The Maltreated Farmer Could Solve India's Unemployment Crisis

The agriculture crisis can be turned into an agriculture advantage and that, in turn, can solve our unemployment problem.

Unemployment is going to be a central issue in the Lok Sabha elections, whether Narendra Modi and the BJP like it or not.

No matter how much the government and today’s media try to keep public attention focused on Pakistan, the fact is that unemployment in India has touched a 45-year high. Plastering the prime minister’s photos all over the country is not going to solve that. Whichever government comes to power next will have to find an innovative and lasting solution to the crisis.

There is an old tale about a man looking for his lost gold coin under a streetlight at night. Another man comes along and offers to help him find it, but after searching in vain for some time, asks the owner of the coin, “Are you sure you lost it here?” The owner points to a dark part of the street and replies, “No, I lost it over there, but I’m looking for it here because there’s more light here.”

Also read: India Does Have a Real Employment Crisis – And it’s Worsening

The story bears similarities to India’s decades-long battle with unemployment. Perhaps we have been looking for solutions in the wrong places. While the manufacturing, tourism, construction and service sectors will certainly go a long way in helping resolve the crisis, maybe the real key lies in the ‘dark part of the street’ – where most economists and growth experts do not want to look. That place is agriculture.

India’s much-touted ‘growth story’ left the farmer behind long ago. Although the farmer has always been one of the most vulnerable members of Indian society (how many other professions depend, for their very existence, on the weather?), his fate started getting truly sealed in the 1990s – 1996, to be precise.

According to food and agriculture expert Devinder Sharma, “The Indian government’s growing reliance on cheaper and highly subsidised imports of agricultural commodities… Are linked primarily to the policy imperative that aims to drive farmers out of agriculture.”

“This approach follows the World Bank’s prescriptions from way back in the 1990s – that India needs to move 400 million people from rural to urban areas by 2015. To achieve this, successive governments have been systematically squeezing public investments in agriculture and impoverishing farmers by denying them a fair and remunerative price,” he says.

Also read: Is the Modi Government Truly Committed to Rural Development?

In other words, there has been a concerted, state-sponsored effort for decades to make agriculture unprofitable and push farmers off the farms and into the cities; to turn them into cheap labour for infrastructure, construction, and real estate projects! This long-term project based on short-term thinking has cut across party lines. The National Skill Development Council stated in 2015 that its aim was to reduce the work force in agriculture from the existing 57% per cent to 38% by 2022.

Let’s face it. The plight of the Indian farmer over the last two decades is the result of faithfully following the diktats of the World Bank.

Whatever our successive governments’ intentions may have been, the results of their policies are clear. While the urban rich continue to increase their abundance every year, the rural poor continue to sink deeper into debt bondage and poverty. According to Oxfam India, it would take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in rural India to earn what the top paid executive at a leading Indian garment company earns in a year.

Indian billionaires’ wealth increased by Rs 4,891 billion in 2018 – from Rs 15,778 billion to over Rs 20,676 billion (an amount enough to finance 85% of all the states’ health and education budgets). On the other hand, a total of 3,18,528 farmers have committed suicide between 1995 and 2015. The current government, meanwhile, continues to withhold data on farmer suicides between 2016 and 2018.

Modi’s demonetisation debacle of 2016 has probably hurt the farmer the most. Out of the 1.1 crore jobs that were lost last year, 91 lakh jobs were lost in rural India. According to the Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy, rural India accounts for two-thirds of India’s population but it accounted for 84% of job losses.

It is economic insanity to keep pandering to every whim of India’s richest 1% and forgiving their corporate debt while ignoring the well-being of two-thirds of the population. It is also high-time to stop the World Bank-mandated migration of 40 crore “agricultural refugees” from villages to cities.

Easier said than done, of course. But if the next government is serious about resolving the unemployment crisis, it needs to join the dots and realise that the agriculture crisis can be turned into an agriculture advantage and that, in turn, can solve our unemployment problem.

Writing for the Tribune last month, Sharma underscored the need for this paradigm shift: “…Agriculture as an economic activity… Has multifaceted roles within it. Making farm livelihoods economically sustainable should be the first step towards achieving the objective of ensuring gainful employment of marginalised communities. Once agriculture becomes economically viable, providing more income to 60 crore people, it will reignite the rural-based industry, and in the process trigger a reverse migration… The increased demand a refurbished agriculture creates will be phenomenal, leading to a spurt in industrial production.” 

Oxfam India, in its annual report, made a very similar recommendation. “Promote inclusive growth by ensuring that the income of the bottom 40% of the population grows faster than of the top 10% so that the gap between the two begins to close.  This can be done by encouraging labour-intensive sectors that will create more jobs; investing in agriculture; and effectively implementing the social protection schemes that exist,” the report said. 

The answers are in plain sight. The real question is whether the next government will be able to see and implement them?

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.