The Plight of India’s Small Farmers

BRICS, 20 Feb 2017

Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

His speech if of mortgaged bedding,
On his kine he borrows yet.
At his heart is his daughter’s wedding.
In his eye foreknowledge of debt
He eats and hath indigestion
He toils and he may not stop
His life Is a long-drawn question
Between a crop and a crop
— Rudyard Kipling, The Masque of Plenty

13 Feb 2017 – More than a billion people in the world are employed in agriculture, and in India, one out of four people are farmers or agricultural workers. Farm output contributes $325 billion (about 15 per cent) to India’s $2-trillion economy. Small farmers—who constitute 85 percent of farmers globally—make up one of the largest constituencies among the world’s poor .Small and marginal farmers constitute 80 per cent of total farm households, 50 per cent of rural households and 36 per cent of total households in India.

The Green Revolution in the 1970s relied on high-yielding seeds, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides to increase agricultural productivity, but took a heavy toll on the land and water resources of the country, reducing long-term productivity levels. States in India that were the frontrunners during the Green Revolution now suffer from soil degradation, ground water depletion and contamination and declining yields.

Experts fear that, at its current pace of consumption, the world is running out of useable topsoil.  A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally

More than a quarter of India’s land is turning to desert and the rate of degradation of agricultural areas is increasing, according to new analysis of satellite images. A report from the Indian Space Research Organization says land degradation – broadly defined as loss of productivity – is estimated at 96 million hectares, or nearly 30 percent of Indian land. Analysis of satellite mapping shows new areas in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir and eastern Indian states like Orissa and Jharkhand turning arid, with nine states together accounting for nearly 24 percent of desertification. In states like Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat and Goa, more than 50 percent of land is under desertification.

Economic reforms and the opening of Indian agriculture to the global market over the past two decades have made small farmers vulnerable to unusual changes and fluctuations. The small farmers have now to compete with the larger ones who are well endowed with capital, irrigation and supplementary businesses to buffer them against any adverse shocks.  As fallout the farmers are facing what has been called a “scissors crisis”, which is driven by the rising cost of inputs without a commensurate increase in output price.

A crop failure, an unexpected health expense or the marriage of a daughter are perilous to the livelihood of these farmers. An adverse weather change, for example, can lead to a drastic decline in output, and the farmer may not be able to recoup input costs, leave alone the ability to repay loans. Sometimes farmers have to plant several batches of seeds because they may go waste by delayed rains or even excess rains. The problem has dragged down yields and rural consumption nationwide — a heavy economic drag on a nation where two-thirds of people live in the countryside.

Small and marginal farmers also do not have access to institutional credit. Most of them depend on village traders, who are also moneylenders, giving them crop loans and pre-harvest consumption loans. Credit histories and collateral may serve to qualify middle-class customers for loans, but most rural smallholder farmers have neither.

According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) during the last decade the bloated debt of Indian agricultural households has increased almost 400 per cent while their undersized monthly income plummeted by 300 per cent. Even the number of heavily indebted households steeply increased during this period. Most farmers have become victims of the endemic phenomenon known to economists as the cycle of poverty-that unavoidable process of descending along the social ladder, by which the farmer became a sharecropper, then a peasant without land, then an agricultural labourer, then is eventually forced into exile. It was no use dreaming of climbing the rung in the reverse direction

The superior bargaining power of village traders and the middlemen means that the prices received by farmers are low. Thus, even if everything goes well, the rains are good, the crop is excellent, still farmers cannot get a good profit.

On account of the small size of the farms, they can rarely apply technological solutions that work best on the large scale. Since the extension workers of the government are not properly trained small farmers do not have access to knowledge of best practices .It involves crop rotation techniques by which crops are rotated such that no single family (botanical family) has predominance in the rotation; this ensures that pests do not build up, since pests are family specific also. Higher farm labour and input prices and depleting ground water resources   add to their woes.

Instead of weathering out the crisis, hundreds of farmers are choosing death over distress. It’s a familiar story in families across India’s    cotton production belt  in Maharashtra where one cotton farmer commits suicide every eight hours stories about farmers — almost always men — taking their lives by hanging,   or ingesting pesticides. Yet there are few programs to provide farm families with the psychological support that experts say they need to relieve the worries of rural life.Kishore Tiwari, who runs a government-backed mission to help farmers sys : “We have launched a number of schemes to halt the suicides of “ But ground zero remains as arid as ever .

A pro-farm budget makes for good, even necessary, politics. But even necessary politics get lost in the political game when corruption and bureaucracy run rampant. Instead of rolling out   supportive policies to help them stay afloat,  The government is jus offering measures which  are only cosmetic and   skin-deep, leaving fundamental   problems unresolved,

A prudent and effective strategy for small famers is    to form clusters for mutual self help where those growing the same crops come together in organized groups to receive joint training, buy inputs in bulk and start to sell as a single body .Smallholder farmer producer groups are a key component of creating true scale because of the confidence, support and buyer/seller power they provide.  This also enables a greater scale of transformation in terms of individuals and communities

While farmers, particularly those with small parcels of land, continue to work out strategies to keep their age old bond with their land alive the new generation finds farming unsustainable for their new living style .This is the key reason of their influx to cities despite the hard truth that their   new utopian world they hope to discover are just a vain chimera.

India  needs to arrest this influx and inject the rural economy with new skill development programmes to generate local employment .That is the right way of saving both the cities and villages –in a way the civilization itself.

In a post on his Gates Note blog, Gates said it was critical to protect small farmers in the world’s poorest countries – because they produce a large and growing share of the world’s food supply and because they face even greater risks because of climate change.

“For the world’s poorest farmers, life is a high-wire act – without safety nets. They don’t have access to improved seeds, fertilizer, irrigation systems, and other beneficial technologies, as farmers in rich countries do,” Gates writes.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Feb 2017.

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