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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  1. C
    Contrarian
    Jun 16, 2017 at 3:59 pm
    Food processing and thereby loss prevention should be a central point in increasing farmer incomes. Moreover, the farmers should be able to get a dividend directly from the value addition in food processing. Landless labour can be absorbed most easily in construction activities. Hence, road building, small irrigation projects and also housing should be encouraged in rural India.
    Reply
    1. J
      JitendraB
      Jun 16, 2017 at 7:42 am
      Brilliant analysis exhibits the deep understanding of issues related to agrarian community, hope this article is read by our policy makers as well as farming community, there is always solution to problems once we identify them accurately..... IE
      Reply
      1. R
        Ramesh Nittoor
        Jun 16, 2017 at 6:06 am
        Guess that the biggest problem about agriculture is land market. Urban land in India is highly over priced whereas agricultural land is highly underpriced. It is extremely difficult to establish legal ownership and demarcation of farming land, and even more so to develop legal, regulated and efficient land market. If done will deliver higher price realization to those exiting farming. It will make more and cheaper land available for urban development and industrailization. Most critical, free land market can enable right sizing of agri-holding, shall increase yields dramatically, thereby affording considerable shrinkage of cultivated area. The dynamism of efficient Indian farmers, if unleashed by proper agro-ecomomic policy framework can create, what former US Ambassador, late Chester Bowles had envisaged, the capability to feed the world,
        Reply
        1. S
          S. Gowrishankar,
          Jun 16, 2017 at 5:48 am
          A good article. Something must be done to arrest this trend.
          Reply
          1. M
            Manush
            Jun 15, 2017 at 9:49 pm
            I have visited many farming families in the course of buying land to start farming myself. I did not come across one farmer who wanted his children to continue farming. Most of them are doing it because there is no alternative. Their children prefer to sit idle rather than get their hands soiled. Youngsters have been brainwashed by the education system, TV and films into believing that farming is a low status and lowly profession done by ignorant country bums. On the other hand a farmer is doing a thankless job and live a life of constant uncertainties.
            Reply
            1. E
              Employ Ment
              Jun 15, 2017 at 8:23 pm
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              Reply
              1. G
                Gopalkrishnan Nair
                Jun 15, 2017 at 8:03 pm
                It is the height of of stupidity to talk about 65 years of congress tule in the cotext of rural distress and the tragedy of farmers suicide s. When India got freedom we are unable to feed even one third of the present population. Starvation death was norm but not suicide to this extent. The green revolution was brought out lot of efforts and vision. Today we have enough food grains in our government silos. Thrn too those governments did not had any magic vants with them. That was the redult of right kind of thinking and rational actions. We had almost no industry which could match the world order of those days. That too grew without any magical vants. Minimum Support Price was a rational action designed to help the farmers . That too worked to certain extend. But mindless actions of last three years have have destro everything. Farmers are being deliberately tortured. Industry is being driven to corner. The ins ution of PSB created from daring actions are being demolished. ???
                Reply
                1. V
                  Vnk
                  Jun 15, 2017 at 8:01 pm
                  Huge growth of population, specially Muslim population and complete neglect of this by parties, media and elite is India's biggest problem. This has led to fragmentation of farms, the size becoming one third and in 90 pc cases uneconomic. Cong and secular goondas were all the time only looting. Nobody can provide jobs to so many people, mostly unskilled, then why they allowed 5 Cr illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh?
                  Reply
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