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Why Are Younger People Not Keen
To Take Up Farming? The Answer Is Simple

"By keeping the farm gate prices almost frozen over the years,
farmers are in reality being penalized for producing food"

by Devinder Sharma
Chandigarh Area, India

Agriculture in Tamil Nadu in southern India. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Agriculture in Tamil Nadu in southern India. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Devinder Sharma is a food policy, analyst, researcher and writer based in the Chandigarh Area, India.

This is a brief interview I gave on the continuing farm crisis in Marathwada in particular, and in the overarching context of the agrarian crisis that the country is faced with for several decades now. Here it goes:  
How bad is the plight of farmers in places such as Marathwada (in Maharashtra), where problem of farmers' suicide is acute?

Marathwada is faced with an agricultural emergency. With 25-35 farmers committing suicide every week, the eight districts of Marathwada require immediate action for disaster mitigation. Some parts of Marathwada are reeling under continuous drought conditions for four years in a row, and with the plight of farmers worsening with each passing day, the prevailing rural distress in Marathwada is no less than an epic disaster -- a combination of both man-made and natural factors. It is therefore high time Maharashtra government wakes up to the harsh reality, and swings into immediate action. Immediate emergency relief measures are absolutely essential. This must be followed by laying down a long-term plan to revive sustainable agriculture in the both – Marathwada as well as the Vidharba -- regions. An extraordinary crisis requires extraordinary solutions.

What are the causes of the conditions farmers have to face year after year?

Although continuous drought conditions, and also seasons of freak weather conditions when hailstorm and high winds damage standing crops, accentuate the prevailing agrarian crisis, agriculture in India is in reality a victim of economic insecurity. Over the years, agriculture has been deliberately kept starved of public investments. In 2015, which in my understanding was the worst year in farming for over two decades, budget outlay for agriculture was less than the total bill for importing pulses in the same year. The outlay for agriculture has been less than that of MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). At the same time, farmers have been denied their legitimate income from farming. Several studies of Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth for instance have shown how the farmers’ expenditure is more than the incomes they receive by way of minimum support price. The net returns compiled by the commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) for different crops too shows how meager are the farm incomes. Farmers are being denied a higher price, which is their legitimate due, simply to keep food inflation under check. While incomes of all sections of the society are on the rise, farm incomes are stagnating. By keeping the farm gate prices almost frozen over the years, farmers are in reality being penalized for producing food.

Do you think that in view of distressed situation farmers are in, most of them want their children to not follow the same profession?

If a father's income is between Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 a month why the children should be taking up the same job? This is exactly what is happening in agriculture. As per NSSO 2013, the average monthly income of a farming family, and that includes five members, is only Rs 3,078 (around US $50) from farming operations. He has to engage in non-agricultural activities like MNREGA to sustain the family. The situation in reality is still worse. According to Economic Survey 2016, the average income of a farming family from agricultural activities in 17 States is Rs 20,000 a year, which means Rs 1,666 per month. In such a depressing scenario, why should their children take up the same profession which does not even ensure two square meals? They will prefer to migrate to the cities looking for menial jobs. In the cities, they are getting jobs as guards in private security and the second biggest category is that of lift boys.  

And as I said earlier, the farm incomes are low because successive governments have deliberately kept them low. Agriculture can turn profitable if the government starts paying the farmers the right price for their produce. I am sure if agriculture is turned profitable, younger people will like to stay back in the rural areas. They too are entrepreneurs. All they need is an enabling environment, and the right kind of income from farming operations. 

There are reports that the percent on population engaged in farming is decreasing. In that case, where do you think that the excess population would go?

The mainline economic thinking, highly flawed in my understanding, is to move people out of agriculture into the cities. RBI (Reserve Bank of India) Governor Raghuram Rajan had sometimes back said that the real reforms would be when we are able to move people out of agriculture. This is what the World Bank/IMF have been telling India for long. We just blindly follow the directive. We are creating conditions that force people to migrate from the rural areas. The Confederation of Indian industry (CII) has already said that they would be able to generate 300 million jobs by 2020. Unfortunately, no one has asked them as to how they will create 300 million jobs when such a large number of jobs in organised sector were not even created since Independence. The fact is that the industry needs cheap labour. The 300 million jobs it talks about would be mainly of daily wager worker or what is called as dehari mazdoor. Indian farmers therefore have a new job awaiting them in the cities -- dehari mazdoor.

Is this the reason feeding into the mobilization of farming communities such as Jats, Patels and Marathas for reservations?

The demand for reservation is linked to economic depravity. It is no longer the OBC who are deprived but even the land owners feel outraged. Not only Patels in Gujarat, a majority of the Gurjars in Rajasthan and Jats in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, who have also been agitating for reservation in government services, are also from the farming community. With farming becoming economically unviable, and with hardly any jobs available for the younger generation, seeking reservation on caste basis is the only plausible option.

In the name of economic growth, agriculture is being systematically killed all over the country. Over the years, agriculture has been deliberately starved of financial support, and now with their land being snatched away, farmers are looking for any and every possibility that provides them a glimmer of hope. Farmers are increasingly turning to reservation on caste basis which provides them a little bit of hope, in desperation looking for anything that can provide economic security that they can latch on. #

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Published in In Motion Magazine March 26, 2016