Only a reinvented agriculture can help achieve Atmanirbhar Bharat by 2047
While farmers were denied their rightful income, huge salary jumps were provided to other sections of the society
For 76 years after Independence, farmers have toiled hard to produce bumper harvests. Year after year, the records have tumbled. India has over the years emerged as the world’s second largest producer of wheat, rice, fruits and vegetables. It is also the world’s largest producer of milk and the second largest producer and consumer of sugar.
But with each passing year, the plight of a farming family has only deteriorated.
The Green Revolution certainly ended the era of chronic food deficiencies; enabling India to meet the challenges of hunger and deprivation. Such is the resilience developed over the years that even severe droughts, some in successive years, have not cast a remote shadow of famine. Although the Green Revolution had bypassed small farmers, an effort was certainly made to paint a rosy picture of prosperity. The image of a progressive farmer driving a tractor was flashed as a sign of prosperity. In reality, the increase in production did not commensurate with an accompanying increase in farm incomes. Agriculture is now faced with growing farm indebtedness, acute distress and suicides.
To be an Atmanirbhar Bharat by 2047, it is time to rethink agriculture. This will be possible only if we devote the next five years to rebuilding agriculture. Provide as much resources, incentives, and economic stimulus to agriculture as we have done to industry ever since the reforms were unleashed. And we will see the resurgence of a new India, where the benefits of development will be shared by the majority population. Agriculture will then become the pivot for equitable growth.
Using the World Bank matrix of assessing proportion of the population among the BRICS countries living on an income of less than Rs 280 per day, India tops the chart. With 91 per cent population below that benchmark, far ahead of South Africa, a distant second, which has 50.3 per cent of its population living on less than Rs 280 a day, it only shows that the benefits of economic reforms have percolated to nine per cent of the population.
It means that economic reforms have benefitted only a small percent of the population. Therefore, instead of continuing with the failed trickle-down economics, the task should be to shift the focus to lift the bottom and the middle, to the rest of the 91 per cent that lives on less than Rs. 280 a day. Considering that agriculture is the largest employer, the best way to reduce the gnawing income inequality is to put the resources where the actual need is, and that is to rebuild agriculture.
The dismal trend has continued ever since. With farmers producing surpluses, and with the era of food shortages over, a kind of complacency in public policy set in.
As I have often said, and at the risk of reiterating, let me repeat that while farmers were denied their rightful income, huge salary jumps were provided to other sections of the society. From an average monthly salary of Rs. 90 per month in 1970, the salary of school teachers for instance jumped by 280 to 320 times by the year 2015, a period of 45 years. In the same period, salary of government employees went up by 120 to 150 times; and that of college professors by 150 to 170 times. When measured in terms of the rise in Minimum Support price (MSP) in the same period, wheat price for farmers increased by a paltry 19 times.
In other words, farm incomes were deliberately kept low to keep food inflation under control. Farmers therefore have been in reality subsidising the consumers.
Simply put, agriculture turned uneconomical, and repeated demands for providing a level-playing field fell on deaf ears. Between 2011-12 and 2015-16, the growth in real farm income hovered at less than half a per cent every year. And subsequently, the Niti Aayog itself acknowledged that the growth in farm incomes from 2016 to 2019 was ‘near zero’. Although the government did make a promise in 2016 to double farm incomes in the next five years, but without a concrete road map to achieve this, the promise too failed to materialise.
The iconic farm protests in New Delhi in 2020-21 was primarily to draw attention to the plight of the farming community, and although the three contentious farm laws were withdrawn, providing a long-term solution to the declining farm incomes still eludes farmers.
As India enters the Amrit Kaal period, I don’t think it is appropriate to continue to live on the laurels of the Green Revolution and White Revolution. By the time India completes 100 years of its Independence, agriculture will have to undergo a massive transformation to convert it into a powerful engine of growth. Given the climate emergency that the world is presently faced with, Indian agriculture will have to not only adapt itself to the changing environment but also move to a transition towards agro-ecological farming systems thereby reducing the dependence on chemical inputs.
By 2047, India should aim to be the second engine of growth. With nearly 50 per cent of the population engaged in agriculture, a vibrant agriculture will be the answer to the enormous employment crisis that India is facing. Forcing the rural population to abandon farming and migrate to the urban centres, which are in need of cheap labour, is a stupid economic thinking. What is urgently needed is to reverse this dominant economic thinking. The remarkable transformation that we will see in agriculture will become the guiding spirit for the rest of the world.
The global economy being on a slowdown spiral, strengthening agriculture is the only way to improve rural spending thereby creating more demand, which, in turn, will drive the wheels of the national economy. If only farmers could earn a profit from every crop they harvest, the face of agriculture will change for the better, and remain so forever. And once agriculture becomes profitable, it will see a reverse migration from the cities to the villages, and will end up absorbing a large proportion of unemployed youth.
Reconstruct small-scale farming and ecologically sustainable agriculture to usher in the next stage of reforms that aims to fulfil the aspiration of 91 per cent population that the economic reforms have effectively sidelined.
That is why I say giving the next five years for agriculture will provide a buttressing impact for the economy that will resonate by the time India completes 100 years of Independence.
And, as I have repeatedly said, agriculture alone holds the potential to reboot the Indian economy. Give it an opportunity to show the way.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)