Make farming an attractive profession

Make farming an attractive profession

Representative image. Credit: AFP Photo

India will surpass China by 2030 to become the world’s most populous country, with 1.5 billion people. India, with only 4% of the water resources of the world and agricultural land of 95 million hectares, as per the NSSO study of 2012-13, will not be able to meet the food and nutrition needs of such a huge population unless it makes agriculture an attractive profession for the educated youth. 

The three recently-passed farm laws purport to help farmers sell their produce anywhere in the country; they can benefit from contract farming with legal back-up and there will be no limit while storing farm products, except in extraordinary circumstances like natural calamities and war. If the majority of our farmers were rich, educated and computer-savvy and had marketing and management skills, they could have reaped the benefit from these reforms. Unfortunately, 86% of Indian farmers are poor, illiterate or have only school-level qualifications; and much of their joint bargaining power has been eroded due to politicisation of farmers’ bodies.

Now, private investors equipped with funds, advanced farm technology, storage capacity and marketing skills may scale up crop production, boost food processing and exports, but the use of machines and automation in farming will not create enough jobs for the local villagers. It may increase the rate of rural to urban migration; currently already, 10 million villagers migrate to cities for work every year. Let alone middle-aged farmers, can even younger rural folks get jobs in industries in the age of artificial intelligence, robots and automation when traditional jobs are fast disappearing?

If some of the big investors in agriculture willfully default on bank loans, there would be another pile of bad loans at a time when loan defaults and frauds by some corporates have already shaken the Indian economy to its roots. The new laws must be amended to include an accountability clause if there is job loss, loan default, any deterioration in soil and ground water, excess price rise in food and in other essential commodities, etc.

The laws should also safeguard against crop diversity loss, overuse of chemical fertilizers, harmful pesticides and misuse of water. Once a contract period ends, the farmland should be returned to the farmer without any damage. 

Unlimited storage, on the other hand, may boost food processing, but it could also create artificial shortages, health hazards and price rise.

In the recent past, the amendment to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 fast-tracked industrial corridors, construction of various infrastructures and housing projects. It has also led to the concretisation of thousands of hectares of fertile farmlands. The NSSO study 2012-13 indicated that agricultural land was rapidly shrinking. 

As land prices rose phenomenally since then, a large number of farmers sold their agriculture land and put their money in banks. They started small businesses, bought houses and luxury items, etc. Some have thrived but the majority have suffered losses. Their money in the bank earns less interest income, their business enterprises fail to survive amid competition; they buy food and other essential items at a higher cost. A large number of villagers now work as guards, housemaids, drivers and gardeners in the housing colonies where they once grew their crops.

A few simple steps can make agriculture an attractive profession. Political leaders in the states should show courage to bring transparency in the 2,477 APMCs and 4,843 sub-market yards across the country. Both APMCs and private mandis can help farmers sell their produce at a good margin.

Second, all water bodies and cultivable land should be protected from encroachment. No grant or subsidy should be given to a village if the village fails to protect the water bodies and agricultural land from encroachment. A conducive environment should be created for the educated village youth, particularly for agriculture graduates, to start agriculture and related activities in their villages. Practical classes on sustainable agriculture should be included in the school curriculum; farm experts and senior farmers should be consulted for making farm policy.

Third, multiple income-generating activities like handicrafts, weaving, cottage industries and making eatables, etc., can add to farmers’ incomes. 

Fourth, our villages have rich crop diversity, with more than 1,000 crops; many nutritious and tasty fruits and vegetables disappear due to overcultivation of a few crops. Farmers should be encouraged to cultivate native crops and sell those crops to traders at farm gates. The joint bargaining power of farmers can be increased if positive political energy protects the village work culture.

Fifth, the money spent toward loan waivers, interest waivers, on subsidies and free food should be stopped and the amount should be utilised for developing water bodies, village schools, hospitals, playgrounds and for developing sustainable agriculture practices. Agriculture reforms help when farmers are educated, well-informed and are capable of safeguarding their interest.  

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