Jan 18, 2014

Indian farmers are living in hunger

At a time when change is the buzzword on the political landscape, when cities are changing, and the villages are no longer what they used to be; when incomes are rising for an educated few, and when the bottom of the pyramid – those below the poverty line -- are showered with a series of freebies; perhaps the only segment of the Indian society which hasn’t seen a change all these years is the 60-crore strong farming community.

With nearly 3 lakh farmers taking their own lives in the past 17 years, and with more than 65 per cent farmers’ heavily indebted, agriculture has the dubious distinction of supporting the largest percentage of population with the lowest incomes. The fact that the share of agriculture in country’s GDP is relentlessly sliding, presently hovering at a little over 13 per cent, means that such a large population is living on a thin edge. No wonder, with agriculture becoming highly uneconomical, more than 60 per cent farmers are dependent upon MNREGA wages to make the two ends meet. In other words, the people who grow food for the country are themselves going to bed hungry.

Such is the plight of Indian agriculture that in the past seven years – between 2007 and 2012 – 3.2 crore farmers have abandoned farming and moved into the cities looking for menial jobs. According to census 2011, every day 2,500 farmer quit agriculture. Some other studies have shown that roughly 50,000 people migrate from a village (and that includes farmers) into a town/city every day. As per a NSSO study, 42 per cent farmers want to quit if given an alternative.

Those who leave agriculture, sell off their meager land holdings and trudge to the cities looking for a better livelihood, end up plying rickshaw or working as a daily wage earner in the booming construction activity. Economists and policy makers call this as a sign of economic growth. Moving people out of agriculture is the ultimate growth, claims Raghuram Rajan, the Reserve Bank of India chief. Pushing them out of agriculture and forcing them to join the ranks of landless workers is the new economic mantra.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that 70 per cent farmers are not required, and should be moved out of agriculture. World Bank wants India to move 40-crore people from the villages into the cities by the year 2015. I have never understood the economic logic behind such a massive translocation of the population from the rural into the urban areas. These are people who are somehow driving their livelihood from farming or other related activities in the villages. They may be under-employed but to force them out of the villages so as to provide temporary cheap labour for the growing construction and real estate industry is no solution to the continuing agrarian crisis.

Agriculture is the biggest employer in the country. By creating conditions that makes agriculture economically unviable we are only adding to the jobless growth. Take another Planning Commission study. It showed that at a time when the country’s GDP was hovering between 8-9 per cent between 2005 and 2009, more than 1.40 crore farmers had left agriculture. Normally it is believed that these farmers would be employed in the manufacturing sector. But manufacturing sector too showed a negative growth, cutting down on 57 lakh jobs. So where did these millions go?  

In such a depressing scenario, moving people out of agriculture does not make any economic and political sense. In fact, it serves a double whammy for the poor farmers. They sell-off their meager land holdings and move into the cities. But when the economic growth slows down even the daily wage jobs in cities dry up. They are therefore forced back into the villages and in the absence of any land to fall back upon they are left with no choice but to become completely dependent upon MNREGA jobs or serve as a farm worker. According to a CRISIL study, 1.5 crore farmers are expected to be returning back to the villages between 2012 and 2014 because there is no work available even in the cities.

The push to move a significant proportion of the population from the rural to the urban areas is reflected in the economic policies. To me there is nothing more worrying than the inability of the mainline economists to understand the social, economic and political implications of such a massive demographic change. By the year 2030, may studies estimate that roughly 50 per cent of the population would be staying in the cities. This certainly will bring in tremendous pressure on the government to create more employment opportunities in the cities, which unfortunately will not happen because the economic growth paradigm is based upon jobless growth.

If any meaningful change has to happen, it has to happen in agriculture. But if you are looking at a change in the form of encouragement for contract farming and corporate agriculture coupled with land acquisitions, it’s not going to address the terrible agrarian crisis. It needs a different prescription which is beyond the scope of the economic textbooks. It has to come in the form of providing gainful employment in the rural areas with focus on revitalizing sustainable farming. Hibre Bazar village in Maharashtra has shown that it is possible. From a perennially drought-prone village, Hibre Bazar now boasts of 60 millionaires in the same village.

It all begins by restoring the community control over the natural resources. Gram Sabhas have to be accorded supremacy in decision-making, and the emphasis has to shift to making agriculture sustainable in the long run and also making it economically viable. Providing farmers with a guaranteed monthly income will ensure economic stability. Once agriculture becomes profitable, farmers will resist the pressure as well as allurements to sell-off their farm lands. This can only be possible if the Reserve Bank of India formulates macro-economic policies that shift the focus to rebuilding the village economy. Unfortunately, it is presently following the IMF/World Bank prescription that calls for a massive rural-urban population shift.

Agriculture has to be ploughed back as the mainstay of Indian economy. It has the ability to provide gainful employment to two-third of the population, maintain environmental balance, and ensure food security for the nation. And as Dr M S Swaminathan has often said the future belongs to not those countries which have weapons, but those which have food. Let’s not fritter away the nation’s future by killing agriculture. That’s the change that India needs

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