In the lush green fields of my primarily agrarian constituency of Ambedkar Nagar, it is the season of rice. The 500,000 farmer families in the region have spent the last few months harvesting the winter’s wheat yield, burning their empty fields, and sowing rice seeds. And now, they lie in their huts of grass and mud (an indication of a landless family) or a bungalow of bricks and paint (a landowner family), waiting for the month of June.
“The monsoon is late this year,” says Bansiram, staring up at the clear blue skies. “It has been late for the last five years.” Bansiram, now 65, can’t see as well as he used to. Like a majority of India’s farmers, Bansiram is a small farmer, possessing less than 2 hectares of land (1 hectare = 1 average European football field), earning close to $90 per month, which is the average income of small farmers in India. This isn’t enough for his family of 6, which includes his wife, his aged mother, and his three young sons, so the sons work as construction workers in neighbouring towns and cities, while Bansiram and his wife work as farm labor in nearby fields, tending to their own fields in the evening. This is a fairly typical arrangement for farmer families in much of my constituency, state, and country. Consider the following statistics on India’s agricultural economy, consisting of agriculture as well as subsidiary industries such as dairy, animal husbandry, and fisheries:
- While the agriculture sector employs 52% of the workforce, it contributes 17% to the total GDP.
- The growth of the agriculture sector fell from around 4% (2014) to 2.9% (2019) in the last five years.
- According to the latest Agriculture Census 2015-16, the average plot-size possessed by each farmer is 1.08 hectares – little more than the size of an average European football field – and it is shrinking every year.
As the first two statistics show, the demographic problem in the agricultural sector isn’t unemployment. Rather, it is disguised unemployment – simply put, there are too many cooks making the same broth, but there isn’t enough broth to feed all the cooks. The Modi 1.0 government that promised to double farmers’ incomes by 2022 actually saw a fall in the growth of the agriculture sector, but consider this – at its onset in 2014, Modi 1.0 set a target of limiting the agricultural workforce to 18% of the total workforce by 2022. This figure seems absurd in 2019, when more than half the country’s workforce (and around 70% of its rural families) subsists on agriculture, while jobs are simultaneously shrinking in manufacturing, construction, and service sectors.
Added to these demographic woes is slowing growth. During demonetization in 2014, 86% of the currency notes in circulation were scrapped overnight, and the brunt was disproportionately borne by the agricultural sector where cash is – still – king. Most often, this isn’t by choice; rather, it stems from illiteracy, especially financial illiteracy, and a prolific network of cash-led corruption that places farmers squarely at the bottom of the pyramid. The next year saw the dawn of the Goods and Service Tax, a long overdue overhaul of the complex and fragmented taxation system in India. Again, agriculture bore the brunt because cash transactions are outside the purview of the formal banking system, leading to delayed payments to farmers by middlemen and layoffs from the formal and informal agricultural sector.
At a microeconomic level, the size of landholdings – and the yield from per unit of land – is shrinking. Fueled by the combined effect of inheritance laws and a growing population, each Indian farmer on average has an increasingly small plot of land to her name. So Ambedkar Nagar’s very own small farmer Bansiram, will have to divide his approximately two football fields among his three sons. Each of his three sons have either earned or are in the process of earning some higher education. “But where are the jobs?” laments Raju, 24. After finishing his BA in History (one of the very few subjects where slots were available) at a local college, the 24-year-old was forced to turn to construction labor. With a slowing economy, even those jobs have shrunk, forcing him to take up odd jobs in nearby farms. A similar future awaits Sonu (22) and Manu (21). This is the situation in 2019. What happens ten years from now, in 2029?
With a majority of the country’s farmers still dependent upon monsoon for their irrigation needs (some estimates show that 50-60% of farming in India is still rain-fed), any threat to the monsoon places the agricultural sector under existential threat. Climate change is making the annual monsoon more erratic – parts of the country (such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan) are increasingly becoming drought-prone while other parts are facing floods at unprecedented scales (such as Kerala and Orissa).
Even under normal rainfall conditions, rice in a paddy is a tricky crop and not very hardy, requiring both tons of water and hot, sunny conditions: a late monsoon means that Bansiram’s paddy fields are at risk of dehydration; a torrential downpour puts his paddy fields at risk of rotting. This is already a pattern among many rice-producing states in the country; this year, floods have badly impacted rice yields in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Kerala. On the dehydration front, Lucknow – Uttar Pradesh’s capital – is set to run out of ground water by 2020. In Ambedkar Nagar, a 3 hour drive east, the situation is not much better. This spells a gloomy future for Uttar Pradesh’s farmers, as rice is a major source of their income, UP being among the top 5 rice producers in the country.
Climate change is thus creating a situation where we need to rethink our cultivation patterns. As the climate changes, so should cultivation. We need farmers in flood-prone areas to adopt waterproofing techniques and deep-water crops; we need research and development into crops that are drought-resilient; we need large-scale renovations and constructions of water recycling and redistribution channels.
On paper, the Indian government seems to recognize these priorities. The National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) was launched by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011 to “enhance resilience of Indian agriculture to climate change and climate vulnerability through strategic research and technology demonstration.” An initiative that aims to reform the livelihoods of 52% of the nation’s workforce and affect 17% of its 2.1 trillion dollar GDP, ought to be well-funded, adequately staffed, and continually expanding. However, in the Budget 2019-20 (an annual ledger of expenses and allocations of the Indian government), NICRA was allocated 475.6 million rupees, or 6.65 million dollars – less than the annual turnover of a single petrol pump in Ambedkar Nagar, and 0.7 million dollars less than its budget allocation for the previous year.
Similarly, there is a lack of government spending on agricultural Research and Development. In a speech I delivered in Parliament on the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare’s Demand for Grants in the 2019 Budget, I argued that government spending on agri R&D is the only way to double farmers’ incomes in the next decade. The Policy Brief titled “Supporting Indian Farms the Smart Way” published by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations states that for every rupee we spend on agriculture R&D, we generate around 11 rupees of benefits in the economy; comparatively, for every rupee we spend on fertiliser subsidy we lose 0.12 rupees. But welfare wins votes, especially those that involve direct income support. This is perhaps most adequately substantiated by Mr Modi’s pre-electoral promise to transfer 6000 INR ($85) every farmer’s bank account.
This relationship between welfare spending and electoral gains explains why more than 77% of the Ministry’s budget is allocated to three welfare schemes, relegating a mere 6% of the budgetary allocation to the Department of Agricultural Research and Education. Among Brazil, China, and South Africa, India’s GDP has the highest contribution from the agriculture sector (at 17%), and the lowest spending on agricultural R&D as a percentage of total GDP from agriculture (at 0.37%). Meanwhile, China, our preferred competitor, spends 0.67% of its agri-GDP on agricultural R&D.
So, what is the path ahead for the existential crisis plaguing India’s farms? Solutions are aplenty – and there is increasing private interest in these solutions. Any meaningful plan to sustainably and equitably double farmers’ income would have to involve strong public-private partnerships that cut across not just the different verticals in the agricultural sector but also associated sectors such as education, energy, rural development, enterprise development, and transportation. All of these efforts need to be simultaneous and aggressive – launching large scale, grassroots education campaigns for the recognition of climate change and its direct effect on agriculture, lobbying for legislation to support private research institutions to make advances in climate resilient agriculture, and providing fiscal incentives for the growth of hydroponic farming practices in both urban and rural areas. Beyond these, we need energy independence. Decentralised solar electricity production with a low carbon footprint will help in reducing energy costs to both farmers and the state. Additionally, it will also provide sustainable income support to farmers who are willing to put up land for solar panels.
“I am hoping that I don’t have to work on a field like my father and brother,” says Manu, 21, Bansiram’s youngest son,” says Manu, 21, Bansiram’s youngest son. “I think there’s still hope for me, ” he adds with a laugh.
This article was supported with research from Sonali Chauhan and Reshu Natani
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