India’s bitter harvest
By Moin Qazi
Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.—- Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was one of civilizations wisest men, yet here he got it totally wrong. India’s economy may be soaring, but agriculture remains its Achilles’ heel, the source of livelihood for hundreds of millions of people but a fraction of the nation’s total economy and a symbol of its abiding difficulties. In what some see as an ominous trend, food production, once India’s great pride, has failed to keep pace with the nation’s population growth in the last decade.
The cries of Indian farmers can hardly be neglected by the leaders of a country where two-thirds of people still live in the countryside and are heading to cities in droves to escape the wrath at their farms. The demonestisation of Rs 500 and 100 rupees has regrettably added to their woes and the Government at best asks them to have patience. When India became independent, the contribution of agriculture to the economy was 50 per cent; now, it is less than 14 per cent. Employment in the agro sector was to the extent of 88 per cent; now, it is 66 per cent. Rural wages have fallen to their lowest in a decade.
Field stories from across semi-arid rural India reflect a now-recurring narrative of an agrarian crisis replete with crop failure, people moving out of farming, and increasing systemic vulnerability to climatic and non-climatic risks. Only farmers with irrigation infrastructure – access to wells, an engine to pump water, and pipes to channel it – can weather dry spells within the monsoon. No matter how much money the State invests, farming in India has bleak prospects.
To save themselves from farming, the rural young migrate to cities to perform menial tasks and live in conditions that are worse than in many prisons in the West. India is urbanising rapidly as young people from the countryside flock to cities in search of jobs and economic opportunities The total population of farmers has declined by 7.7 million between 2001 and 2011 on account of heavy migration.
Parched fields, burned crops and wasted cattle have helped drive up the number of suicides by distressed farmers unable to repay their loans. Tens of thousands have left their farms in search of menial jobs, with many joining the ranks of the unemployed poor in the cities. Some estimates suggest that 30 Indians move from a rural to an urban area every minute. This is sobering stuff.
Worse still, women have suffered heavily in the process. Female farmers are particularly vulnerable, to agricultural decline. There has been an increase of 38% and 13% from 2001, respectively, in women as main and marginal agricultural labourers from being cultivators. The total number of female farmers has declined 14% from 2001 (41.9 million) to 2011 (36 million). This includes a 10% decline in the number of main cultivators. There has also been a 20% decline in the number of marginal female cultivators.
The lot of the embattled poor Indian farmer keeps deteriorating with the passage of time. According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) during the last decade the bloated debt of Indian agricultural households has increased almost 400 per cent while their undersized monthly income plummeted by 300 per cent. Even the number of heavily indebted households steeply increased during this period.
Most farmers have become victims of the endemic phenomenon known to economists as the cycle of poverty-that unavoidable process of descending along the social ladder by which the farmer became a sharecropper, then a peasant without land, then an agricultural labourer, then is eventually forced into exile. It was no use dreaming of climbing the rung in the reverse direction.
If it is true that coal does not change its colour when washed, it is equally true that poverty painted in even the most dazzling colours remains forever poverty.
A survey commissioned by NABARD and undertaken by Punjab Agriculture University has confirmed that 94% of the government subsidies are being availed by big and medium farmers, leaving the smaller farmers for whom subsidies are actually meant sidelined. The survey has also indicated that the subsidies are not being given based on needs, but on political considerations. It has brought out startling facts that nearly 88% of farmers in the State are under debt and among the smaller farmers the percentage is far higher at 90%. Thus more, has smaller output and greater inputs making farming unviable for him. The marginalised and smaller farmers have six times higher debt than big farmers in Punjab.
Humans have an innate drive to work the land and produce food for their families and communities. Farmers take significant risks to satisfy that drive, and if they are unsuccessful, they develop a deep sense of failure. Farmers are motivated to hang on to land at almost all cost. When he was young he could walk out to his fields any time during the planting season “and your feet would sink into” the moist earth. “The soil was slippery and oily and it would stick to your legs and feet and you would have to scrape it off.” Now, he said, picking up a clump of hard earth that has to be ducked with a tiny shovel, the soil is like a stone — it is not living anymore.
In fact, India has the second largest agricultural land in the world. As India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry points out: “At 157.35 million hectares, India holds the second largest agricultural land globally.” Only, the United States has more agricultural land than India. What this means is that India has enough land dedicated to agriculture and even if some of it is taken away for other purposes there will still be enough land left for agriculture. Nevertheless, there are bigger problems when it comes to Indian agriculture.
India’ first Prime Minister and the greatest visionary Jawaharlal Nehru had said in 1947, “Everything can wait, but not agriculture.” Indeed the first Five Year Plan focused on agriculture. Now, after 70 years, things are not what was dreamt by him. The benefits of addressing the problem were understood long ago. An old Indian quotation poetically illustrates: “Tireless farmers, learned men and honest traders constitute a country. Wealth, large and enviable, and produce free of pests make up a country. The hallmark of an ideal land is where people voluntarily pay all taxes.” India needs an economic movement that starts in villages, not one that bypasses them.
Short on empathy and a sense of responsibility, our leaders see even grave crises only through the lens of their own privilege.—INFA