Originally Published 2013-05-08 00:00:00 Published on May 08, 2013
The reason why there has been a decline in marginal farmers is because of the overall low agricultural growth. It has been less than 2 per cent per annum in the decade of mid-1990s to mid-2000s.
Declining number of farmers: The alarming trend must be reversed
Recently Minister for Food KV Thomas revealed that despite the huge stock of food stocks in the country, the actual food consumption and caloric intake of the people have been diminishing. Earlier when these types of well-researched statistics came out, government officials and policy makers dismissed them as irrelevant and explained it in terms of people taking a better quality of food like eggs and dairy products and not just food grains and dal.

But now the caloric and protein intake decline shows that things are not so good and these are matched by a rise in the malnourishment of children under the age of five and in anaemia. Around 42.5 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight and 69.5 per cent are anaemic. Caloric intake is, however, higher in the rural areas than in the urban areas.

Along with this alarming news, there has been another shocking news of a decline in the number of farmers in India. The significant decline in the farmers' population is due to their pauperisation that forced them to sell their land and become farm labourers or to migrate to towns and join the service sector. The dispossessed farmers are not in highly paid services jobs but in the most menial and low-paid jobs. Today there are 15 million less farmers than in 1991 and 7.7 million less farmers than in 2001. With a decline in the number of farmers, we should be worried about where we are going to find food and vegetables for our daily consumption in the future. Already food inflation has been hitting all households except the rich and the super-rich categories, and people are burdened so much that they are forced to cut down expenses on other items. This has been reflected in the slack demand for industrial goods in recent times.

How will India be able to provide food for all in the future? This will be the most important question in the next few years for any government at the Centre, and the only way out is to import more food and to increase agricultural productivity.

China has had a much more rapid urbanisation than India with 50 per cent of the population living in towns, and it has been able to feed its population because it has done a lot to raise agricultural productivity. Almost in all crops, its productivity is higher. For India to raise productivity of agriculture will not be easy in the present set-up of low- quality inputs , small size of the farms and lack of storage space and infrastructure. Around 80 per cent of farmers are subsistence or marginal farmers. They have very little surplus production and mostly produce for their own consumption. They have to buy foodgrains from the market, and when there is persistent food inflation, they find it difficult to keep to farming activities alone.

Thus, farmers are not able to have sustainable agriculture firstly because of lack of credit and resources and they are not able to access the best seeds and other inputs. Secondly, the fragmented farmland has often become unviable and many farmers, especially the men-folk, often have to migrate to towns. Third, they are vulnerable to falling below the poverty line if one of the family members is taken seriously ill. In the case of crop failure or drought, such marginal farmers often have to give up their farming and take other jobs.

Such distress migration is exacerbated by distress sale of farm land and the great land acquisition drive that is going on in India right now feeds into it. Millions will be reduced to landless labour if it is not stopped immediately. Migrating to urban ghettos is leading to all kinds of sociological problems for distressed families.

Raising farm productivity to higher levels through innovative technology and cropping patterns and even thinking of growing vegetables in urban areas under new technology and nutrients could be a solution in the future. It is possible to grow anything without soil in factory-like multi-storeyed buildings in the future. But that is costly technology and will mean high-priced vegetables which only but a few can afford. Importing fruits and vegetables to feed the huge population is not a solution. India is already importing 3 million tonnes of pulses and around 9.9 million tonnes of edible oils per year to fill the gap between supply and demand. It possibly cannot afford to import vegetables and foodgrains as well.

Enabling the small and marginal farmers to cope better is the only solution and this can be done by giving them better access to credit facilities, more self-help groups for micro-finance, better education, extension and information services and improved farm inputs. Irrigation facilities through small irrigation works can also help small farmers a lot. Efficiency-wise, small farmers are not less efficient than big farmers, and in China most farms are small in size.

On the whole, the reason why there has been a decline in marginal farmers is because of the overall low agricultural growth. It has been less than 2 per cent per annum in the decade of mid-1990s to mid-2000s. The decline in productivity can be gauged from the fact that around 52 per cent of the population is still engaged in agriculture, but its contribution is only 13.9 per cent of the GDP.

Small farmers can also be helped by institutions that would help them sell their products. Marketing collectively through cooperatives is a viable alternative. There have been several successful cooperatives and these should be replicated elsewhere. The real challenge lies in organising small and marginal farmers into groups so that they can have bargaining power and then linking them further to enter into high-value agriculture. There can be special programmes for training and capacity building as well as motivating and enabling marginal and small farmers to acquire skills through community resource centres in each village or cluster or at the block level.

Women farmers need special help because as there is an increase in the migration of men-folk, it is the women who have to look after farming activities. They need farm implements that they can handle easily and are specially designed for them. These types of attention to women will lead to higher productivity and sustainable agriculture in the future.

Contract farming can be of help to the small farmers but this has to be backed up by law and an efficient legal system. There has to be a proper code of practice, registration of contracts with marketing committees and tribunals for efficient, speedy and corruption-free dispute settlements.

Courtesy : The Tribune, May 8, 2013

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

Read More +