance on agro based industries in reducing the rural poverty. The World Bank rightly estimates that more than 70% of world’s poor live in rural areas. Not surprisingly, majority of India’s poor reside in the countryside. It’s an irony, that even for a country which has an ‘agriculture based economy’ and is a major exporter of agro based products, its farmers still lead a life of misery.

The reasons are manifolds, yet India’s growth story is a successful one, for we have been blessed with various natural resources which still remain underutilised. Till now, the ruling governments have pursued various strategies to address this concern, while on the other hand making sure that implementation of such strategies also results in rural employment creation. Still, agriculture sector hasn’t been much lucrative to youth even with traditional land holdings and government subsidies. Various factors, including lack of capital and investment incentive, inadequate farm infrastructure, limited market and stagnant prices of agricultural products have been a bottleneck in otherwise a ‘land abundant’ country. It is consequently essential to focus on a much larger gamut of the rural financial system. Fortunately, India has been able to triumphantly revive some of traditional rural industries of the country, which includes sericulture. In particular sericulture has been very effective in creating new job opportunities and providing alternate source of revenue for traditional farmers.

silk1Sericulture is the art and science of raising silkworms for silk production. Silk as a weave-able fibre was first discovered by the Chinese empress Xi Ling Shi during 2,640 B.C. and its culture and weaving was a guarded secret for more than 2,500 years by the Chinese. Silk was a profitable trade commodity in China. Merchandise like amber, glass, spices and tea were also traded along with silk and it swiftly became one of the most vital rudiments of the Chinese economy and hence, the trade route got the name ‘SILK ROUTE’.

Being a rural based industry, the production and weaving of silk are largely carried out by comparatively poor sections of the society and this aspect of sericulture has made it very important for countries such as India and China where a majority of population resides in villages. In fact, India happens to be the second largest silk producing country after China with an annual turnover of over 10,000 crore. The country today produces all the five known varieties of commercial silk namely Mulberry, Tropical Tasar, Oak Tasar, Eri and Muga. Mulberry silk is dependent on agricultural activity and hence provides the farmers a great opportunity to diversify into a high value yielding crop.

The typical life-cycle of fabric grade silk production begins with silk moths laying eggs on especially prepared paper. Once the eggs hatch, the silkworms are then fed on fresh mulberry leaves for over a month. By this time, these silkworms are 10,000 times heavier and are ready to begin spinning a cocoon. A straw frame is placed over the tray of these silkworms, with each spinning a cocoon. Within a short span of time about a mile of filament is weaved by the worm, completely encased in a cocoon. Harvested cocoons are then soaked in boiling water to soften them before the fibres are unwounded to produce a continuous thread of fine silk. The history of silk trade in India dates back to the medieval period. Sericulture development in the princely state of Mysore (pre-independence) is a fine example of the crucial role the state can play in augmenting the sources of rural income. Being a rural agro-based labour intensive industry this sector can also play vibrant role in checking migration from rural to urban areas. Traditionally sericulture has been a family based industry and the complete production cycle of silk is generally under taken by various members of a family with a majority of its labour intensive tasks being shared by women folks. In China, it occupies some 20 million farmers, as well as 5 lakh people in the silk processing industry and even in India, sericulture is a cottage industry in 59,000 villages, providing full and part-time employment to some 6 million people from the farm sector, and silk processing industry.

In the current scenario, some very critical issues like potentiality of the sector in national economy, rural development, women empowerment and employment generation have been identified in conjunction with development of silk production. An effort has been made to draw a tactical model to strengthen and promote sericulture industry in India and to enhance productivity and quality of silk as well. Among various initiatives, the country has a statutory body formed in 1949, known as the Central Silk Board (CSB), under the administrative control of the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. One of the earliest commodity boards to be constituted by the Government, the Board coordinates development of sericulture and advises the Government on policies governing export and import. Currently in India mulberry silk is chiefly produced in 5 states viz. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, West Bengal and Jammu & Kashmir, contributing to about 99% of the total mulberry silk produced.

Sericulture has important socio-cultural implications as well. Studies have established large scale employment generation potential and high income generation potential of sericulture already. Once the plantation is done, all the other downstream activities like mulberry garden management, leaf harvesting, silk worm rearing are women friendly, resulting in direct rural woman empowerment. About 60% labour forces in sericulture in India are women. Reeling of silk from the cocoons provides a great opportunity for enterprising rural women for a homestead livelihood.

silk-1For example, Rathnamma, a middle aged woman from a village located in the outskirts of Bangalore remains busy in her primary occupation over the years – separating silk from the cocoon. Over a period of few decades, she with a group of her friends has mastered the art of reeling silk threads from cocoon. Sericulture has been the major support to their families as she explains, “We have our own land and our family has traditionally been farmers. But over the years, it has been increasingly difficult to sustaining ourselves from the income generated through the agriculture produce alone, majorly because lack of irrigation around the year and the amount manual labour required. Rearing of worms requires skills which we have mastered and also keeps us busy around the year, while giving us additional source of income”.

This is true for the whole village which like many others in Karnataka (which has highest silk production in the country), has benefited tremendously by the revenue and employment generated by the production of silk. In contrast to the expensive and short-term solutions proposed for conventional agriculture which can worsen both the social and economic problems of smallholder farmers, sericulture is not capital intensive. Farmers are generally forced to purchase expensive seeds; insecticides etc, that often push them into a cycle of debt. Beyond the financial implications, these inputs also pollute the environment, destroy biodiversity, and degrade the nutritional quality of our food.

A strong agricultural set up requires better infrastructure to support framers. Efficiency augmentation and value conception for farmers is often linked to adoption of technology and best practices. However, small farmers with small land holdings may not have the scale to make adoption of technology monetarily realistic. That leaves the farmers with two options, either make improvements to the crops or shift labour to new or even unconventional crops that provide better and sustainable opportunities for them to appropriate higher return on the resources employed. Economic returns for a farmer engaged in mulberry plantation and silk worm rearing are considerably higher as compared to conventional crops. Sericulture is viable even on very small land holdings and needs low capital to start and hence seems to be the perfect augmentation to traditional agriculture in India and growth of family farming.

 - Rahul is a well travelled Bangalore based photo journalist with experience in reporting, writing and communication. Currently, onboard The Jain University Press, he specializes in aviation and technology.