Diminishing farm labour could impact food security

Leakage and pilferage in wages distribution notwithstanding, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the largest rural employment guarantee programme, has had its share of success too. Successes have been recorded in creating durable assets and in strengthening the livelihood base of the rural poor.

Through a hundred days of guaranteed employment to each eligible household, not only have water harvesting structures been created or repaired in rural areas but distress migration from villages has also been curtailed in the process.

If evaluation of the flagship scheme by the National Level Network, a network of institutions including among others the Indian Institutes of Management, Indian Institutes of Technology, National Institute of Rural Development, is any indication then significant gains have been achieved in improving the rural infrastructure and in impacted livelihoods.

Ever since the 100-day employment guarantee was introduced in rural areas, both agricultural and non-agricultural labour forces havebeen able to bargain higher wages at the workplace.

Some one-fourth of all eligible families in the country had earned over 211 million person-days of work under the MNREGA during the last calendar year.

However, gains through wage rate growth have transformed the rural labour scenario a great deal. While during pre-MNREGA period nominal wages grew at an average annual rate of 2.7 per cent, post-MNREGA period has seen growth between 9.7 to 18.8 per cent. Without doubt, it augurs well for the wage labour but not for growth of the farm sector and the rural economy.

Across the states, the cost of farm labour has shot up beyond the absorption capacity of
farmers, especially the small and medium. Though cost of inputs like seeds, fertilizers and pesticides have shown some increase, it is the cost of labour that has pushed up the total cost of cultivation.

The prices for agricultural produce, however, have not increased in the same proportion. In a survey in Karnataka, it has been revealed that farming has become a ‘labour intensive’ endeavour with labour cost being as much as 40-48 per cent of the total cost of cultivation of some 19 different crops. 

Given that net return on investment is negative for most crops, a majority of farmers are slowly slipping ‘below poverty line’. For farmers and farming to sustain, they need to survive the double whammy! Farmers need labour at cheaper rates and that too during critical times. Ironically, neither is labour easily available nor is it cheap. As a consequence, acreage under labour-intensive crops like ragi, bajra and groundnut has come down. Since the minimum support price for such crops do not match the cost of production, farmers are veering away from traditional crops.

Opportune time

While it is a testing time for farmers, it is an opportune time for the farm labour to make the most of what is on offer. Having survived on pittance ever since, there could not have been better times for the farm labor. ‘A substantial rise in wage rate in the non-farm sector, like construction sector and sand mining, has created economic scarcity of labour at the farm,’ argues economist P S Srikanta Murthy of the University of Agriculture Sciences in Bangalore. Though the MNREGA has triggered hike in wage rates, in itself it is not as remunerative as wages in the non-farm sector.

On the one hand, a youth engaged in sand mining earns as much as Rs. 600 in just about an hour, the time required for loading a truck with sand. On the other hand, workers engaged in construction activity earn upwards of Rs 350 per day per person. According to P V Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society in Hyderabad, the MNREGA has an anti-farmer bias. How else can it explain that other than sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting, the MNREGA guarantees all other works including land development, water conservation and rural connectivity in the villages? 

A farmer in the Malwa region of Punjab wondered if MNREGA labour could be assigned to individual farmers, with the assigned farmer contributing additional wages to the labour as per prevailing rates in the area. Though the agriculture ministry has attempted to expand the positive synergy between the MNREGA and agriculture, especially in the context of small and marginal farmers, by permitting livestock related works, rehabilitation of minor, sub-minor and field channels, the core issue of farm labour scarcity has yet to be addressed. Unless the issue of labour scarcity is viewed seriously, its implications on agriculture and food security are likely to the create either of the scenarios. One, with the government having ensured food security, growing food at non-remunerative prices for small and marginal farmers could hardly be an incentive.

Two, large farmers would end up using dangerous chemicals and expensive machinery to replace labour at the cost of damaging the environment. Third, to sustain food production farming would eventually go into the hands of large corporations. It may be no less than a conspiracy if assets created in rural areas through the MNREGA wage labor were to come handy for the big corporations to take a plunge into the farm sector. With farmers losing interest in farming; agriculture becoming non-remunerative across the country; and farm labour moving across to non-farm activities, stage for such a transformation seems imminent.

(The writer is with Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)

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