Jharkhand: No, farmers don’t want to give up farming. They want the government to make it more sustainable
A popular perception is that given a chance, farmers would give up agriculture. A recent survey finds that is not the case.
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Migration is increasingly becoming a forced choice. According to acclaimed journalist P Sainath, the increase in migration is driven by the “collapse of millions of livelihoods in agriculture and its related occupations".
Massive migrations have gone hand-in-hand with a deepening agrarian crisis, with more than 12,000 suicides each year reported in the agricultural sector since 2013. The actual number is expected to be much higher.
Migration from rural areas to cities has been a usual natural phenomenon. So what makes migration in last two decades different?
A third of surveyed households had a migrant worker looking for a menial job in some faraway place. (Photo: PTI/file)
In the past two decades, what we witnessed was a “despair-driven exodus” — as Sainath puts it — from the countryside, where millions of Indians were trapped in “footloose” migrations. The poor drifted from place to place “without a clear final destination”.
With agriculture becoming uneconomical and little scope for non-farm employment back home, migration to distant urban towns became a necessity. Despite the much-hyped economic growth of India, there has been no real change in this grim situation.
Jharkhand is not new to distress migration. The Economic Survey of India revealed that Jharkhand lost close to 5 million of its working age population between 2001 and 2011 due to migration. More than 5% of the working age population in Jharkhand migrates annually to other states in search of better employment opportunities, education or because of loss of traditional livelihood.
An important development the survey has thrown up is the rise in female migration in the decade 2001-11 across the country. Female migration has almost doubled since the last study was conducted in 1991-2001, and is now almost the same as male migrants. However, a survey conducted by the state’s skill development department in 2011 showed that 80% of respondents had not observed any improvement in their economic condition since their family members had migrated. The situation has only worsened.
Changing agricultural practices have aggravated distress migration. Contrary to what is usually believed, a recent publication by Bindrai Institute for Research Study & Action (BIRSA), titled ‘Agrarian Crisis in Jharkhand: Results of a Farmer Survey’, found that 94% farmers not only want to continue farming, but also want their children to take up agriculture.
Female migration for work has almost doubled between 1991-2001 and 2001-11. (Photo: Reuters/File)
The study is based on a survey of 493 farming households spread across 11 districts, and comes at a time when the dominant economic thinking is that farmers want to quit agriculture if given a choice.
A third of surveyed households had a migrant worker looking for a menial job in some faraway place like Maharashtra or Gujarat. Given a choice, the respondents wanted to stay back and continue farming.
The challenge before the state, therefore, is how to make farming economically viable.
However, the report highlights that blindly adopting intensive farming systems in a bid to catch up with the green revolution bowl of Punjab, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh is not the way forward.
The study reveals that Jharkhand offers a unique opportunity to create a development model based on its own geography, biological resources and peculiar agro-climatic conditions. It envisages a shift from intensive farming practices, which, incompatible with ecological needs as they contaminates groundwater, have led to more pollution and reversed the terms of trade.
The agrarian crisis is essentially caused by government’s long-term neglect of agriculture. The report provides cues on the various dimensions of agrarian crisis faced by Jharkhand’s farmers, and the apathy of successive governments who failed to address their needs.
At present, the Jharkhand government’s private sector-led input intensive farming model has failed to ensure food security for farmers. This can be correlated with the fact that Jharkhand ranks the worst among states in terms of both proportion of underweight children under 5 years (48%), and prevalence of wasting (weight for height) in children under 5 years (29%).
An economic development model based on the introduction of sustainable farming practices, encouraging traditional pulses and grains and integrated with forestry and animal husbandry, is the way forward. It will not only achieve household security, but also nutritional security.
The lack of food security has hit Jharkhand's children hard. (Photo: Reuters/file)
The report has highlighted lack of facilities like micro-irrigation, marketing yards, electricity, cheap organised credit, village link roads, cold storages as some of the immediate reasons for the continuing crisis.
Such prevailing conditions can be linked directly to the withdrawal of public sector investment from agriculture. With cuts in social sector spending, it no longer remains a mystery as to why distress migration becomes a necessity. The report claims that agriculture has been deliberately kept impoverished to hasten the process of rural to urban migration.
The timely publication of the report asks for redrawing the agricultural map of Jharkhand, based on their three dominant agro-ecological zones. Perhaps, it’s time that the government focuses of meeting the demands of adivasi farmers.
However, even seemingly simple changes may ask for structural reorientation. Ex-hybrid rice is increasingly being favoured instead of cultivation of millets. Farmers, however, want to bring back the cultivation of millets. It’s not only nutritious, but also one of the best protections against food insecurity.
The pricing and procurement policy needs to be redesigned in order to provide an assured procurement for millets and traditional pulses and encourage its cultivation. Will this alone lead to an end of distress migration? Probably not. However, it will ensure food security and adequate nutrition for our vulnerable populations, and create a safety net for migrant populations.
The question then arises: Is the government willing to reconsider its agricultural policies? Let’s hope they do.
(Note: The author procured a physical copy from BIRSA. The study is not available online)