Tuesday, August 11, 2020
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Women are mostly invisible farmers.  Image: CCAFS/Flickr

Pandemic underscored the importance of agriculture, but India needs to address traditional lacunae to progress

Farming has not only survived the onslaught of a lockdown but also cushioned its impact by offering food security and income support.

Many workers and small shopkeepers turned into vegetable vendors to survive even though farmers suffered huge losses due to disruption of the supply chain and non-realisation of the right price.

When cities turned their back on the workers, they made their way back to their origin states in hope that villages would sustain them. “We won’t starve at home,” was the commonest refrain.

As the world debates about the post-Covid economic model, farming is regaining its status as the most viable, decentralised livelihood generator. Right policies can ensure that it not only revives the economy but also acts as a carbon sink and neutralises pollution.

As the biggest nature-based occupation that gives a bounty with little investment, agriculture also has the capacity to employ a large number of people. Coupled with rural job guarantee scheme (MGNREGA), farming can revive the village economy with greater possibility of attaining the elusive equitable development.

Most of the workers in the cities are agricultural refugees who move out from villages when farming turned non-remunerative.Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, public sector investments in agriculture hovered between 0.3 to 0.4 per cent of the GDP for a sector which employs 50 per cent of the total workforce, according to Agriculture Statistics 2017

Covid-19 thus provides an opportunity to re-imagine agriculture as a source of rightful income. Even as portion of workers are returning to cities now, the policy initiatives can go a long way in ensuring that rural to urban migration remains in tune with dignified living facilities for urban poor, population-holding capacities of cities, and uniform and sustainable development for all.

As the world debates about the post-Covid economic model, farming is regaining its status as the most viable, decentralised livelihood generator. Right policies can ensure that it not only revives the economy but also acts as a carbon sink and neutralises pollution.
 

New reforms need to include small farmers. ImageL GoI MonitorThe recent policy decisions of the Indian government related to agriculture have gained lot of attention.

Deregulation of certain crops, removal of inter-state trade barriers and e-trading of agriculture produce will boost greater interest in farming.

There are already doubts, however, about whether these measures can get farmers the remunerative price.

In fact, this can easily go the other way. The cartelisation at agricultural produce marketing at government mandis has to be corrected but private markets outside this regulatory mechanism might create more problems.

Corporate investment in agriculture will rise, which will come with its own flaws, including land consolidation, further bolstering of large farmers at expense of small and marginal farmers, and intensive farming practices like mono cropping and heavy use of farm machinery and agro chemicals.

Small and marginal farmers neither have the wherewithal to reach distant markets nor access to electronic trading platforms while private buyers would not procure crops from their farm gates due to lower scales of production.

In Bihar, the APMC Act was abolished in 2006 but the much-anticipated private investment in infrastructure did not happen. In fact, small farmers were often compelled to sell at a lower price in absence of any support price.

The new reforms will thus continue to benefit the regions already bestowed with good agricultural infrastructure because businesses may not be willing to invest in new physical assets, especially in the current depressed economy. 

Corporate investment in agriculture will rise, which will come with its own flaws, including land consolidation, further bolstering of large farmers at expense of small and marginal farmers, and intensive farming practices like heavy use of agro chemicals.

The market reforms thus need to come with sufficient safeguards and conditions besides greater role for small farmers. Uniform land distribution, a promise that remains grossly unfulfilled even after 73 years of independence, can also be revived if we are looking for holistic and climate-resilient agriculture.

One of the justifications for opening up of markets is that farmers would get higher price for their produce. The goal can’t be achieved without dismantling or compensating for the structure that artificially keeps the food inflation down. The policy decisions of the Centre, implemented through ordinances currently, are likely to face stiff opposition when the bills are tabled in the Parliament. 

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020 is aimed at ending the monopoly of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) and allow anyone to purchase and sell agricultural produce.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020 legalises contract farming, so that big businesses and companies can cultivate vast swaths of land on contract. 

The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, and farm unions have already objected to the new ordinances, calling them anti-farmer and attempt to alter the federal structure because agriculture is a state subject.

Instead of promoting corporate stake in production, sales and marketing, preference can be given to group of farmers, cooperatives and farmer producer organisations (FPOs).

The Union government allowed such groups to procure crops during the lockdown with minimum or without any requirement of licensing and registration process as decided by the states/UTs. 

The Rajasthan government also exempted food processing units (FPUs) and FPOs to purchase directly from farmers without applying for a license from the APMC.

Their scope of procurement, however, remained limited as most of the mills were also shut and FPUs and FPOs had limited capacity. With greater institutional support, however, these farmers’ groups can perform better.

Instead of promoting corporate stake in production, sales and marketing, preference can be given to group of farmers, cooperatives and farmer producer organisations (FPOs).

One sector where private investment is urgently needed is creation of storage facilities. Every year, horticulture farmers lose around Rs 63,000 crore for not being able to sell their produce, found the Committee on Doubling of Farmers’ Income.

India’s cold-chain infrastructure is inadequate to prevent post-harvest losses of the perishable fruits and vegetables. Corporate investment can thus be directed towards this essential requirement.

Farming and Food Security

The strict lockdown India imposed on its citizens in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an economic and food crisis for millions of workers and other vulnerable sections of the society. Farming thus gained even more importance considering government and non-government actors were to supply free ration or cooked food to the needy.

With disruption of supply and distribution system, many farmers, especially those growing vegetables, fruits and other perishable crops, suffered huge losses.

Local production and distribution is essential. Image: PixabayHighly resourceful farms in Punjab, on the other hand, filled the gap for rest of the country for wheat.

Government procurement agencies purchased the marketable surplus of 127 lakh million tonne of wheat sold by Punjab’s farmers in April. but it was subsistence farming that remained mainstay of rural India (86 percent of Indian farmers are in small and marginal category).

Thankfully, most villages remained food secure because local farm to kitchen supplies were functioning while posh localities in cities faced supply crisis during initial days of the lockdown.

With overflowing food stocks, totaling 77 million tonnes, three times the public distribution system requirement, India is in a much comfortable position.

It is expected that the policy would remain focussed on having surplus food stock to avoid any shortage during future emergencies. However, the storage has to be decentralised. 

The lockdown underscored the importance of local production, storage, and consumption. Many states complained about delay in supply of food from the central warehouses for distribution to the needy. States might have also realised the importance of a more holistic domestic crop production.

Over the years, crop patterns in different agro climatic zones of the country have changed to suit the market demand rather than the local consumption behaviour. 

Lockdown underscored the importance of local production, storage, and consumption. Many states complained about delay in supply of food from the central warehouses for distribution to the needy. 

Over the years, crop patterns in different agro climatic zones of the country have changed to suit the market demand rather than the local consumption behaviour. 

Punjab has sidelined pulses for paddy which is not a staple food crop of the state. From 2,27,000 hectares in 1960, the area under paddy rose to 30,46,000 hectares by 2017, a growth rate of 1,241 percent. On the other hand, the state is growing only 1.6 percent of its total requirement of pulses.

During the lockdown, Punjab claimed delay in supply of pulses from the Centre for beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.

The state may thus prefer incentivising own farmers to grow pulses to reduce its dependence on other states and Centre.

The trend of growing crops in dissonance with the agro-climatic zones or consumption habits is visible in other parts of the country as well. Odisha has seen growth of cashew,, maize and eucalyptus plantations in its southern region where millets and rice, both local staples, were common. These villages had to depend on government support for ration whereas most of their counterparts, still following traditional crop pattern, remained food sufficient.

Several states are now experimenting with including coarse grains in the public distribution system to meet local consumption needs. This might be the right time to include pulses as well. It will not only help farmers wean away from water-guzzling crops and improve soil health but can also improve the nutritional standards in rural areas.

Mechanisation and Diversification

Besides industrial workers, farm labourers also made their way back to their origin states or from cities to villages within the states. States like Kerala and Punjab were the net losers while Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal were the net gainers in this exchange of workforce. 

All the states are trying to make do with deficiency or surplus of workers. They will follow a different trajectory for obvious reasons. While the losers will increasingly rely on farm machines, gainers would try to accommodate the workforce by offering income support, aligning MGNREGA with farm work and focusing on water conservation programmes.

Over 49 lakh people got employment under MGNREGA in Rajasthan on June 6, a jump of over 17 lakh compared with the same day last year, official reports said.

The Chhattisgarh government has already launched income support for farmers, promising to take it to landless farmers and labourers in the next phase.

It has to be ensured, however, that tenant farmers and not absentee landlords benefit from such schemes. Formalisation of tenancy through new laws and wide dissemination of such schemes can ensure benefits reach those who work on the land.

Punjab promoted mechanised plantation of paddy crop, earlier dependent on migrant workers, during kharif season. The state government offered a subsidy of 40 percent on seeder machines.

Jharkhand, on the other hand, promoted water conservation and fruit tree plantations, hoping that families will be able to earn Rs 50,000 annually within next three years from the plantations.

The return of the workforce, if utilised properly, can lead to expansion of farming, creation of natural assets like water harvesting structures, fish ponds and fruit orchards. Such diverse occupations and integrated farms will also provide cushion against uncertainties due to climate crisis and market fluctuations.

There is scope for expanding the area under horticulture crops by 4 million hectares, generating 8 million additional employment opportunities in horticulture in India, according to government estimates.

Turning farming into a viable occupation will be more difficult in mountain states as frequent human-wildlife conflict and weak supply chain have led to abandoning of farming and migration to cities. Uttarakhand witnessed return of people to the hitherto deserted villages in higher reaches.

The state government is contemplating cooperative farming through pooling of land and ensuring market linkages for the produce. But immediate focus is on creating jobs through infrastructure creation and financial support for small businesses.

Impact of Reverse Migration on Feminisation

A woman farmer. Image: PixabayOver the years, men have moved out of agriculture to work in cities or to seek non-farm jobs, leaving women to take care of both house and fields. This has resulted in feminisation of agriculture but with little ownership.

Around 65 percent of the total female workers in India were engaged in agriculture, according to Census of India 2011.

Of the total cultivators (118.7 million), 30.3 percent were found to be women and out of 144.3 million agricultural labourers, 42.6 percent were women. Women, however, own only 13.96 per cent of the total operational farm holdings, according to the Agricultural Census 2015-16.

The average size of female holding was 0.93 hectare as compared to 1.17 hectare for male holdings, said a 2016 report from 11 states by non-profit ActionAid India.

Lack of documentary proof keeps these women out of the ambit of state-sponsored schemes, turning them into invisible farmers.

Can reverse migration of workers to villages change this equation? There may not be any change in land ownership, but the workload of women might reduce while they continue to hold decision making powers gained through years of experience in absence of men.

Livestock rearing is another major occupation of Indian farmers. Many keep animals as an insurance against crop failure while those in dry lands have sheep or goal rearing as main livelihood option due to lack of irrigation for crops.

The pandemic emergency may, however, lead to more people rearing animals. In Rajasthan’s Pali district, young men belonging to Raika community have come back from Mumbai, Pune and other cities. Raikas are traditionally known to rear camels, sheep and goats.

Average size of female holding was 0.93 hectare as compared to 1.17 hectare for male holdings. Lack of documentary proof keeps these women out of the ambit of state-sponsored schemes, turning them into invisible farmers

The men returning to their villages are starting their own herds with help of the larger community. Each household contributes a goat or a sheep to the new herds, thus assisting the young men in starting out, said Hanwant Singh of the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS). These animal herders need to be supported with state policies to ensure access to common grazing lands, water sources and forests. 

Land Reforms and Access to Commons

There are 56 percent households in rural India which do not own any farm land, said the Socio Economic and Caste Census.

On the other hand, around 7.18 percent households own more than 46.71 percent of total agricultural land thus signifying that few people continue to hold on to large resources. Most of the landless also happen to be from lower castes which makes the inequality even more glaring. Scheduled castes cultivate only 9 percent area even though their population share in rural areas is 18.5 percent.

The post-independence land reforms were mainly intended to abolish middlemen, release tenants from exploitation of landlords, fix a ceiling or limit on landholdings and land consolidation. Surplus land was to be distributed among landless.

Though the law varied from state to state, one similarity was the long delay by almost all the states in enacting the provisions on ceiling or limit on land holdings, which helped the landlords secure their property either legally or illegally.

The Union government is now promoting corporate contract farming through the new Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance 2020. On the other hand, much needed formalisation of tenancy is still pending. 

Several farmers take land on lease from land owners who are themselves not involved in farming. The post-independence “land to the tiller” policy scares the absentee landowners from signing an official contract.

On the other hand, farmers are unable to access formal loans and other institutional support in absence of lease documents. This dichotomy has to be removed if tenant farmers are to receive full benefits of government schemes.

Several farmers take land on lease from land owners. The post-independence “land to the tiller” policy scares the absentee landowners from signing an official contract. On the other hand, farmers are unable to access formal loans and other institutional support in absence of lease documents

Many neoliberal scientists, agriculture experts and international financial organisations feel that land use and access should be free from any restrictions. Ceiling provisions on agricultural landholdings have been relaxed for corporate agencies over the years and there is an aggressive official advocacy in works for liberalising tenancy.

Government has also handed over forest and tribal land as well to industries and mining sector. The result of all this is that marginalised have become more marginalised and displacement increased.

The Union and state governments are now promising big land banks to industries, both domestic and those willing to move out of China in the post-Covid juggling of manufacturing sites. Land banks for industries are known for bypassing the land acquisition norms and usurping the village commons.

Village commons or community property resources are an integral part of the social and economic life of the village poor because every member of the village is allowed its access and use. This may include common agricultural land, forests, water sources or pastures.  

The common or shamlat land, which constituted 15 percent of the total geographical area in the country saw decline of 1.9 percent during between 1993 and 1998, said the NSSO 54th round data.

Average availability of common land per house declined to 0.31 hectare thus impacting livelihood of poor landless who either use it for fodder or farming on lease.

Any attempt to absorb the migrants in farming has to involve redistribution of surplus land and removal of encroachments on common property resources which can be utilised for cooperative farming model or as grazing grounds. This would also mean that state governments revoke industry-friendly amendments made to their respective land acquisition laws post 2014.

The Supreme Court in its 2011 judgement made some key observations which included preservation, protection of village common lands and corrective action against encroachment irrespective of duration of occupation, money spent on land or political connections.

Any attempt to absorb migrants in farming has to involve redistribution of surplus land and removal of encroachments on common property resources which can be utilised for cooperative farming model or as grazing grounds

Exceptions are granted only in cases where lease is given either to landless labourers or members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes, or where there is already a school, dispensary or public utility. State administrations were directed to take cognisance of the court’s directions and employ a speedy process of recovery and repair.

State administrations on the other hand used a diverse approach by either making use of existing schemes or by passing new orders. Lack of proper records for Common areas, clashes between village panchayats and district administrations, increasing demand for conversion of land use patterns and questionable integrities of govt officials have, however, slowed down grievance redressal and encouraged long court battles.

Increasing awareness and efficiency of local governments besides exploring the need for a composite framework that can be applied across the board, creative and liberal use of current water, forest, revenue, panchayat and other laws can help deal with these limitations. The Ramaswamy Committee in Karnataka also recommended legal action against government servants for creating false documents or destroying land records

Rajasthan, where commons make up 40 percent of total land area, was the first state to draft a policy for commons. In villages that have regained their commons, distress migration has been stemmed and water tables have risen. As of 2015, about 340,000 acres of commons were managed by 1.5 million people in Rajasthan.

Climate Crisis: Dampener and Opportunity

Global warming and the subsequent climate crisis are going to impact agriculture in a big way. Projections suggest decline in food production and nutrition due to frequent extreme weather events, high incidence of pests and diseases and rise in temperatures. The recent locust attack in India also originated from global warming.

Majority stake in livestock sector is of rearers. ImageL GoI MonitorIntensive agriculture makes a big contribution to greenhouse gas emissions due to clearing of forests, use of agro chemicals, loss of soil health, water pollution and use of farm machinery.

Without intervention, emissions from the food system are projected to increase by about 30–40 per cent by 2050, said a report on climate change and land by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Farming can, however, be a big mitigator as well, considering its capacity to sequester carbon through better soil health and plantations.

Estimates suggest that we could mitigate 1.6 to 4.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year until 2050 from crop and livestock activities.Financial support for organic or natural farming can help deal with social, health, and ecological challenges we are currently facing.

Indian farming and livestock sector already offers an alternative, more climate-friendly model to the developed world’s factory production of meat and crops.

Most of the farming is done by small farmers. Most of the livestock is also not kept by large meat businesses but by big, small, marginal and landless farmers. Indian farmers practise agro-silvo-pastoralism, which means they use the land for crops as well as livestock. 

Such diversified livelihood practice cushions them against disasters. The government policies should promote this practice instead of diverting people towards farming-exclusive occupation which comes with inadequate support system.

Indian farming and livestock sector already offers an alternative, more climate-friendly model to the developed world’s factory production of meat and crops 

Assured procurement of produce at minimum support price or income support as devised by governments in Telangana, Odisha and most recently in Chhattisgarh along with information technology solutions for better farm-level management are important factors in building a robust support system for farming.

Free Trade Agreements will Derail or Delay

Last year, India had opted out of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the 10 ASEAN nations, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. India had cited lack of protection for its agricultural and other sectors.

Free trade agreements have the potential to increase growth, raise welfare and stimulate industrial development but India’s farm sector could suffer losses and other negative effects through RCEP, especially since India had a cumulative trade deficit with the member countries.

Australia, one of the ASEAN+6 countries, was already seeking to move into the small scale dairy sector, which is a part of India’s informal economy supporting livelihood of millions of farmers and a hitherto protected sector from global trade gyrations.

Even though there have been recent communications from the member nations to accommodate India’s concerns, the inward-looking policy espoused by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in wake of the pandemic may halt or delay free trade agreements with other countries.

In 2018, India had also lost ground in negotiating trade and tariff’s deal at World Trade Organisation’s Nairobi round. India had to bury its gains from Doha Agenda Framework (2001) succumbing to developed economy bloc on matters of “our food security” and “their subsidised farm exports”.

It remains to be seen how the country will renegotiate the trade deals to uphold local interests. There seems to be little risk for the domestic farm subsidies regime and dairy sector for the time being thus giving a greater scope for growth and remunerative prices in hands of farmers. 

The next few years are going to be full of uncertainity but they also bring an opportunity to reinforce the Indian agriculture sector.

This won’t be possible without removal of inherent social inequities in land ownership, and access to natural resources, technology and institutional support. The governments have to implement epochal instead of incremental changes.

Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist. He is on Twitter at @manumoudgil

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