At the Heart of Rural Discontent Is the Creeping Crisis in Household Agriculture

A substantial decline in the share of agriculture in a farm family’s income and the lack of quality education has eroded hopes of a better future for a majority of India’s farmers.

From more than 60% in the early 1990s, the share of agriculture in a farm family’s income has fallen to just about 30%. Credit: Reuters

While the government pays lip service to the image of the Indian farmer – picture the stalwart yeoman, “Bharat,” hefting a wooden plough on his shoulder – in fact, the conditions of farm families have been in secular decline for three decades and longer, until a stage has come when what is produced on the farm is no longer enough for a family to live on.

It is not merely a matter of minimum support prices or of the terms of trade moving against agriculture, though that is certainly an important part of the picture. More broadly, the life chances of young people growing up on farms has become grim, a result of a concatenation of factors.

From more than three hectares at the time of independence, the average size of landholdings has fallen to less than one hectare. A farmer today has less than one-third of the land that was farmed by his grandfather.

That might not have been so bad if productivity increases had outstripped the diminution of farm sizes, but state investments in agriculture have been rolled back since the advent of liberalisation, precluding large-scale yield increases. The network of government canals has not been expanded. For more than 20 years after 1991, canal irrigation coverage remained static at 17 million hectares.

The research and extension services of the government have become weaker and less effective, with the network of agricultural universities being “starved of funds,” according to the report of a government commission. A World Bank team found that public investments in agriculture had “fallen by more than half” in the period after economic liberalisation.

India produces less than 2,000 kg of rice per hectare while China produces more than 6,000 kg per hectare. Sorghum yields are 800 kg/hectare in India and more than 1,600 kg/hectare in Thailand. Cotton yields are 650 kg/hectare on average in India and more than 3,000 kg/hectare in China.

These trends have put a squeeze on agriculturists’ livelihoods. From more than 60% in the early 1990s, the share of agriculture in a farm family’s income has fallen to just about 30%.

Also read: Farmers’ Agitations in Maharashtra and MP Are a Product of Rural India’s Identity Crisis

Where does the rest of the farm family’s income come from? Therein hangs a tale that, in my observation, lies at the heart of rural discontent, giving impetus to the ongoing agitation.

Because of the poor-quality education that they receive, the majority of young people growing up in rural areas have no option except to put themselves out as day labourers. Working as mazdoors, they are able to make up the shortfall in income brought on by the creeping crisis in household agriculture. But they live at the margins, unable to generate any surplus. Any sudden outflow of cash, for instance, to pay the medical bills of a loved one, is enough to pitch a household into poverty.

The wolf is never far from the door of India’s farmers, while television beams in images of high consumption lifestyles in big cities, increasingly distant from one’s immediate surroundings. The disjuncture is enough to make a person despair – why are the children of city folks able to climb the ladder to riches, while my children and those of folks like me are forced by circumstances to become mazdoors?

Although rural people constitute more than two-thirds of the population, among students in higher-tier engineering colleges and business schools, less than 5% come from rural backgrounds. The vast majority of individuals on these and other fast-track career paths have attended city schools and were raised by urban and well-educated parents.

Until two or three decades after independence, there were hardly any educational institutions in rural areas, especially those located beyond 5 km from cities. The legacy of under-provisioning in rural areas continues to have knock-off effects for the next generation. Rural children attend school for fewer years compared to urban children, and the schools they attend are of a much poorer standard. Most rural schools continue to be bare bone affairs – one or two classrooms for all of five grade levels with teachers who are unmotivated, poorly supervised and frequently missing from duty stations.

And it is not only school education where people in rural areas suffer. In healthcare, in transportation, communication, information provision, water supply and sanitation, in almost every sphere of public (and private) provision, people in rural areas have been left holding the short end of the stick, shorter yet in remoter rural areas. The bright lights of a growing economy, shining brightest in bigger cities, are only dimly visible in the country’s interior.

It is easier to put up with relative neglect and harsh living conditions if one has the faith that for one’s children, at least, the future will be better. That faith has steadily eroded for the majority of India’s farmers.

It is this erosion of faith that lies at the core of the farmers’ agitation. Until this faith is restored, by rethinking the relative priorities of rural and urban areas, distress will remain, and even if the current wave of agitations is contained, discontentment and a sense of being abandoned by the rest of the country will continue to bubble.

Anirudh Krishna, Edgar T. Thompson professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, is the author, most recently, of The Broken Ladder: The Paradox and Potential of India’s One-Billion (Penguin 2017).