Distress among smallholders of India – is size the culprit?

The general narrative is that increasing unviability of small scale farming is forcing people out of agriculture into other forms of livelihood and migration. Is this happening, and what can we do to mitigate this?

This is mostly true and partly false. It is true because many farmers migrate out of villages and work as manual labour in the urban informal sectors like construction. The statement is partially false because popular narrative exclusively attributes unviability to the size of farmland.

Historically, farms in many countries including ours have been small to medium in size. India has 125 million (86% of total holdings) small and marginal landholders (upto 2 hectares) who cultivate 74 million hectares of agricultural land (47% of the total operated area), producing roughly 40% of the food needed by the nation[1].

Studies indicate that a typical farm family needs 2 hectares to avoid poverty. In the dry areas of India, average landholding is of this size or larger, and in the wetter, urbanized or undulating geographies, it may be less than two hectares, depending on the cropping pattern.  Even though land inequality is a pressing issue, that is not the only reason for unviability of farming.

What else could be contributing to agrarian distress? Common response from farmers is “if our crops yield well, there is no demand for the produce and if prices are high, crop production is meager due to adverse weather or pest attack”.  Mitigation of farm distress lies in addressing this issue. Notable is the associated fact that mitigation of farm distress also needs other rural sectors to change in tandem, as described below.

The situation stated by farmers not only makes farming an unreliable source of income but also makes credit defaulters out of self-reliant farmers. This is because crops grown exclusively for the market need borrowed capital when the produce market is uncertain and operated by unseen strings of international trade and global weather changes. Having allocated a major part of fertile soil for commercial crops, land available for producing food for the family is negligible. Hence food for the farm family is mostly sourced from the public distribution system which is nutrition and palatability wise, poor. Thus health problems of the farm family accentuate when public health care is inadequate, making them avail further loans for medical expenses. Added to these two reasons are the customary expenditures during occasions like festivals, marriages and deaths. These customary expenditures have to catch up with the urban lifestyle popularized in television shows. Loans are again sought from local lenders or relatives for meeting these aspirations too.

Debts payable to private sources are tough to be waived by the government. To repay these loans availed at high-interest rates, smallholders have to leave their villages abandoning cultivation for many seasons. This is mainly because non-farm employment opportunities do not exist in rural India. Most industrial estates are around major cities and Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is inadequate for all the needs of a farm household including those mentioned above. Life of a migrant in the city is uncertain unless her skills match with those needed by expanding urbanization.  Even after trying out commercial agriculture and migration, some farmers still do not manage to pay off debts and often try to end their lives. Thus the vicious cycle of indebtedness among smallholders is reinforced by the co-existence of risky commercial farming, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, lack of non-farm rural opportunities and expensive social commitments.

These closely intertwined issues call for a multi-fold approach. As the society and economy change over time, small farmers need to make informed choices, be it in farming, food habits, health care, children’s education, non-farm engagements or social customs.  There is an obvious lack of integrated effort to support adaptive skilling of farmers in all these aspects of rural life.

The remaining part of this note is about the needed strategies in the above direction. These strategies are trying to adapt the concept of ‘Sustainable Intensification’ to the Indian context.  This needs shedding of two notions 1. that the small pieces of land in possession of farmers can produce and sell enough to sustain all needs and wants of the families 2. that farmers can get rid of their land and enter a lucrative and secure non-farm livelihood. If these are true, what can be done to sustain small family farms? Below listed ten points capture the essential, mutually reinforcing and synergistic steps in that direction.

  1. Produce crops/ animals having assured minimum demand
  2. Grow these crops and animals while minimizing cost
  3. Maintain debts proportionate to the scale of operation and income flow in the family
  4. Maintain soil fertility to reduce operational costs (there are indigenous and low-cost ways to do this)
  5. Protect agroecology.  Grazing areas, sacred groves and forests, as well as water commons like lakes, wells and streams, are crucial to agricultural production in general and smallholders in particular [2].
  6. Orient rural governance to the linkages between agroecology and rural livelihoods[3]. Panchayat bodies need to exercise caution and hold consultations with farmers while converting common resources into other uses like quarries, mines and buildings. Agroecological orientation in rural land-use planning can also help prevent avoidable landslides and other disasters. Rural land use should have a clear focus on the above-mentioned linkages and clear roles for local institutions.
  7. Facilitate diverse domestic marketing options: local bazaars, regulated markets, urban niche markets. Food supplied in schools and hospitals could be sourced from local farmers, under the supervision of a group of committed locals including panchayat members and officials. Such fostering of linkages between farming and local demand has been successfully tried out in parts of Brazil.
  8. Support small scale local value addition units. Large scale factories or processing units often are ineffective in procuring and aggregating small surpluses from many small farmers and become reliant on state support (e.g. sugar mills) or import of raw materials (e.g. fertilizer industry, large rice mills, fruit processing units).
  9. Non-farm (but agriculture-based) jobs. If points 7 & 8 are materialized, then non-farm jobs will be available in the locality, simultaneously enhancing demand for local agricultural produce.
    1. Wage labour in farming will also be a local occupational alternative if small farming thrives and uses less of external inputs purchased from the market. This can ensure the demand and supply of manual labour at reasonable wages, in farmlands themselves.
    2. Employment guarantee schemes of the state can take care of protecting land and water commons (for meeting agricultural needs mentioned in point (5) above).
  10. Adaptive skilling of farm families and the community
    1. Villages have lost their traditional deliberative institutions while agricultural skills are on the way out. Recrafting these institutions mitigating the caste and gender divides would be both the process and outcome of adaptive skilling. Adaptive skilling helps foster social institutions that can revive agricultural acumen. It can also help in weaning farmers of external dependence during various steps and processes in farming.[4] For instance, collectives engaged in discussing the pros and cons of new introductions into farming. This requires in-situ agricultural knowledge generated by participatory experimentation to revive self-reliance as well as dignity associated with farming. At present, local input traders and sales agents of agro-input industries tap the slack social environment in rural India. Heavily advertising their products in the locality and extending small sops to deskilled farmers, input traders and corporates get them hooked to costly and damaging use of industrial inputs. 
    2. Local research institutions need to be part of adaptive skilling efforts and committed to exposing the potential risks associated with any new crop/animal variety, input or technology that is being disseminated. Multiple local experiments in farmers’ fields for multiple seasons should be a prerequisite for any new introduction. Many a time, new technologies make farmers dependent on newer and newer technologies. This not only makes them indebted but also turn their experiential learning redundant.[5]

Thus, though the size of operational land is a factor, there are other important confounding factors that contribute to farm distress. Addressing these will be instrumental in reducing distress even with the current size of farm holdings.

[1] Data from Agriculture census 2015-16

[2] Village commons provide the following for small farms:

  1. Biomass needed for green manure, mulching material for soil, fodder, nutritional supplements in the form of berries, fruits and leaves, apart from the raw materials for auxiliary livelihoods like making brooms, baskets, plates, mats, etc.
  2. Common water sources are crucial for animal care and fish protein apart from recharging private wells.
  3. Well stocked land and water commons together help to ensure minimum soil moisture

[3] We run a short orientation program for panchayat members in North East Karnataka on agroecology.

[4] ‘Natural Farming’ movement is accomplishing this in some parts of the country, with regard to input use.

[5] Adaptive Skilling through Action Research (ASAR) is on-going action research in these lines. ASAR is currently a collaborative (with PRADAN and adivasi researchers) pilot project in three villages of central India’s tribal belt.

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