Shoddy agri transition killing farmers

Indian agriculture and rural society have been passing through a phase of transition since the introduction of the neo-liberal policy in 1991.

Shoddy agri transition killing farmers

Families of farmers during a protest in Bathinda. Tribune file photo

Indian agriculture and rural society have been passing through a phase of transition since the introduction of the neo-liberal policy in 1991. This transition is reflected not only in the sharp decline in the share of agriculture in the GDP from 30 per cent in 1990-91 to 14 per cent in 2014-15, but also in the high level of agrarian stress on the peasantry, especially the small, marginal and tenant cultivators and agricultural labourers.

More than 3 lakh cultivators have committed suicide since 1997, the year when counting started. There is no record of the women from cultivator households and agricultural labourers who have committed suicide during this period. Their farming is unviable and livelihood is in crisis. Their children are not getting meaningful education due to the collapse of rural schooling and the virtual conversion of government schools into schools for have-nots, as the rural rich are sending their children to private schools.

The collapse of the public health system is also taxing for them, as they are forced to access private (costly) health care in emergencies, which pushes them further into debt. Children drop out of school after the fifth or sixth standard. Work has largely been taken away by machines in various agriculture operations, what remains is restricted to two or three months in a year. Unemployed children from poor families are easy prey to drugs.

The vast majority of the rural population have also lost hope of any improvement in their lives. Their land and other productive resources are going out of their hands through sale-purchase deeds, mortgage and reverse tenancy. Many of them are escaping to cities and some of them to even to war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The families are suffering endless agony and dying every movement. Is this avoidable or is the future of the poor in the rural India bleak?

There is decline in the absolute number of the workforce engaged in agriculture, which is caused by the fast rate of mechanisation, such as tractors for ploughing, harvester combines in harvesting and the use of weedicides to clear out weeds. Mechanisation and the use of costly market-priced inputs, and controlled prices of the output, have made agriculture for majority of the farmers unviable. This has produced a painful crop of rural suicides.

The working of the policy framework has made peasants producers of raw products, and excluded them from value chains. Consequently, they do not get a fair share of the price paid by the consumer. In some cases of vegetables and fruits it is as low as 10-15 per cent. A great tragedy is under way in the rural areas of the country. This is a phenomenon largely created by commercial and capitalist farming and accelerated by neo-liberal policies, leading to reduction of government support to farmers, cultivation system and withdrawal of funding to the agricultural research and extension system.

An eminent historian of the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm, in his book “Age of Extremes: A Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991” wrote in 1997, “The most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of this country and the one which cuts off for ever from the world of past, is the death of peasantry.” He noted that in the 1980s only 3-5 per cent of the workforce engaged in agriculture in advanced countries did not produce a crop of peasant suicides during the transition. At that time only three regions of the globe remained dominated by workforce in agriculture. These were Sub-Saharan Africa; South Asia; and South-East Asia and China. He mentioned the solid block of peasants and agricultural labourers in India with contribution to the share of the total workforce standing at 66.4 per cent in 1981. He wondered how long this citadel of peasantry in India would stand the onslaught of the capitalist force. Within a few years, this citadel was falling fast with the share falling from 66.4 per cent in 1981 to 49.7 per cent in 2011-12.

Indian policy-makers are looking at this change as a positive structural change towards modern activities in industrial and commercial sectors. But they don’t look at what is happening to the people leaving or being forced to leave agriculture. This change is accompanied by tremendous stress on the majority of the workforce, especially the small and marginal cultivators on less than 5 acres of land, who constitute 84 per cent of the total cultivating households. They are suffering declining living standards accompanied by mounting debt, which has put them in a debt trap. Majority of the small and marginal cultivators are facing a threat to their status as cultivators and are on the verge of collapsing. They are illiterate/semi-literate, lack any skill other than cultivation; they are poor and lack capital and organisational skills. They cannot create their own organisations and are today led by those who want to take away their land and livelihood.

The policy-makers are seeking solution to their problems through e-markets, greater role of traders and corporate sector in marketing and processing. This will further ruin the poor peasants. If one is to understand the kind of ruin of the neo-liberal policies can unleash in the impending situation of ecological disaster one has to read John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, which described how thousands of farming families were forced to migrate to California from the Dust Bowl states in the US when their land was acquired by banks, corporate companies and big farmers in the wake of a disastrous dust storm. A large number among them perished on the way or at the destination even though some of them owned trucks to travel. The same fate awaits a large number of Indian peasants facing depletion of ground and surface water.

It is high time that the magnitude of this crisis is understood and suitable policies are devised. India must plan this structural change by investing in agricultural infrastructure, and support to research and extension. Much more needs to be done to resurrect rural education and healthcare. Serious thought is also needed for the introduction of cooperative farming, as suggested by the Expert Committee on Agriculture, and the generation of rural non-farm employment. The proposal to ensure a minimum income for each farming family deserves special attention. This must be linked with productive and asset making activities. The whole set of measures must start with making poor peasants and rural labour free from debt trap. Skill building has to be done for this workforce to make them partners in the value chain. The government has to change its role from promoter of the corporate sector to provider of social security to the rural population.


The author is on the faculty of CRRID, Chandigarh.

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