Monday, February 17, 2014 – 06:00 IST | Agency: DNA
  •  The government’s lack of focus on agriculture shows its lopsided priorities.

In the coming months, about 1.5 crore farmers who quit agriculture in the past seven years, are likely to trudge back into the villages. In normal circumstances such a massive reverse migration — from the cities back to the villages — would have been a sign of inclusive growth. But economists are taking this U-turn as a sign of economic slowdown. A report by CRISIL put this as an indicator of the slowing economy as a result of which people are being forced to return to their villages.

I have never understood the economic rationale behind this. In the seven-year period between 2005 and 2012, according to CRISIL an estimated 3.7 crore farmers quit agriculture. Economists view this trend as a sign of economic growth. In other words, while 50 lakh farmers are forced out of agriculture every year, growing farm unemployment is being considered as a sign of economic growth. How can pushing farmers out of agriculture sector and then finding an alternative employment for these millions displaced from agriculture constitute economic growth?

Nevertheless, we are told that an estimated 70 lakh jobs are created in the non-farm sector. Considering that most of the non-farm jobs are in construction, what is not being told is that these menial jobs are temporary and do not carry any social security. Construction sector employs daily-wage earners, and for the farmers who find employment in the construction industry, this is no stable employment.

All this is happening at a time when a bountiful monsoon has resulted in a record foodgrain production this year. In fact, agriculture is going to be the saviour of the Indian economy in 2013-14. At a time when there is an all round doom and gloom — industrial output failing to keep pace, manufacturing sector declining, joblessness growing, fiscal deficit mounting and the current account deficit growing to a worrisome level — it is only agriculture that provides a glimmer of hope. And yet, all out efforts are being made to shift the population out of agriculture.

During the year, foodgrain stocks of wheat and rice soared to an all time high of 823 lakh tonnes. Grain exports increased to 200 lakh tonnes. India emerged as the world’s biggest exporter of rice, and farm exports zoomed exponentially. And yet the fact remains that agriculture is the most neglected sector. Even the Prime Minister acknowledges that India is faced with terrible agrarian distress.

For the 60-crore farmers, 2013 has been like any other year. Every time when the dawn of the New Year strikes, there is an expectation of a better year for the annadata but I have seen their plight worsening with each passing year. The year that has gone into history was no exception. In fact, at a time when government employees have been promised a further pay rise from the 7th Pay Commission, farmers remain at the bottom of the pile, neglected and forgotten. On an average, 2,500 farmers quit farming every day to join the army of landless workers.

As I said earlier, I have never understood the economic logic behind this deliberate move to drive out farmers from their meagre land holdings, which is their only economic and social security. Since the agriculture sector happens to be the biggest employer, why don’t the policymakers try to make agriculture a more productive and economically viable profession? Why can’t farmers be provided with a higher income so that they stay on the farms? Translocating a massive population from the rural to urban areas is only leading to the collapse of the cities and at a time of jobless growth, these farmers are only providing cheap and readily available labour force for the real estate and construction industry.

With joblessness growing and the policy thrust on reducing subsidies for the poor and needy, the number of poor in absolute terms has been increasing. By reducing the poverty line to Rs28 in urban areas, and Rs24 in rural areas, the government can play around with figures, but the fact remains that poverty is on an upswing. Uprooting more people from agriculture will only add to more and more people in poverty, and lead to under-employment.

The enactment of the Food Security Act ensuring a monthly entitlement of 5 kg of rice/wheat/millet  to 67 per cent of the population or 830 million people is not only aimed at offsetting the additional burden of the unprecedented price rise, but more importantly, it is aimed at minimising the possibility of food riots that can erupt when a large section of the population is being deliberately displaced from an assured livelihood. Food security requirements can be met by food imports, and given the emphasis on land acquisition for the industry, real estate and highways, the task of producing food for the population will become more and more difficult. Already there are indications that India will turn into an importer of rice in the next three years.

From a high of 9.3 per cent two years ago, the GDP has fallen to less than 5 per cent in 2013. With agriculture growth expected to provide a push to the GDP in 2013-14 financial year, the deceleration in growth is because of the poor performance of the industry and manufacturing sectors. With no jobs being created in the manufacturing sector, why should we deprive people from their only means of livelihood: farming?
A Planning Commission report released early this year underlines the contradictions in India’s growth story. At a time when GDP was galloping at 8-9 per cent between 2005 and 2010, the report shows 140 lakh people were displaced from agriculture. Generally it is believed that those who quit agriculture would be joining the workforce in the manufacturing sector. But the report showed that even in the manufacturing sector 57 lakh jobs were lost. A clear pointer to the jobless growth the country is witnessing.

Nothing has changed in 2013 to bring back the focus on creating employment. Let’s be very clear. More investments do not necessarily lead to more jobs. With the new land acquisition law coming into force, more people would be driven out of their meagre land holdings and forced to migrate to the cities looking for menial jobs. Agriculture, too, will not be able to sustain its role as the biggest employer in the country given the push to bring in corporate agriculture linked to foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. There can be nothing more disastrous, both politically and socially. I wonder when growth economics will be replaced by some sensible economics?

The author is a food and agriculture policy analyst

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