Retaining farmers on the farm

World Food Day (WFD) is celebrated to commemorate the founding of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 1945. The objective is to create awareness leading to food security and to achieve ‘Zero Hunger by 2030. This year, the theme is, ‘change the future of migration, invest in food security and rural development’.

The FAO estimates that about 763 million people move within their own countries due to hunger, poverty and the increase in extreme weather-related events linked to climate change. Almost a third of India’s population, over 300 million people, migrate within the country.

The FAO calls for creating conditions that allow rural youth to stay on the farm by providing resilient livelihoods to tackle the migration challenge. Creating business opportunities that are non-crop based, in food processing and horticultural enterprises, leading to increased food security. There is an urgent need to build sustainable growth based on long-term recovery of the rural community. This call is totally at odds with the present policies and trends affecting the agricultural sector in India.

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, 45% of the farmers interviewed want to quit farming. Declining agricultural productivity and profitability are disincentives for the younger generation, forcing them to migrate.

The stagnating farm sector, with a large number of suicides in different parts of the country, provides a scary picture of the future of farming. In such a grim scenario, is it possible to attract youth to agricultural sector? Will farm-based employment provide a decent livelihood opportunity to educated youth, with a life of assured income and dignity?

In order to check inflation, the farm gate prices are deliberately kept low. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) fixed by the central government does not assist the farmer to recover his costs. The MSP covers limited crops, and its coverage is restricted to irrigated regions in north India.

Unfortunately, the overall development discourse and education in our country is geared towards building the urban sector. Investment in agriculture and rural development is on the decline. The policies do not favour those who produce food. Economists think that it is cheaper to import food. This attitude of neglecting the farmers has disastrous consequences for the farm economy.

The Narendra Modi government has launched several initiatives to address the farm crisis. The flagship programmes, like Soil Health Card, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, etc., are some of the schemes providing support to farmers.

The most unique initiative is Attracting and Retaining Youth in Agriculture (ARYA). Launched by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, it aims to attract and retain youth in rural areas through providing sustainable income through value-addition, and establish market linkages to make it attractive for the younger generation to return to the villages.

The government has set the ambitious target of doubling the farmer’s income by 2022, when the country completes 75 years of independence. Unfortunately, most of these initiatives have had very limited impact on farmers, like the failure of weather-based crop insurance in which farmers received compensation of less than Rs 10 for loss of their crop! These schemes have failed to address the negative impact of climate change in agriculture.

Despite these schemes to attract youth, the majority of them, even those belonging to farming families, do not want to pursue the vocation of their ancestors. They have experienced the harshness of the life of a farmer, where all his efforts to earn a decent income after putting in hard labour produces meagre income or total loss during drought, pushing him deep into debt.

Converting this crisis into opportunity, reverse migration from cities to countryside has begun. A small number of dedicated youngsters are taking to agriculture. When large numbers of established farmers are keen to quit, the young people are swimming against the tide, taking enormous risks.

Nadish, a young paddy farmer from Shikaripura, says, ” I have evolved farming methods with low external inputs and my yields are 50% higher”. He markets his organic rice directly to consumers, which fetches him a premium price.

What we need urgently is to implement policies supporting youth who are keen to practice agriculture by providing an assured income. Technological innovations can help them establish a direct linkage with the consumer, providing a sustained income. The government should identify successful young farmers and provide media and policy support, with the grand mission of feeding millions with safe and nutritious food.

With 25% of the country’s population between 18-29 years, it has great potential to entice youth towards the farm sector. Farming offers the young generation a chance to make a difference by growing food to achieve the Zero Hunger target.

Under these circumstances, we need multiple strategies that enhance the status of the young farmers to retain them on the farm. If ‘jai jawan jai kisan’ was the slogan of an earlier era, today we need a slogan to recognise the farmer as the soldier of Mother Earth, protecting our soil and producing food for all of us.

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