Peasantry neglected in the growth strategy


Indian agriculture accounts for almost 14% of the total GDP and around 60 percent of our total population is still directly or otherwise involved in the agrarian systems. In such a scenario, India’s peasantry will have to be given its due place within the system, if the dream of inclusive growth has to be realised, writes Prof. Ajay Dandekar.
Princes and Lords may flourish or may fade,
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, a country’s pride
Once destroyed can never be supplied.

– Oliver Goldsmith

I was employed as an agriculture labourer with the local landlord in the village when I was just 15 years of age”, the old man who was around 70 told me in Vidarbha, when I met him a few years ago. “My father had three acres of land. I worked for a number of years for the landlord and my land holding expanded to 15 acres. I was happy; daughters were married and I did not have to work anymore. Now however I have only four acres left. I am back to where I was!” He gave a wry smile and thereby hangs a tale. A tale of peasantisation and de-peasantisation witnessed in one single lifetime of a family. This tragedy is symptomatic of lost opportunities, incorrect prioritisation and insensitivity towards the farming community that has led to their utter deprivation. Indian agriculture is in a state of a serious crisis. Studies have indicated that the farmers who have committed suicide were driven to their tragic end by a threefold crisis caused by trade liberalisation and globalisation policies, deregulation of inputs, imports and prices and the inevitable consequence in deepening debt.

The context

Indian agriculture accounts for almost 14% (various GDP contribution estimates) of the total GDP. While this being so, around 60 percent of our total population is still directly or otherwise involved in the agrarian systems.Let us look at the overall situation in the case of agriculture in India. India has about 150 million hectares of cultivable land, out of which around 45 to 55 million hectares is under irrigation. This gives us a cropping intensity of 1.3. In other words, two thirds of our cultivable land is one crop land, dependent on the yearly rainfall. Thus, we are primarily a dry land farming country. This has led into many an issue especially with regard to irrigation policy, food security and green revolution.

In the Indian context, the green revolution, it is argued, has level of policy. In fact the plan documents have been quite candid about it. The10th Plan Midterm Appraisal for instance states that, “GDP growth in agriculture and allied sectors during the first three years of the Tenth Plan averages only 1 per cent per annum.” The mid-term appraisal is clear on the reason for the crisis of this magnitude to emerge. “The deceleration in the growth of agriculture in the 1990s is generally attributed to inadequate investment.” The following table reveals the story of investments in agriculture over the last fifty years. (See table)

table 1

In the context of the issue of the farmers’ suicides the question of the future of agriculture becomes all the more daunting. In the post independent phase of the newly liberated erstwhile colonies, India is perhaps the only country where more than a quarter million of its farmers have committed suicides. These suicides have not happened in the so called ‘backward’ states of the republic. They in fact have occurred in the sun shine states of Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and as figures now indicate Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. The major reason cited across the board has been the indebtedness of the farmers that have led to the extreme step. While the reasons for indebtedness are not far to seek, the key issue of pricing essentially remains unattended. It has been argued time and again by the experts in the field as well as by the National Commission on Agriculture headed by none other than Prof. M.S.Swaminathan that the farmer must be given an assured price of more than fifty percent over and above the cost of production. This one key advice has not been heeded to by the governance mechanism, which has resulted in a statis in the price regime where the farmers are struggling to meet the cost of production with the price they get from the fickle and manipulated market.

Crisis of confidence

Compounding the situation is the crisis of confidence in the irrigation policy that is now not only becoming visible, but looming large and casting a big shadow on the feasibility of providing food security. In India almost eighty percent of available water is used for agriculture through two major sources, surface water through canals and ground water through wells and tube wells. As per estimates we are near our limits in so far as irrigation from canals is concerned. In fact the area under canal irrigation has gone down. The other major source of irrigation is the ground water. As per estimates India is soon reaching a limit where we are now drawing the ground water at fairly alarming rates. Latest estimates indicate that some states like Punjab, Haryana and Delhi are near limits of ground water exploitation. We in fact need a paradigm shift in terms of our overall surface and ground water usage policy in order to achieve the desired limits of food grain production.

The government has promised the majority of the citizens a guaranteed food security. It is a seminal piece of legislation. If that has to translate into any sort of reality then we must take care of the producing class. This can only happen if the price regime is in favour of the cultivating class and the irrigation policy is completely over hauled. India faces a great challenge before her in the field of agriculture. At stake is the very food security of the country. The coming decades would belong to the country if we can meet that challenge. The first prime minister of this country had prophesied a long time back that ‘everything else can wait but not agriculture’. Never have the words been as apt as they are now.

India stands for inclusive growth and the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans have created an enabling framework for the same. Within that framework, agriculture and India‘s peasantry will have to be given a place if the dream of Inclusive Growth has to be realised. At the moment it is very apparent that the entire farming community is completely left out of the framework of inclusive growth.


Prof. Ajay Dandekar

The writer is a Social Scientist.