The government’s crop insurance scheme designed to protect 700 million farmers from natural disasters appears to have been overshadowed by Maharashtra’s BJP parliamentarian Gopal Shetty’s alleged description of farmer suicides as a ‘fashion’ and a ‘trend’.
Critics have often described the government, which rode to a landslide poll victory in 2014 promising to usher in ‘achhe din’, as ‘pro-corporate’ at the cost of ignoring the farmers. The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been facing widespread criticism of overlooking rural India as farmers, grappling with unseasonal rains, hailstorms, drought and debt, were driven to suicide. Maharashtra alone has reported 124 farmer suicides since January.
Credit rating and research agency Crisil has pointed out that the rising frequency of weather shocks amid higher vulnerabilities has compounded the stress in agriculture, slashing cultivation income and farm profitability. About 58% of rural households engage in agriculture, and of this two-thirds are heavily reliant on it. In 2014-15 the agriculture sector grew at -0.2% and estimates show that the farm economy will grow barely at 1.1%. Without rural prosperity, the Centre’s plans for an economy firing on all cylinders will be easier said than done.
India may be set to grow at a projected 7.6% in 2015-16, outpacing China, but a slowing rural economy can pose hurdles in sustaining this turnaround. According to planners, for India to sustain a growth rate of 8%, agriculture must grow at a minimum of 4%. Alarmingly, rural distress now seems to be getting entrenched. This brings us to the bigger question of jobs. Productive jobs are vital for growth, and a good job is the best form of inclusion. Even during the rosiest years of growth (2004-05 to 2009-10), the economy generated no more than 2 million jobs for the 55 million people who were poised to join the workforce.
India’s challenge is to create conditions for faster growth of productive jobs outside of agriculture. There are examples in recent history of economies that showed potential but eventually fell off because of the absence of bipartisan support for critical policies to create jobs. How many workers will industry and services have to absorb in the next decade? Could the demographic dividend turn into a demographic curse, as some have argued? These are questions that need an immediate solution for ‘achhe din’ to set in.