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To improve lives, farmers need a way out of agriculture


By Moin Qazi*
"Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied"
– Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village”

Small farmers are the key to ending poverty and hunger and promoting sustainable development. In India, small and marginal farmers—those who work on less than two hectares (five acres) of land—constitute 80 percent of all farm households, 50 percent of rural households and 36 percent of the total of all households. Sadly, the plight of these farmers is very distressing. Agricultural productivity levels have been stagnant for the past 10 to 15 years. An estimated 70 percent of the country’s arable land is prone to drought, 12 percent to floods, and 8 percent to cyclones. India’s top policy think tank, NITI Aayog, recently found that the agricultural sector is 28 years behind in its expected development.
Today, India’s small farmers have little access to technology and modern irrigation techniques. This makes them one of the groups most vulnerable to climate change. For poor farmers, farming is grinding physical work, largely supported by the entire family. From threshing and bundling to separating the grain by hand, crops have to be planted, picked, harvested and hauled by hand. Yet, each new generation is being pushed to do this in increasingly smaller plots of land.
According to the 70th Situation of Agricultural Households in India, conducted by National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), 90 percent of India’s farmers have less than two hectares of land. The survey says the average farm household makes less than Rs 6,500 a month from all sources of income. These farmers are only kept afloat by government financial and by the periodic forgiveness of farm loans.
To improve their lives, farmers need a way out of agriculture and into the manufacturing or services sector. In fact, most small-scale farmers would happily sell their land if only they could be provided alternate employment. The main source of India’s developmental failure since 1947 has been its inability to move the huge mass of people involved in agriculture into industry and the services sector. As the share of agriculture in the national output falls, any crisis hurts those dependent on agriculture disproportionately.
Two decades ago, the government embraced the global marketplace and began cutting farm subsidies as it liberalised the old managed economy. This caused farmers’ costs to rise as the tariffs that had protected their products were lowered. Many farmers switched to new genetically engineered cotton seeds which are resistant to a deadly pest called ‘bollworm’ and produced far higher yields and healthier crops with less use of pesticides. The seeds can be more productive and became standardised in many regions of Maharashtra. However, they can be three times more expensive to maintain than traditional seeds.
Years of market-oriented reforms have unleashed a wave of capital and entrepreneurialism across India. High-end sectors such as information technology have made impressive strides leading to adulatory portrayals of India at home and abroad as an economic juggernaut. Despite this success, the benefits of reform have yet to extend to the hundreds of millions who toil away on the land. The government has slashed or phased out subsidies for some crops, shredding a key part of the safety net. The result is a growing social crisis.
Peasants borrow loans from moneylenders at exorbitant rates of interest in order to buy expensive transgenic seeds and high-cost fertilisers that allow them just to feed themselves and their cattle. They hope for better yields in the future, but this time never quite comes. Eventually, many farmers find themselves in a debt trap as they keep pursuing the vain mirage of a golden crop bonanza. Owing more than they earn, the steadiest of these workers have become gamblers at the highest of stakes, betting their land and their lives on a better crop. As debt mounts, many farmers are now taking a permanent escape from the physical and emotional pain by ingesting deadly pesticides.
Economic reforms and the opening of Indian agriculture to the global market over the past two decades have made small farmers vulnerable to unusual changes and fluctuations. The small farmers must now compete with the larger industrial farms, which are well-endowed with capital, modern irrigation and supplementary businesses to buffer them against any adverse market shocks. Small-holding farmers are now faced with what has been called a “scissors crisis”, which is driven by rising costs without a commensurate increase in output value.
The Green Revolution was a success, but it came at a heavy price. It relied on high-yield seeds, fossil fuels for fertilisers, modern methods of plant breeding and the massive use of pesticides and equipment. A heavy dependence on irrigation led to large-scale water mining. This did increase agricultural productivity for a time but it also depleted the soil and consumed far too much water. The Indian states that were the front-runners during the Green Revolution now suffer from soil degradation, groundwater depletion and contamination along with declining yields.
Dr M.S. Swaminathan, who pioneered the Green Revolution, and other nutrition experts are calling for a dramatic shift in the approach to agriculture. They argue that, instead of industrial-scale, high-tech agriculture, farming should become closer to nature and involve intelligent plant breeding and a return to old crop varieties. “Formerly, the farmers were depending on 200 to 300 crops for food and health security,” says Swaminathan, “but gradually we have come to the stage of four or five important crops, wheat, corn, rice and soybean.” “The Green Revolution did not eliminate hunger and malnutrition.” Today, Swaminathan speaks of an ‘evergreen revolution‘, which combines the best of both high-tech and environmentally sound agricultural practices.
Vandana Shiva, a prominent opponent of modern agricultural engineering, is calling for a return to diversity in agriculture. “Most of our traditional crops are full of nutrients,” she explains. Farmers who have made the switch to modern corporatised agriculture, she explains, give up their traditional seed only to be forced to buy the commercial varieties, which often come with licence fees in perpetuity. She recommends field crop-rotation, and the fostering of vegetable and fruit gardens and small family farms primarily geared toward nutrition instead of maximised profit. Crop rotation techniques ensure that no single botanical crop family has predominance in the rotation, hence pests do not build up as they tend to be specific to certain crop families.
A crop failure, an unexpected health expense or the marriage of a daughter are perilous to the livelihood of these farmers. An adverse weather change, for example, can lead to a drastic decline in output and the farmer may not be able to recoup the costs of planting. Sometimes, farmers have to attempt to plant seeds several times because they may go to waste by delayed or excess rain. The problem has depressed yields and rural consumption nationwide—a heavy economic drag on a nation where two-thirds of the population still lives in the countryside.
Small and marginal farmers also do not have access to institutional credit. Most of them depend on village moneylenders, giving them loans to cover the costs of planting and feeding the family in the expectation of future crop sales. Credit histories and collateral may serve to qualify middle-class customers for loans, but most rural smallholder farmers have neither.
Small farmers also need to revive some traditional farming practices that have been lost in the rush of new technology. Land levelling, mulching, and crop diversification are all practices that improve soil health and reduce the excessive spending on fertilisers and chemicals. These inexpensive practices help to preserve soil nutrients, prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and increase fertility. Crop residues that are generally burnt in the field—which contributes to local air pollution—can be used productively as mulch. Also, there would be no need for expensive diesel gensets for tube wells if farmers adopted proven irrigation technologies, such as the drip-and-sprinkle method.
The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) makes another hard revelation. During the last decade, the bloated debt of Indian agricultural households has increased by almost 400 percent, while their undersized monthly income has plummeted by 300 percent. Unsurprisingly then, the number of heavily indebted households increased steeply during this period. Most farmers have become victims of the endemic phenomenon of a downward slide on the social ladder, by which the farmer became a sharecropper, then a peasant without land, then an agricultural labourer, and then is forced off the land. Social mobility for farmers is becoming an unrealisable dream.
A prudent and effective strategy for small farmers is to form clusters for mutual self-help where those growing the same crops can come together in organised groups to receive joint training, buy in bulk and sell their produce as a single body. Organising smallholding farmers into groups is a key component of strengthening this part of the agricultural sector because of the confidence, support and market power such organisations can provide.
Despite their huge overall numbers, small farmers are not a solidified group and have not developed their negotiating power. According to Ashutosh Varshney, professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, social divisions among the rural population have been the main reason why India’s rural voters have failed to push for policies that boost rural incomes. Varshney argues that the large size of this population and its heterogeneity limits its influence on public policy. Farmers’ refusal to give precedence to their economic interests over their other ethnic and caste loyalties have limited their influence over public policies.
However, the government can still make important progressive interventions. Certifying seed and making such seed more available can ensure that money is not lost buying fakes. The government should also provide proper modern storage so that crops do not end up rotting before they reach the market. Complementary investments in transport infrastructure, irrigation, and farmer credit were essential to Asia’s 20th-century green revolution, which laid the foundation for the region’s subsequent economic breakthrough. The same basic approach, updated for today’s new social and environmental realities, can help to restart the progress in rural India and spread the economic revolution to the poorest parts of rural Africa.
The government needs to revamp its services so that farmers have access to latest technology and field practices. The agricultural universities must be involved in creating tailored educational programmes that serve the diverse needs of India’s rural population. Small farmers need to learn how to work with limited land in a productive and environmentally friendly way. They do not only need better plant species but also up-to-date guidance on how to grow them. They do not need high-tech tractors controlled by satellites, but they do need access to regional databases that provide information on soil quality. They also need access to affordable capital so that they no longer pile up unmanageable debt loads.
In a post on his Gates Note blog, Bill Gates said that it was critical to protect small farmers in the world’s poorest countries because they produce a large and growing share of the world’s food supply and because they face the greatest risks from climate change. “For the world’s poorest farmers, life is a high-wire act—without safety nets. They don’t have access to improved seeds, fertiliser, irrigation systems, and other beneficial technologies, as farmers in rich countries do,” Gates writes.
The country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said in 1947, “Everything can wait, but not agriculture.” However, what India is witnessing today is exactly the reverse. While all the other sectors of the economy are surging ahead, agriculture is the only one which is on the decline. Within this self-perpetuating cycle of rural misery, wrapping a noose around the neck is the all-too-easy exit for an increasing number of smallholding farmers. While these deaths might bring about a personal escape for some, they leave behind crippling emotional, financial and physical burdens for society.
*Development expert

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