The seeds of discontent

India faces not just a farmers’ crisis, but a serious meltdown of farming families

Written by Bina Agarwal | Published:June 15, 2017 12:10 am
A larger proportion of farmers were dissatisfied in states with low rainfall, less urbanisation, low per capita incomes and largely subsistence farming, compared to farmers in richer states, with favourable climates and mixed farming (ie, subsistence plus commercial crops).

Amongst the images of agitating farmers in Madhya Pradesh, it was striking to see how many were youngsters dressed in jeans and shirts — they were clearly not all farmers, but also farmers’ sons, unhappy with jobless growth. We are facing not just a farmers’ crisis today, but also a crisis of farming families, whose children want non-farm jobs.

Have we ever seriously asked farmers if they like farming? Only once, as far as surveys go. A Situation Assessment Survey (SAS) by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) several years ago asked over 50,000 farmers across India: “Do you like farming as a profession?” Forty per cent said they did not. Ankush Agrawal (IIT-Delhi) and I analysed the SAS data. In our paper, “Do farmers really like farming? Indian Farmers in Transition” (Oxford Development Studies, 2017), we compared farmers who liked farming with those who did not. We found that dissatisfied farmers included both the most vulnerable and the well-off — the former due to low production, the latter due to higher aspirations.

The resource-poor farmers who disliked farming owned smaller plots (0.85 ha on average), compared to the 1.4 ha owned by those who liked farming; they had less access to irrigation, credit and crop insurance; they were less aware of minimum support prices (MSPs) and tended not to be members of farmers’ groups. All these factors matter for raising productivity and lowering risk, the two factors farmers emphasised: Two-thirds cited low profits and one-fifth cited riskiness for disliking farming. Irrigation is central to production. Crop insurance (only 3.8 per cent of all farmers had any) is key for protection against crop failure. Awareness of MSPs brings better returns. Access to cheaper credit encourages investment. Membership in farmers’ groups can reduce distress by providing support when farmers face indebtedness. (Ironically, loan waivers will not help the most vulnerable farmers — many çan’t access bank credit anyway and depend on moneylenders).

Age and gender also affect farmer satisfaction — younger farmers tended to be more dissatisfied, and women farmers more than men, understandably since few women own land and most face difficulties accessing irrigation, credit, inputs and markets. This has implications for productivity, since at least 35 per cent of our agricultural work force is female and likely to grow. And it has implications for food security since 75 per cent of rural women workers, versus 59 per cent of rural male workers, depend mainly on agriculture for a living (NSSO 2011-12). Indeed, unless we alleviate women’s constraints, future farmer agitations may be led by women.

Notably, dissatisfied farmer households had more working age members per acre (6.6 relative to 4.2 among satisfied farmers). The benefit of having more working adults is overridden by disaffection if these are children who don’t want to farm. This highlights the second major category of farmers who disliked farming, those owning more land, educated above middle school, living in pucca homes — but unable to fulfil aspirations.

Location also matters. A larger proportion of farmers were dissatisfied in states with low rainfall, less urbanisation, low per capita incomes and largely subsistence farming, compared to farmers in richer states, with favourable climates and mixed farming (ie, subsistence plus commercial crops). Some argue that dissatisfied farmers should be encouraged to seek non-farm jobs. But this fails to recognise that one section of the dissatisfied — the resource-poor, little educated — have few options outside agriculture except casual work, which would leave them poorer, while the better-educated, younger farmers want regular jobs, which are sparse. Also, employment prospects differ between the rural and urban. Many studies find that moving from farms to mega cities does not reduce poverty — it may even increase it. For poverty reduction, the best route is raising farm productivity, the next being non-farm jobs in villages or secondary towns.

Within non-farm employment, the main benefits come from skilled regular jobs, which are few in number, but which are precisely the jobs the educated youth of farm households want. Most farmers themselves want their children to leave farming and educate them for exit options — but a desire to quit does not match the ability to quit. Occupational mobility is lowest in agriculture: An all-India survey by Motilal and Singh (EPW 2010) found that almost 50 per cent of farmers’ children end up as farmers.

We need a multi-pronged strategy to help both resource-poor farmers and the educated better-off ones. For the majority, raising farm yields and diversifying livelihoods would be the best way. Many experts provide long lists of recommendations for raising output; let me mention just two. The foremost is irrigation, and a judicious use of groundwater. Only 44 per cent of our cropland is irrigated — this needs priority expansion. We have also used our groundwater recklessly. In Punjab, with drastic overdrawing, the water table has been falling by 2.6 feet annually since 2000. Instead of diesel and electricity subsidies, which encourage excessive pumping, we must strictly regulate extraction (say, by meters), conserve water use by techniques like drip irrigation, expand rainwater harvesting, etc. A second strategic need is for institutional innovation, especially promoting cooperation in production and linking farmers to higher value chains. Pooling land, labour and capital can help small farmers expand farm size, enjoy scale economies, share risks, improve input access, upscale technology and enlarge the skill pool — small owners can thus become medium-sized producers.

This has worked especially well for Kerala’s women farmers under Kudumbashree; today, 2.6 lakh women, constituting 54,000 groups, are doing group farming. As my ongoing research shows, in districts like Thrissur, groups cultivating vegetables and specialised bananas are making substantial profits, rarely possible under individual farming. Increasing the profitability and reliability of returns, and giving production incentives would make farming more attractive, even to the educated youth.

Unhappy farmers cannot be made happy through loan waivers. Sustainable agriculture cannot be promoted by subsidising chemical fertilisers. The rural crises will not disappear by shooting farmers. We need economically viable, not populist, policies for happier farmers, who would prefer to be in their fields rather than on the streets.

Agarwal is professor of Development Economics, GDI, University of Manchester
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