Urban Agriculture in Delhi: Thousands of Invisible Farmers

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The Yamuna River runs through the middle of Delhi -- India's second largest metropolis and home to a population of over 18 million inhabitants. But very few of this city's residents or visitors know that along the banks of the Yamuna live thousands of urban farmers. Contrary to what one who learns of them might assume, these urban farmers are not recent migrants forcibly displaced from rural areas and only able to find work in Delhi as agricultural laborers. Rather, they have been cultivating vegetables along the banks of Yamuna for several generations. Yet still, since they are without government identification cards and do not own the property on which they farm, these farmers are among the most vulnerable population in urban Delhi -- not only unknown, but also invisible. Despite having no access to government services, living under constant threat of eviction, and having to rebuild their houses each year after the river banks flood during the monsoons, the Yamuna farmers speak enthusiastically about farming vegetables in the Delhi city center in favor of growing grain crops in the rural provinces as they did generations ago. But with the recently opened metro stations along the banks of the Yamuna and the likelihood of new developments, the future of this vulnerable population is uncertain.

As part of ongoing research I have been doing for a feature-length documentary on urban agriculture in various cities around the world, I was recently in Delhi to learn more about the dynamics of urban agriculture in this rapidly growing mega-city. From preliminary research, I was under the impression that there was little to no significant urban agriculture in Delhi. As such, my motivation for going there was to understand the irrelevance of this activity in Delhi -- to ask questions not about something that was abundantly practiced, but rather decidedly absent; ultimately, to better understand the social and cultural factors that prevented this activity from coming into being.

As my research continued, however, I was surprised to learn that there is in fact extensive urban agriculture in Delhi, and on a scale that far exceeds that of the cities that typically come to mind on the subject. Yet, urban agriculture in Delhi exists in such a way that it is both intensively practiced and decidedly irrelevant. It is not as I had assumed that social or cultural factors have prevented urban agriculture from coming into being -- rather, there were and continue to be significant forces that maintain this activity and its practitioners as conspicuously invisible.

In late March, I was in Delhi and made contact with Harpreet Kaur, a local graduate student who is a field assistant on a team conducting the first extensive research on the Yamuna farmers. The researchers' primary aim is not to measure the yields coming out of the Yamuna bank or to assess the extent to which this form of urban agriculture contributes to food security in Delhi; rather, their objective is to understand how these farmers support their livelihoods under such vulnerable circumstances. I met with Harpreet on the steps outside of the Mayur Vihar metro station and from there we walked across a busy highway and were immediately within an area rich with the markings of a rural landscape. This region of the city was once difficult to access, but because of a recently completed metro line it has now become easy to commute to Mayur Vihar from central Delhi in about fifteen minutes.

As I walked with Harpreet deeper into the urban pastoral, we were accompanied by the sound of cows slowly hauling wooden carts along a dirt road, carrying with them the smell of fresh hay. In the far distance, we could see the outlines of glass office buildings. Harpreet made her way to an area she had not yet visited and soon found a farmer who was willing to take a break from his work in order to participate in the thirty-minute field survey.

From the interviews so far, the researchers have gathered that these farmers have been living along the banks of the Yamuna for two or three generations. Most of the families migrated to Delhi from the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar where they were formerly grain farmers. In Delhi, they are farming smaller plots of land, but can get higher profits by growing three or four seasons of vegetables and selling their product directly into the local markets, avoiding middlemen entirely. Harpreet and her research colleagues estimate the number of Yamuna farmers to be at about 7,000, but since nobody has done work with this population to date, the exact number of people farming along the Yamuna bank is unknown.

Despite the seemingly favorable circumstances of having such a large area available in the middle of the city for the cultivation of fresh produce, the government is not supporting this land-use strategy and much less these farmers. The farmed areas along the Yamuna are now zoned for development and land is becoming less available for agricultural use as construction continues to encroach following the completion of the nearby metro line in 2006 and the Commonwealth Games village in 2010. The local authorities also regularly bulldoze the farmers' houses, constantly displacing them and preventing the farmers from cultivating the banks of the Yamuna. They are treated as a population who is just occupying a piece of land and doing no good for the city.

The farmers' vulnerability stems from them not having any long-term arrangements to be on their properties. They are renting from landowners who control parcels along the Yamuna, but the farmers cannot get proof of this rental agreement because it is technically not a permitted land use strategy in the first place. Because of their informal rental agreements, the farmers do not have identification cards. And without an identification card, they cannot claim any access to government subsidies or avail to any facilities provided by the government. Simply put, not having an identification card in Delhi means that you don't have an identity. So in a way, these farmers do not even exist. At any moment they could be (and regularly are) evicted. When slums are demolished in Delhi today, most of the residents will likely end up in resettlement camps. The Yamuna farmers, however, would effectively just be kicked to the road.

Despite the fact that the farmers are extremely vulnerable and work under the constant threat of displacement, they have consistently responded in the field surveys that they want to be here farming on the banks of the Yamuna because this arrangement also comes with tangible benefits. They get better pay for growing vegetables in Delhi than they would growing grain back in their home regions; they are close to valuable services (seasonal labor opportunities, training programs, education, health care); they are working on small plots of land and actually able to support themselves and their families; they can take advantage of proximity and sell their produce directly into the market; the list goes on.

What the graduate researchers perceive as the biggest problem with these farmers is also paradoxically apparent as being the farmers' greatest source of promise: They do not own the land upon which they farm. They are constantly being displaced because of the yearly monsoons and recent non-agricultural development of this land, but the farmers are also itinerant on their own accord in the constant search for cheaper informal rental agreements. They go from place to place looking for where they can make the most profit. There is no stability, but the possibility for success is much higher. In this sense, the urban farmer's experience is not all that different from the experience of many urban dwellers -- a precarious life determined by the pressures of rent extraction and profit seeking.

Walking out of the field site, back toward the metro station, Harpreet clarified her motivations for engaging in this research. "We have no understanding of these farmers and their vulnerabilities. It would be a very good thing that the farmers here were treated as an important part of the society that contribute in a very significant and tangible way to the health of the environment and the food security of Delhi." But she was quick to point out that you can't just go out there and immediately launch a campaign to advocate on behalf of these farmers. The first step in supporting this population -- which is effectively invisible in Delhi -- would be to study them and better understand what they are going through and the forces from which they need to be protected.

As we reached the metro station and were waiting together on the platform, I asked Harpreet for her honest opinion about the fate of the Yamuna Farmers. "There have been no policies which support agriculture in Delhi, so I don't think they will last very long in this area. Maybe about ten years, but that is the only amount of time that this area will take to develop." Our train arrived, we stepped in together, and I expressed my naïve surprise that Harpreet was still able to carry out this work of protecting the farmers despite her understanding and acceptance of the likely outcomes.

The Yamuna farmers present a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, they are a very significant subject for urban agriculture globally in terms of the sheer scale of their production. But at the same time, there is the imminent threat of development and it is unlikely that the farmers will exist in this capacity for much longer. These researchers have developed a project which could introduce a policy framework to protect the farmers from the forces of development that will unmake their way of life. But at the same time, they are also realistic and accept the likelihood that their field site and subject won't even exist in ten years. They persist, fellow travelers.

The metro jolted in the direction of central Delhi and as our train car passed over the Yamuna river, Harpreet pointed out the farmers along its banks.