Reviving Indian agriculture is key to jump-start economy
The maiden agriculture budget by Tamil Nadu government has brought a whiff of fresh air in policy planning. — Devinder Sharma
The maiden agriculture budget by Tamil Nadu government has brought a whiff of fresh air in policy planning. Not only dedicating the budget to the farmers protesting against the three central laws, what makes Tamil Nadu’s farm budget so special is how the Minister for Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare MRK Pannerselvam has managed to open a new chapter by bringing back the focus on revitalising agriculture.
Tamil Nadu it seems has confided more on economist FE Schumacher concept of Small is Beautiful – emphasising on small and appropriate technologies as well as approaches, and invested on conservation and building up of the natural resource base. Coming at a time when the State tops the national chart in farm indebtedness, in fact three of the top five indebted states hail from the southern region, the integrated approach the separate budget has laid out to rebuild farm livelihoods and to also attract youth in farming, is a pathway which in reality challenges the dominant economic thinking of moving people out of agriculture in the name of economic growth. While mainline economists celebrate this in the name of growth, in my understanding speedy urbanisation actually is a reflection of the neglect and apathy agriculture has suffered over the decades.
According to the 2011 Census, more people in Tamil Nadu have moved out of rural to urban areas than in any other state. This is a trend that needs to be reversed. In fact, the massive reverse migration the country witnessed when tens of millions of daily wage workers walked back hundreds of kilometres to their villages after Lockdown 1.0 shows the dire need to reverse the flawed economic thinking that has pushed people from the rural areas in the first instance. Keeping agriculture deliberately impoverished all these years was the easiest way to do so. No wonder, as per Economic Survey 2016, the average farm income in 17 states of India, which means roughly half the country, hovered around Rs 20,000 a year. With such meagre annual incomes, farmers are left with little choice but to migrate.
Not only showing an intent to reverse this faulty economic design, Tamil Nadu also demonstrate an inclination to do so. Attaining village self-sufficiency in the next five years, for which a project called ‘Kalaignar’s Anaithu Grama Oruginaintha Velan Valarchi Thittam’ has been launched, is a step in the right direction. Although only 2,500 village Panchayats will be covered in the first phase, the aim is to cover the entire 12, 524 village panchayats before the state goes to polls again. An allocation of Rs 250 crore has been made for it. This may seem to be insufficient but when seen with the outlays marked for various other related schemes and programmes like village pond restoration, enhance soil fertility, greening of 11.75 lakh hectares of fallow lands in the next ten years, setting up drying yards, encouraging terrace vegetable gardens, to link millets, pulses, and oilseeds cultivation with PDS supplies, setting up farmer markets and providing for agri-processing and value addition, and a horde of other initiatives shows how keen Tamil Nadu is to change the face of its rural landscape. What seems fascinating (and at the same time challenging) is the policy thrust to revive the rural economy, with emphasis on farmer-centric approaches. This became possible after senior officials had gone in for an elaborate and widespread consultative process, involving all kinds of stakeholders, which brought innovative ideas as well as measures that were essential to revive farming. Instead of talking only to economists and business leaders in pre-budget exercises, Tamil Nadu reached out to farmers, activists and civil society organisations. This exercise will only remain useful if the stakeholders continue to keep a tab, ensuring that the government focus does not deviate in the years to come.
Perhaps it is primarily for this elaborate consultative process, Tamil Nadu has made allocations for setting up a Nammalvar Organic Farming Research Centre at the TN Agricultural University, and also launched a programme to conserve traditional paddy varieties, naming it after Nel Jayaraman. In addition, a separate wing for organic farming is proposed to be created under the state agricultural department. A provision for subsidy support for organic farmers has also been made. Turning farming into a profitable enterprise is certainly not possible till suitable policies are laid out to retain and attract youth in farming. Although Tamil Nadu has announced a ‘Rural Youth Agricultural Skill Development Mission’ with the aim to provide the right kind of skills to the youth, and also launched programmes for capacity-building for students passing out from the agriculture university, assured income by way of an assured price remains the hallmark for converting agriculture into an economic activity. The Centre has a bigger role here, first by providing the right prices, and also must collaborate with states to bring the youth back into agriculture. It’s time to know that even in the US, the number of young in agriculture has gone up by 11 per cent between 2017 and 2019. China is planning to send 10 million youth back to the villages by 2022.
At a time when the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2019-20 estimates that 44 per cent of the country’s workforce is engaged in agriculture, and considering that the size of the farm workforce has expanded in the post-lockdown period, policy makers need to accept that it is no longer advisable to continue with the outdated economic thinking of keeping rural wages low so as to encourage out migration.
This has to change if the country is to realise the Prime Minister’s vision of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. Let us not forget, agriculture alone has the potential to provide gainful employment to a large section of the population. Tamil Nadu has shown the way. While a lot will depend on how the budget proposals are implemented, it has certainly laid out a roadmap for bringing back the focus on an economically-viable and sustainable small-scale agriculture.
(The Author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger.)