At the heart of recent debates around agricultural laws are the nature of state intervention in agriculture and the effectiveness of the pro-market reforms that are being pushed. Farmers’ unions demand the removal of agricultural laws, but also seek mechanisms to ensure remunerative production prices.
In this context, Harish Damodaran and Samridhi Agarwal (‘Counting kisan‘, IE, October 5, 2021) use the Farm Households Assessment (SAAH) 2019 survey to claim that India’s farming population is much smaller than is usually estimated. Damodaran and Agarwal claim that while the official estimate of the number of farming households in India was 93.09 million in 2019, the number of “serious”, “full-time” or “regular” farming households was only 36 millions.
Damodaran and Agarwal classify as serious / regular those farming households that derive at least half of their total household income from cultivation. The authors go on to suggest that agricultural policy should only target serious / regular farm households as they “genuinely depend on agriculture”. Their attempt to estimate the number of serious / regular farmers, and by implication, to differentiate them from non-serious farmers is flawed in several respects, including the lack of consideration for the structural and historical context of l-based livelihoods. ‘Agriculture. We highlight some of the key issues with the Damodaran-Agarwal argument.
First, categorizing farmers as serious / regular on the basis of a single farm income dependency ratio and an arbitrary 50 percent threshold is an unwarranted and not a serious exercise. Such identification based on a snapshot number for a certain year completely ignores the differential historical trajectory of development and diversification of livelihoods in various parts of India.
For example, in a wealthy state like Kerala, international migration and remittances have been a dominant domestic phenomenon for decades. Although remittances often constitute a large part of household income, this does not make small-scale spice growers or rubber producers any less serious in their business. At the same time, in a poor but mineral-rich state like Jharkhand, the diversification of livelihoods may have been driven by poverty and local conditions of farm and non-farm labor, which may have intensified these coping mechanisms. over time. Such a situation does not make the poor peasants who use their land for their subsistence and carry out other occupations during lean periods, less dependent on agriculture.
This brings us to the second problem of misclassification. The use of the term “Kisan” to identify farmers obscures the social and economic relationships, including those of exploitation, that exist within agriculture. Farmers are not a homogeneous category; they are differentiated into classes and castes. More realistic and useful categories of rich / middle / poor farmers or capitalists / small producers / agricultural workers are needed to identify those engaged in agriculture.
Third, according to Damodaran-Agarwal, their 50 percent threshold of “serious farmers” is crossed across India by farmers with more than one hectare of land. It is owned by only 30 percent of farm households. What about the contribution to national production of the remaining 70%, i.e. marginal farmers with less than one hectare of land? Research by one of us shows that the share of marginal farmers is between 19 and 30 percent of the total market surplus for various food grains.
A significant proportion of food grain consumption among farmers comes from locally grown produce, especially at the lower end of the land distribution. Forcing marginal farmers out of agriculture would also be disastrous from the point of view of household food and nutrition security, a serious challenge for several decades now.
The recommendations of Damodaran and Agarwal also have serious ramifications for socially disadvantaged communities. Historical and contemporary caste-based exclusionary practices and the state’s failure to undertake meaningful redistributive land reforms mean that a large majority of the Dalit community remains landless. Withdrawing state support to smallholders will disproportionately impact socially marginalized groups and push them further into asset poverty.
Finally, the elephant in the room is the question of land and natural resources. If 70 percent of farm households are identified as non-serious farmers who should be removed from farming, what happens to their land resources? Huge reserves of land are immediately opened to corporate grabbing, laying the foundations for agribusiness monopolies. Despite the authors’ optimism, agro-industries are unlikely to be able to create enough jobs to absorb the millions of people displaced from their lands.
The authors seem to ignore the function of agriculture as a social safety net in providing a source of livelihood for millions of people and thus creating conditions for relatively stable growth in productive sectors of the economy. The crisis faced by migrant workers during lockdown and the phenomenon of ‘reverse migration’ is testimony to the fact that agriculture continues to provide a buffer for millions of people facing intermittent unemployment.
Damodaran and Agarwal do not discuss that SAAH data also shows a decline in real average farm income between 2013 and 2019. The decline in cultivation income is due to rising input prices and falling prices some products. Marginal and small farmers face disproportionate difficulties in acquiring subsidized inputs or obtaining remunerative prices from public markets. Smallholders are also more dependent on informal sources of money lending, which adds to debt.
Falling crop incomes and the crisis of economic viability have continued in Indian agriculture for a myriad of factors since the late 1990s. For several decades, successive governments have pursued policies that have led to a worsening of agrarian distress. This has pushed millions into low-paying odd jobs and continues to plague those who are forced to depend (even partially) on agriculture for their survival. The need to create decent non-farm jobs is well recognized, but this is unlikely to happen with the agricultural sector in crisis. The forced destruction of the livelihoods of millions of smallholders by withdrawing what little they receive with state support is nothing but a recipe for disaster. The solution to the problem of Indian farmers requires a serious overhaul of economic policies and surely cannot be to exclude them simply by redefinition.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 5, 2021 under the title “Defining a Farmer”. Anand, Banerjee and Dasgupta teach respectively at OP Jindal Global University, Ambedkar University and South Asian University.