To talk about the rural India has become a fad for everyone in intellectual arena. I have been reading some good books (Two Billions of Entrepreneurs, Planet India) by American Indians or NRIs. To be frank, I don’t know the right nomenclature for their national identities. However, they too have mentioned sympathetically about the grave situations in rural India based on their experiences of some conducted tours to some Indian villages of a region arranged by some NGOs. I wish they had based it with wider coverage from nearer quarters. It has also become fashionable for most of the MPs and intellectuals to talk or write about the rural India and its pathetic conditions. After the media-aggravated suicide stories of the farmers from regions of the states such as the rich Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka or even West Bengal and Kerala, the subject has become more popular at all forum and particularly those attended or presided by politicians. The climax has come with waivers costing Rs 60,000 crore for the indebted farmers. Now the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi has come out for the expansion of the scope and delimiting of 2 hectares landholding as criteria for waiver that has already become the major headline on the front page of all the national dailies. I wish those showing concerns about rural India take some night stay in the rural India and don’t firm up opinion about the village life by spending a night in Chokhi Dhani, Jaipur.
There are some intriguing questions. What percentage of the India’s population lives in villages? What are the numbers dependent on farming? What is the number of landholders with holding below 2 hectares? How is the cutoff of 2 hectares decided? Bibek Debroy in an article in Indian Express- ‘What aam kisans want’– points out, ‘figures on the number of farmers are grossly over-stated. People ascribe 72 per cent (or 65 per cent) to the total population (not even the work-force) and derive a rural population figure. Not more than 50 per cent of employment in rural India is agricultural (Economic Survey says 52 per cent) and, barring the principal earner, other members of the household often earn a living outside agriculture. The actual figures are probably like 100 million landless labourers and 125 million farmers. And we have a little over 100 million holdings, 60 per cent marginal (less than 1 hectare) and another 20 per cent small (1 to 2 hectares).’
I have personal knowledge about some villages in my district of Rohtas in Bihar. I have seen the changing rural profiles over the years. Bullocks that used to be the pride of any household have gone. The small village of 2000 population has presently over 40 tractors. One finds only either a buffalo or a cow in the courtyard meant for male members. However, the breed of the cattle is better. Electricity has still not reached, but many houses are having solar power to run the TV and lighting, and even a fan or two. It doesn’t have any medical facility.
I am giving here the profile of a family, I know from near. Every household has changed in the same manner.
In a family X, the land that was owned by one person up to 1970s has been divided into four parts, each getting about 15 bighas (local measure where 1.8 bighas is an acre). Today the four families depend on farming but in different ways:
Uncle A with aunty is going strong even at the age of over 70. But the main work responsibility of the land is with the younger son, a postgraduate in agriculture and his wife. He owns a tractor and cultivates the whole holding with help of one permanent worker and engaging few more depending on need. A family of four is dependent on the farming. The elder son is in a good railway job. He lives in Vadodara with wife and three children studying in graduate courses. He hardly contributes to farming at home. But as per record, he and his family may be part of the rural population.
Uncle B’s son works in Kolkata in a reputed private firm at some junior position and takes care of a family of 7 including his mother, unmarried sister, and an unemployed brother. He leases his whole land in the village to tenants. He comes to collect the money once in a year in summer. The earning from the land makes his living comfortable. But he has to marry the sister that will require a lot of money for dowry. He may have to sell some land or take costly big loan against land.
Uncle C’s son, a Ph.D now, is not employed, but has bought a house in Varanasi (with money received by selling of some land of his share) and lives there. He had built a house in village too. He too leases the land to tenants either on cash that can be about Rs 6000 per bigha for a year or on fixed or flexible amount of grain harvested out of the land. His son is married too and has some frugal employment but lives with him. He has a son to be educated and a daughter to be married.
Uncle D’s son has lost most of his share of land because of the bad habits and today tills some land taken on lease from other landowners in the village for a meager living. He has his one son who takes cares of the family. But the family is in worst shape with just nominal earning.
Over the years, many landholders of old time have sold their land for various reasons- marriage of the daughters, law suites, medical treatments of some family members, building of house, or education of sons, or repayment of previous loans taken from private lenders. Most of the inherited land-owning households in the village have smaller holdings, perhaps less than 10 bighas. Some including few from the deprived class of yester years have bought small plots. The land is still the most aspired item that the people go for buying once any one in the family earn money good enough to do that.
The menial work of good days is gone, so the village can only provide a limited employment in farming operations for the landless family by those who have land. Some of the landless families do take small plots of land on lease from the landowners and cultivate it for living. Some have their grown up kids working all over the country. They keep on remitting money for those left back in the village.
As on today, because of good irrigation facility provided by the canal and supported by diesel pumps from bored wells, the two crops grown in the village are paddy and wheat. While the earning from paddy is about Rs 12,000, that from the wheat is about Rs 6000. So the difference between the earnings of farming and leasing is about Rs 14,000 in a year, as the landowner can lease a bigha for Rs 6000. But let us see how much the worker who is engaged for the whole year gets. He is given one and a half or two bighas of land beside his daily labour charges in cash or kind. So he gets Rs 30,000 plus his daily earning accumulated as his total annual intake. It is very much comparable to what one gets in menial job in unorganized sector in the country today. Still it is very difficult today to get menial labourer even in villages.
If the state so wishes that the unemployed young men don’t live their villages to create problem for city dwellers. PURA was the answer. However, the present government doesn’t believe in that. The government, the local leaders as well the people themselves don’t do anything to create non-agricultural employment in the villages. The villages today require good education facilities that must include skill building over and above the conventional education. It requires innovative initiatives from some to get work from the urban areas and get it done through the skilled manpower in the villages. The villagers must learn about the entrepreneurial skills and even take up the farming as a commercial business. For instance, the ladies in the villages who hardly contribute in the household earning, can be easily engaged in many productive jobs, if some urban manufacturers outsource some. Milk production as an extra earning could have become a good engagement, but certainly not if it is collected at Rs 8 or 9 a litre when any consumer in the urban area is paying nothing less than Rs 20 a litre.
Those who wish the good for the farmers in rural India must also appreciate that he is consumer too. Except for rice and wheat and perhaps some vegetables, the household buys everything almost at the same price that one pays in the urban India. With the prices of his rice paddy and wheat almost fixed by the government, how can he manage his household’s minimal expenses with ever increasing prices of all the commodities? Even ITC who has got a global recognition for its e-Choupal initiative pays the same Rs 9 or 10 per kg of the wheat that it sells at Rs 16 or more per kg to the consumers in the urban market as packed atta. It is essential that the farmers get the best price for whatever he produces through reduction of the cost elsewhere in the supply chain. Even the buyers such as ITC can think of making the farmers add more value to his produce to pay him more. As for instance, even in the same village some farmers improved their annual earning from a bigha to Rs 30,000 a year from the normal Rs 20,000 by switching over to a commercial crop, peppermint in place of wheat. It is necessary that the corporate houses and the government eliminate the cost of unscrupulous intermediaries that is making the farmers to lose.
One way may be the contract farming, but it must have built-in feature so that the farmer is not exploited. Can one day a farmer get an agreed minimum monthly earning for the crop he puts in his farm and the balance after the harvesting of the crop?
Those who speak or write about the farmers must spend at least few days in moving around the villages in the different regions of the country and learn about the problems from the nearer quarter before suggesting solutions. And the IIMs and other agricultural institutes must use their students to come out with projects that can improve the conditions of rural India on priority. It will be meaningful exercise for the benefit of the country.