Problems of Indian Agriculture: Low Incomes, Marginal Farmers , and lack of Modernisation

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Manjari Balu                                                                                                   August 23, 2019/Analysis

Substantial fall in the number of farmers in the past decade with stagnant agriculture growth of 2.88 per cent corroborates the bleak condition of the Indian agriculture sector. The dire status of the agriculture assigns the state to either invest for agriculture (asset creation) or invest in agriculture (includes subsidized input). The ostensible manifestation for agriculture is visible during the union budget 2019 with falling public investment for agriculture even as budget expenditure rises. The number of cultivator has decreased by 7.5 per centfrom 2001 to 2011 but the number of labourers engaged in agriculture increased by 3.5 per cent for the same years. Contextualizing the movement of labourers with the ambitious plan of doubling the farmers’ income urges the need to investigate the income and wages which currently stands at INR 8931 per month. This figure includes both large landowners and marginal farmers   In the year 2018, waves of protests sparked off across the country, with disgruntled farmers demanding better support prices and waivers of loans. Fear mounted that frustrated farmers would jeopardise the electoral victory of the ruling party. In response, an annual cash transfer of INR 6000 to all marginal farmers was announced in the interim budget of 2019. The strategy paid off. Post-poll survey shows that around 68 per cent of Indian farmers were satisfied with the record of the BJP led government despite strong protests demonstrated earlier in the same year.

Investments and Subsidies : Misplaced Priorities

Marginal farmers account for 86 per cent of India’s total farmers. The government has proposed an allocation of INR 85,000 crore in the interim budget to directly support the small farmers and boost their income levels. The re-election of BJP to power is an approval from the agrarian society for idealistic pledges with an ultra-nationalistic manifesto.  But the party in power is resorting to increasing the quantum of spending on agriculture without addressing fundamental issues of the sector. Almost half of the population is engaged in agriculture and the sector accounts for nearly 17 per cent of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The 2019 budget has allotted INR 1,51,000 crores for agriculture and allied sectors; this constitutes a 75 per cent hike from the previous budget. Subsidies on fertilizers occupy a highly prominent position in the budget expenditure; INR 73,435 crores is budgeted for fertilizer subsidies for the year 2018-19. Fertilizer subsidy is increasing at an annual rate of 11.4 percent while the share of public investment in agriculture is a mere 0.4 percent of the total investment. The rationale behind large fertilizer subsidies is to reduce input cost and thereby increasing income margin of the farmers. However, a study conducted to assess the impact of different investment components on return on agriculture ranked subsidies below investment in Research & Development (R&D). The output elasticity of the States for expenditure varies from high-income states to low-income states. A state-wise subsidies plan has to be strategized to have a remunerative effect on the productivity and hence the income of the farmers.

            A disproportionate investment in subsidies might lead to short term rise in income but at the cost of long term productivity. The rising burden of liabilities to fertilizers companies is straining the government’s fiscal position. Comptroller Audit General India has criticized the recent budget for resorting to off-budget financing (to cover subsidies through bank loans) to reach the 3.3 per cent target of fiscal deficit. Such offset financing severely strains the government balance sheet and mounting liabilities would dent the future economy.

Public investment in agriculture is much lower than private investment. In 2016-17, government spending on capital formation stood at only INR 45,981 crore while private spending was INR 2,19,371 crores. While overall public spending has been growing, the share of capital formation in the budget is relatively low.

Agriculture Strategies in Indian and China: Difference is Technology and Modernisation

 An elementary comparison of India’s growth in agriculture with China highlights the divergent growth due to the different strategies adopted during their post-reformperiod. China focused on irrigation and invested in technology to attain efficiency in water management. The Total Factor Productivity (TFP) which measures the economic efficiency of inputs estimates China’s agriculture TFP to be growing at an average rate of 3.40 percent post the reforms. In contrast, India’s post reforms agriculture TFP stood at around 0.54 percent illustrating the deficiency in technology investment and excessive subsidies on credit, power and fertilizers. China’s indisputable focus was on rural spatial restructuringand land consolidation. Optimizing land-usepatterns and investing in rural regions to enhance productivity can be a transformative solution to address the problems created by industrialization. The remarkable success of China can also be attested to the stabilization of agricultural subsidies in the year 2009. Though input subsidies in 2004 were exponentially growing, the Chinese government conceded the inefficiency of resources allocated to the farmers.

The principal justification behind institutionalising subsidies on credit, irrigation and fertilizers is to bolster marginal farmers in minimizing the difference between input costs and output prices. The input cost is primarily financed by short term agriculture credit; the short term crop loan has increased by 18 per cent from 2014 to 2018. Theoretically, a positive trend in the short term credit to farmers duplicates the function of subsidies to reduce the input cost. The dispensable expenditure on subsidies can be reduced if state prioritizes to streamline the credit flow to avoid leakages in the system. A fundamental task of the government is to channelize the gain from productivity and translate it to income and wages. Input cost reduction approach, in the long run, suffers from a potential threat of income being concentrated in the large land cultivators while labourers are discouraged to take up farm jobs.

Income Wage paradox

The average operational landholding reduced from 2.28 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16 as a result of excessive land fragmentation with a swelling rural population. Farmers from India’s rural areas generate income majorly from cultivation and wages. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is one such gambit to accelerate employment and incomes of the rural populace. Though the state intervention in the rural labour market has been acclaimed to the extent that it engages India’s unskilled labour force, the flaws of national workfare program are only too apparent with poor monitoring and supervision. A visible trend of farm labourers moving togovernment employment programs has contributed to the recent labour scarcity in agriculture. A shortfall of the labour force in labour-intensivecrops invariably inflates the wage even in the absence of skill augmentation and mechanization of agriculture. Rural workers are more attracted to employment programs as it offers fixed wages as opposed to volatile wage rates in agriculture.

The union budget has provided an abstract roadmap to increase the income by hiking the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and reducing the input cost. Overall, the average daily wage rates of agriculture labourers in real terms are observed to be falling rapidly from 11.08 percent (derived from government data) in 2007-08 to 4.3 percent in 2018-19. The implication of government strategies to increase the farmers’ income and not that of the labour is based on the assumption that the profit is effectively channelized as wages. However, the discernible movement of the workforce from a labour-intensive agriculture sector to the service sector on account of surety implies the failure of State to stabilise income through agriculture. Indian agriculture has achieved only 40 percent of mechanization while the United States of America has 95 percent of farm mechanization. A transition to capital intensive production would justify a movement of labourers from the agriculture sector to the non-farmsector, but the majority of the farms being labour intensive faces low productivity due to the labour shift.  The disturbed labour market offers higher wages in agriculture but labourers choose to settle for the employment program due to less skill requirement and guarantee of a minimum wage. The farmers in need of labourers, work at a below optimal level with less productivity as it is hard to afford labourers at a higher wage. To untie the complex knot- dynamics of labourers and farmers, it needs to be thoroughly examined to achieve enhanced productivity through income. A mere cash transfer or subsidizing input cost would not guarantee higher income or efficient productivity in the long run.

A quantitative study conducted to analyse income inequality in the agriculture sector concluded that there has been little change in the structural and distributional factors in the agricultural economy. The findings of the study stated that inequality in income is driven by the share of land ownership. The importance of examining income affected by land size is more relevant as the continuous land fragmentation gains logical attention with an income determined framework proposed by the government. Thus an important fact to be recognizedis that the marginal farmer households earn 9 percent of the total agriculture income while medium and large farmers earn 91 percent of the income. Evidence for growing income inequality based on the land size and land ownership implies the state expenditure has to be designed to redistribute the investment with a view to minimizing the disparity.

Need for Effective Policy Alternatives

There is a pressing need to consolidate land holdings and address the deteriorating quality of soil and incentivize farmers to specialize in production by cooperative farming. Self Help Groups is a success story for community-drivenentrepreneurship, a similar model can be experimented in agriculture, factoring the viability and feasibility. A revision of land reform policies to restructure the arable lands for achieving higher productivity needs to be factored in the entire spending formula. There should be a balance in capital and revenue expenditure for agriculture to avoid concentration of funds only on overheads. The state should facilitate a platform for a smooth transition from labour intensive to capital intensive agriculture from both sides. Incentivize farmers to own lands that can be mechanized and equip the residual labourers with skills to acquire jobs in the service and manufacturing sector. A prime target of improving productivity and maintaining the ecological balance has to be influenced to enhance the living standards of farmers.

Three critical paradoxes that are driving Indian agriculture need to be studied in detail for  better fiscal and policy decisions. These are (i) problem of low productivity despite availability of abundant arable land with a tremendous history of agrarian community, (ii) Bulging population with increasing unemployment yet labour shortage in agriculture sector, and (iii) huge share of agriculture expenditure yet no substantial asset creation or returns on investment. Central government must assess the quality of natural resources and make initiatives for precision farming a priority component in respective states. A revision of labour wages based on productivity and employment programs have to be framed to engage workers in building agriculture infrastructure. The choice of viewing income as a means to achieve productivity or income as an end to beguile the voters during the election season lies with the government.

Manjari Balu is a Research Analyst with The Peninsula Foundation.

Photo : Small Farm in Vellore Dt, Tamilnadu, India.  Credit: M Matheswaran

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