Parth M.N.

On the folk who put food on your platter

Rather than address the catastrophic consequences of reducing the number of farmers, officials are bragging about it

Farmers are being compelled to move out of agriculture, intensifying debts and anxiety, while creating cheap labour for rich people in cities

In October last year, Ramesh Chand of the NITI Ayog made a statement that not many seemed to notice. Reduction in the number of farmers, he said, would help increase the farm incomes. “Which is already happening”, he told Livemint, “that the same cake is to be shared among fewer people. If past trends intensify, in the next seven years, the number of cultivators is expected to reduce by 10% at least.”

Chand is right. Between the censuses of 1991and 2011, nearly 15 million farmers have dropped out of farming. In other words, farmers ceased to be main cultivators at the rate of 2,035 a day. But he did not elaborate what happens to the farmers who move out of agriculture.

The bulk of them end up toiling as agriculture labourers on the farmlands they once owned, or on the farmlands owned by others. Yesterday’s farmers, today working as daily wage labourers without any security or assurance, taking each day as it comes.

The intensifying agrarian distress, driven by policy paralysis and erratic weather, has triggered migrations at an alarming rate. Thousands move to towns and cities in search of work. Pay a visit to any construction site in a metropolis or a Tier II town, and the workers would be from farm families. They would have left their native homes behind to live in appalling conditions in cities.

The trend is not surprising because farmers are not the only people to depend on agriculture. The cobblers, barbers, carpenters in the village also depend on agriculture because farmers are their consumers. When the farmers’ income goes down, it percolates through the chain, and affects the entire rural economy, on which 69 per cent of India depends. Thereby, when farmers migrate, those on the periphery also follow suit.

The 2011 census indicates that the urban population increased more than the rural population. The last time it happened was back in 1921. Senior journalist P Sainath, who has spent decades covering rural India, said India suffered from a terrible flu epidemic in 1918, resulting in millions losing their lives, which probably caused people to migrate from rural India to urban centres. This time around, he said, it is due to the collapsing livelihoods in rural India due to agrarian distress.

Apart from those who migrate to towns, labourers migrate from one rural region to another as well. For example, lakhs migrate from Marathwada for five months between November and March to work as sugarcane cutters in Western Maharashtra and Karnataka. About a year and a half ago, I travelled with them on a tractor – which took two nights and two days to cover around 500 km – to catch a glimpse of their lives as migrant labourers.

After five months of intense, backbreaking labour, they end up making around Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000. Their day starts at 5 in the morning, and does not end before 7 in the evening. It essentially entails 2,000 hours of cutting cane. On top of it, the farmers travel with their kids if the family does not have the luxury of elders who can look after them. It ruptures the education cycle of a significant chunk of the generation that hopes to make it in the unforgiving world.

Reduction in the number of farmers could have been a thing to boast about if the government had been able to create alternate jobs. But according to the report of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), India lost 11 million jobs in 2018, with rural India being worst affected. “An estimated 9.1 million jobs were lost in rural India while the loss in urban India was 1.8 million jobs. Rural India accounts for two-thirds of India’s population, but it accounted for 84 per cent of the job losses,” the report stated.

Its implications on the ground are ominous. In August 2018, Economic Times reported that over 92,000 people in Uttar Pradesh applied for 62 vacant posts of messengers in the police force; 3,700 of them were PhD holders. The minimum qualification for the job required the candidate to be fifth pass.

The situation has increased stress and depression among the students in rural India as well. I have met several youngsters from farm families, burning the midnight oil in the hope to land a job with steady income, because “farming has no future”. Parents borrow money at exorbitant interest rates to ensure their kids get a degree and do not depend on farming. And students feel they let their parents down every time they fail to get a job. They feel they are increasing their burden instead of easing it.

Rather than address the catastrophic consequences of reducing the number of farmers, officials are bragging about it. Farmers should be empowered to move out of agriculture if they intend to, instead of being compelled to do it out of survival. The trend only intensifies debts, anxiety, while creating cheap labour for rich people in cities.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Chand may have divulged the government’s intent to drive as many people out of agriculture as possible. The agrarian distress in India has steadily worsened for the past two decades. Narendra Modi has only been in power for the past four years. However, after promising farmers the moon, to perpetuate the path laid out by his predecessors is nothing but a blatant stab in the back.