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Who we are working for - a word about our real employers

Who we are working for - a word about our real employers

The 'kisan' or 'farmer' is our employer. She or he has appointed the government apparatus to use a few services we provide through the Agropedia project. This is our understanding of who we are working for. It helps to meet our employers as often as possible, for as with many social sector projects, we don't get to meet frequently, for they are busy people - growing food to feed India (or Bharat, as we prefer to call it, for 'India' is really quite different, as we will discuss in a subsequent Krishi Vichar article).

Saying 'kisan' or 'farmer' does not help us at all. Who is this employer of ours? Female with a more ecological view of the world? Male with a more commercial view? A person belonging to a tribe or a scheduled caste, or a dalit? A household with a small farmed plot which provides no more than a quarter of its income? A joint family with large orchards which is a model for others in the same tehsil? We know still too little about our final employers, although we are quite content for them to know as little about us.

We have to remedy this at times embarrassing ignorance about our employers - although Agropedia has conducted many workshops over the last two years, there are social science gaps which we will steadily fill over the course of this year. We have however seen and heard enough to learn of the multiple disadvantages that the cultivators of Bharat face. There are economic disadvantages (landlessness, near-landlessness, or small size of owned or operated holdings); there are social disadvantages (that of gender which simply means women being discriminated against, of caste or tribe - discrimination based on the cultivator belonging to a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe); and there are ecological and regional disadvantages (being located in regions which are arid, semiarid, rainfed, disaster prone, poorly irrigated, or geographically remote).

Such kisans are our employers, and Agropedia must as a project do its best to serve the needs of such employers. The cultivators and growers of Bharat embody as many differences of typology as there are blocks and talukas in India. It helps to see them as including agricultural workers, owner-cultivators, as well as tenants/sharecroppers who are mainly involved in farming, but not excluding those undertaking fishery, livestock or poultry farming (all three areas in which Agropedia is presently weak).

Within these broad sketches, there are further layers that differentiate one kisan from another, and one important layer pertains to their market interactions (usefully described in the Report of the Twelfth Plan Working Group on Disadvantaged Farmers, Including Women, Planning Commission). Some farmers produce only foodgrain for subsistence, others produce mostly commercial crops for the market and buy foodgrain to meet their needs, and yet others cultivate a mix of subsistence and commercial crops. Similarly, they vary in their dependence on purchased inputs and its ratio to self-produced inputs, such as seeds and organic manure. Some belong to households that are entirely dependent on cultivation, others have family members who undertake wage labour or are involved in micro-enterprises to meet a part of the family's income needs.

What does 'farming' or 'cultivation' actually mean for our employers? This is about as difficult to answer as it is to describe them. By around the middle of the 2000-10 decade, we as social sector researchers knew enough to say with some confidence that a majority of all Indian households (63%) earn at least some of their income from agriculture; that 39% of the households cultivate some land; that 43% own livestock; that 29% have some family members who engage in agricultural labour; and that 7% rent out agricultural property and receive some income. We also learned that many households have income from more than one type of agricultural activity, and that cultivating households are almost wholly rural (97%) although this is a rough assessment because urban agriculture is so notoriously hard to monitor in India.

We are sure of one aspect of farming - there is no homogenous 'farming' village or community. The 'Human Development in India: Challenges for a Society in Transition' (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010) report showed that rural households are about evenly divided between those who do (53%) and do not (47%) cultivate any land, but this varies widely across Indian states and social groups. Based on the vast India Human Development Survey (IHDS) of 2004-05, the report showed at the time that in Himachal Pradesh, 85% of rural households cultivate land while only 25% do so in Tamil Nadu.

Farming and cultivation is not insulated from the effects of class and economic categories - there are unfortunately very few genuinely communitarian farming societies in Bharat (and possibly none at all in India!). That is why, in general, farming tends to increase with higher socio-economic status, however there are important exceptions. Only 42% of illiterate rural households farm while 64% of households with a college graduate do so. Forward castes cultivate land more often (65%) than OBC households (58%); rural dalit households are the least likely (37%) to cultivate (although about a third earn agricultural wages without cultivating any land themselves). Adivasi households have higher than average farming rates (59%). Plotted along the income curve in the way that economists like to do, we would see right away the relation between farming and rural income - it is most common in the poorest and wealthiest quintiles, but least common in the middle quintile.

Why is this so? Should our employers be so stratified? Does it benefit them in ways that we currently cannot fathom? Are we providing them the services they need? These are questions that recur in our discussion about Agropedia, and we end with no satisfactory answers - which is as it should be. What we do know is that our employers live in the centre of a transformation of rural India, a transformation in the economic basis of people's lives. Individuals and households are migrating from rural to urban areas - as the 2011 Census is showing with each new data release - and an increasing number of those staying behind are moving into the non-farm sector. This number is now estimated at 30% in 2004-05, which is up from 20% in 1983. In the last 10 years, non-farm employment is reckoned to have grown about four times as fast as farm employment has, and in rural areas more new jobs have been created outside agriculture than within it.

What sort of jobs are these? Most are in the service sector, according to 'Perspectives on Poverty in India: Stylized Facts from Survey Data' (in the section, 'A Casual Transformation: The Growing Rural Nonfarm Sector', World Bank, 2011). We are told that the manufacturing sector now provides less than a third of non-farm jobs and that c Construction is the fastest-growing rural non-farm sector and alone provides almost 20% of non-farm employment, up from 10% only a decade ago. This is by itself a worrying signal - because well diversified agricultural biodiversity also means a family will have a crowded crop calendar, and need for labour at different times during the year. If non-farm employment is given scarce people, what happens at harvest or plucking time? Rural manufacturing employment has been growing at an annual average rate of 3% since 1994, other services (largely transportation, trade, and communications, mostly dominated by the private sector) at 5.5%, and construction at almost 10%.

We view these trends with worry about the agrarian conditions of our employers. One of the most striking developments of the second half of the twentieth century is a decline in average farm size and an increase in small farms. Scrutiny of the National Sample Survey records have shown that between 1961 and 2002-3, the proportion of farms that were classified as marginal (less than one hectare) increased from 39% of all farms to nearly 70% of all farms; medium and large farms (four or more hectares) decreased from about 19% of all farms to 5%.

Typically farmers in India operating less than one hectare (2.5 acres) are considered marginal and those cultivating up to two hectares (2.5 to 5 acres) are considered small. In 2005-06, marginal and small farmers accounted for 83% of the operational holdings and 41% of the operated area. About 65% of operational holdings in India are marginal (less than 1 hectare), with an average size of only 0.20 hectare, while 18% are small (one to two hectare) with an average size of 1.42 hectare. As the last Agricultural Census 2000-01 emphasised, the overall average holding itself is 1.33 hectare.

These trends in area have for the last three or four planning periods been seen as troublesome, and they have provided misinformed administrators with a notion that small farm sizes are responsible for small yields. However, much can be done with even kitchen gardens, as experiences of western European and South American countries have shown, and the idea that 'economies of scale' are best for our employers - the kisans - must be discarded where required. Scale is not a solution, the economies attached to it are deadly, as a decade of farmer suicides has shown. The agricultural biodiversity of marginal farms can be profuse, as organic farms in the Konkan region and Madhya Pradesh have shown. The swing towards greater mechanisation - a product of 'scale' - is not a sustainable solution; can our employers even afford it? Our social science effort through this year will provide some answers.

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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.