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Where have all the farmers gone?

Rising costs of cultivation are forcing small farmers to sell their land and turn into casual wage labour in towns, writes N Chandramohan.

india Updated: Sep 08, 2008, 22:30 IST
N Chandramohan
N Chandramohan
Hindustan Times

Thanks to the acceleration in the pace of urbanisation — the shift of population from villages to the towns and cities of India — there has been a steady decline of the rural countryside. Although the share of population living off agriculture has for long remained stuck at 70 per cent, the decline has gathered pace of late and this number has come down to 52 per cent. With the countryside emptying, connection with it is receding with every succeeding generation of urban Indians.

Deep Fish recently visited the countryside in southern Andhra Pradesh, close to the Karnataka border, on his biannual peregrinations. Although the rain gods have not been munificent, even the most drought-prone parts wear a canopy of green. The peasantry is busy with various tasks of the season, from dawn to dusk. The fields are ripe with tomatoes, broad beans and other commercial crops. Less rainfall has affected the sowing of sugarcane and groundnut. Rice has been planted in farms with assured irrigation.

Such pastoral sights might suggest that all is well on the farm front. The irrigation tanks, however, are practically empty. After back-to-back years of scanty rains, higher kharif (summer) grain production is highly unlikely this year in this backward agrarian region. In sync with such tidings is the latest forecast that India’s overall agricultural growth, too, will be only around 2 per cent this year, after having grown by 4.5 per cent last year, according to the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.

Behind the tapestry of green fields and crop-laden farms in southern Andhra Pradesh, the small and medium peasants are facing their own travails. The cost of cultivation is rising relentlessly. The local newspapers are full of reports of shortages of crucial inputs like fertilisers in neighbouring districts like Kurnool. Contrary to the claims of the state government, which denies there is any problem, desperate farmers have staged rasta roko agitations and even looted fertilisers from a truck in that region.

Reflecting the agrarian distress are suicides by farmers. Although this phenomenon is not a statewide problem, the lot of smaller farmers in the region is misery personified. Recently, three debt-ridden farmers in the Kadapa district committed suicide by consuming pesticide, following the failure of their cotton crop. Mounting debt resulting from the loss of the crop in five acres of leased land were the proximate causes that led to them taking the extreme step. Farm loan waivers obviously don’t benefit such cultivators.

A common problem, especially for those with lands close to town, is the difficulty in hiring agricultural labour despite higher wages. The bigger farmers, for their part, have invested in digging deep borewells and use tractors to break up the tough soil. As drought stalks the land, such investments are imperative for survival. The lower dependence on the rains gives them the freedom to grow commercial crops to respond to the requirements of nearby markets, like supplying tomatoes to Bengaluru.

Unfortunately, such options are not open to small and marginal farmers. A fact not adequately appreciated is that they are dependent on the market for half their requirement of food. And that is getting dearer by the day. Millers in the state are using loopholes in the law to hoard huge quantities of paddy without converting it to rice. Smuggling is also rampant to the neighbouring states where paddy production is low. This is creating an artificial scarcity, resulting in higher rice prices. The fine variety is available at Rs 28 a kg, up from Rs 16 last year in the open market.

Given the sharp swings in their fortune, thanks to rising costs of cultivation, many of the farmers are selling their land, especially if it is close to urban settlements. This process of differentiation among the peasantry is under way, with many erstwhile small farmers joining the ranks of casual wage labour in the towns. A common sight is vast stretches of land being left fallow or being divided into plots for sale. Prices of such real estate are booming and some farmers are making good money.

The charms of the season cannot really hide this harsh fact: that agriculture is not a paying proposition for smaller and marginal farmers in a chronic drought-prone region in southern Andhra Pradesh. The rains have been far from adequate this season. The current year’s output may or may not be higher than before, but there is no disguising the deeper developments under way — such as the countryside gradually yielding to the imperatives of urbanisation — behind the sunny, smiling, green fields at this time of the year.

The upshot is that in 21st century India no more remains an exception to what historian Eric Hobsbawm termed as “the most dramatic and far-reaching social change the world has experienced” in the second half of the 20th century”. This refers to the death of the peasantry — a process that is coterminous with what is termed as modern economic development. The movement away from agriculture towards industry and services has already occurred in most of the developed nations of the world.

To be sure, the far-reaching nature of these changes is far from smooth. Ratan Tata’s travails in Singur, West Bengal, and South Korean giant Posco’s difficulties in Orissa exemplify the bitterly contested nature of the land question. Tata shared his frustration with the New York Times: “As each generation develops, the children of the rural economy must decide whether they want to continue to work on the farms.”

But the times, indeed, are a-changing with millions escaping from a crisis-ridden agriculture.

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