Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘agrarian

Where India’s farmers have gone

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Can you spot the farmers, the cultivators, the growers, the agricultural labourers? A crowded street in central Bangalore.

Can you spot the farmers, the cultivators, the growers, the agricultural labourers? A crowded street in central Bangalore.

The change in the number of cultivators and agricultural labourers in India, as recently provided by Census 2011, is a major indicator of a state’s treatment of its crop-growing communities and its approach to land use. It is usually difficult to spot long-term trends in economic activity, in particular that of agriculture and food production, in the districts – a condition that the state does little to rectify.

Even so, these difficulties are eased to an extent by reading the census data together with other data – in particular land use and major crops. These should help us recognise the growing impacts on food security caused by rampant urbanisation and the steady erosion of the population of cultivators. [Please see the complete article on Macroscan.]

To gain a better understanding of the changes in the numbers of cultivators and agricultural labour (marginal or main) it is useful to read them with the change in the number of agricultural holdings in India over the same ten years, and this is provided, over exactly the same decade, by the Agricultural Census.

Changes in the populations of farmers in the 20 major states between the two censuses.

Changes in the populations of farmers in the 20 major states between the two censuses.

The last complete Agricultural Census is for the year 2005-06. The next is for 2010-11, and ‘All India Report on Number and Area of Operational Holdings (provisional)’, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture (2012), from which we have the national and state level provisional data.

This tells us that the number of ‘operational holdings’ in India rose over a ten year period from 119.9 million to 137.7 million (up 14.8%). Whereas in three categories of the size of holdings (large, medium and semi-medium) the number of operational holdings dropped, in the categories of small and marginal the number rose (by 8.8% and 22.4% respectively). The rise in total operational holdings of 17.8 million is due mainly to the increase in the number of marginal holdings, that is, below one hectare, and these account for more than 95% of the all holdings added to the total in this ten-year period.

At a national level, the addition of such a large number of small holdings has not expanded the total acreage under cultivation. Rather, all cultivated land – in all size categories – has very slightly shrunk (by 0.16%) to 159.1 million hectares. However, the total masks both one large deficit and one large addition – a 17.5% decrease in the total operating area of large holdings (10-20 hectares, and above 20 hectares), and a 18.7% increase in the total operating area of marginal holdings (below one hectare). The total area operated as marginal holdings has risen from 29.8 million hectares in 2000-01 to 35.4 million hectares in 2010-11.

This provides some of the background about the change in land use that accompanies the disturbing top-level indication given to us by Census 2011 about India’s farmers. There are now 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming is their main occupation, reported P Sainath, which is less than 8 per cent of the population, down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991.

Urbanising regions have bled farming districts of their cultivators, and pushed them into cities in towns in conditions such as these. A slum settlement in northern Mumbai.

Urbanising regions have bled farming districts of their cultivators, and pushed them into cities in towns in conditions such as these. A slum settlement in northern Mumbai.

It is with these readings – in the change in number of and type of farm plots – that the change in the numbers of cultivator and agricultural labour gives us a fuller picture. Considering the four categories of occupation under the Census enumeration which pertain to cultivation and agriculture, we have main or marginal cultivators or agricultural labourers, and data for the changes seen in these categories between the two Censuses (2001 and 2011). The changes for the 20 large states reveal the following (data sheet is available here as a xlsx file):

* The variation in the number of marginal agricultural labourers ranges from 170% more in Jammu and Kashmir, 100% more in Bihar and 83% more in Himachal Pradesh to 32% less in Kerala, 23% less in Maharashtra and 16% less in Karnataka.
* The variation in the number of marginal cultivators ranges from 47% more in Jharkhand, 31% more in Himachal Pradesh and 25% more in Bihar to 35% less in Gujarat, 34% less in Haryana and 33% less in Maharashtra.
* The variation in the number of main agricultural labourers ranges from 117% more in Rajasthan, 89% more in Himachal Pradesh and 73% more in Uttaranchal to 10% less in Kerala, 5% more in Bihar and 10% more in Punjab.
* The variation in the number of main cultivators ranges from 17% more in Assam, 12% more in Maharashtra and 2% more in Rajasthan to 40% less in Jammu and Kashmir, 24% less in Jharkhand and 20% less in Bihar.

These losses and Census gains have much to do with the great urbanisation taking place in the major states. There is a continuing trend of holdings smaller in size and greater in number (which must, from an agricultural productivity point of view, not automatically be considered a liability), which is a factor in the redistribution of cultivating communities of the food-producing districts. The consequences to the capacities of these districts for sustaining a minimum level of food production for their own consumption are yet to be recognised and understood.

Barefoot water scientists in Andhra Pradesh, India

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An interesting short video from FAO on water management and cultivating responses to indeterminate (or insufficient) water stocks. In southern India, the climate is becoming unpredictable and drought more common , says FAO – and this indeed is the case for peninsular India in general. Indiscriminate pumping from shallow aquifers shared by many farmers has caused abnormal drops in water levels, most notably in northern and north-west India, in the states of Punjab and Haryana which were the Green Revolution model states. When a well goes dry, a farmer loses his crop. In Andhra Pradesh, said FAO, 6,000 farmers have been trained in groundwater management by a project run by Indian NGOs and guided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They have learned to monitor how much water is available underground at the start of the growing season. Then they only plant crops that need that much water.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

Here is some background on the legacy of irrigation in India, and the administrative functions that large irrigation projects provided the state, whether that state was colonial (as a dominion of Great Britain) or independent (Republic of India). “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India  was the ‘irrigation champion’ of the world. While the colonial government initially neglected the maintenance and upkeep of the numerous but mostly small irrigation structures, it soon spotted the potential for large-scale canal irrigation as an economic enterprise and took to canal building as a business on a massive scale. In those days, there was much dissatisfaction with irrigation management among observers and investors who expected much higher financial return on irrigation investments.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

This is written by By Tushaar Shah in the chapter, ‘Past, Present, and the Future of Canal Irrigation in India’, found in ‘India Infrastructure Report 2011 – Water: Policy and Performance for Sustainable Development’, (Oxford University Press 2011).

“Yet, in retrospect, around 1900, canal irrigation systems in India were arguably in a far better state than today in terms of their operation and maintenance (O&M), productivity impacts, and financial returns. If we look at the situation ten years ago, around 2000, while the new welfare state had kept alive the colonial tradition of big time canal construction, the management of canal irrigation had become pathetic in terms of all the criteria on which it excelled a century ago.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

“The dominant view about the way out is that farmer management through water user associations can restore canal irrigation to its old glory. However, this may not be the correct thinking. Shah has argued that the larger socio-technical fundamentals in which canal irrigation can thrive in a smallholder agrarian setting were all mostly present around 1900 and are all mostly absent today.”

The colonial irrigation management was a high input-high output affair, said Shah. A vast authoritarian bureaucracy reaching down to the village level used forced labour to maintain canal network, managed water distribution, and undertook ruthless water fee recovery on all lands deemed to be irrigated.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

In the canal commands, the canal water ‘tax had to be paid regardless of whether or not use was made of the canal in a particular year or whether or not there was a reliable supply from the canal’ (Hardiman 2002: 114). This, according to Hardiman, encouraged, even forced, farmers to grow valuable commercial crops to generate cash. It also resulted in much litigation from dissatisfied zamindars who put pressure on canal managers to ensure water delivery and maintain canals. The amounts provided for O&M were substantial so that deferred maintenance was minimal.

As a commercial venture, the performance of canal irrigation has decidedly declined over the past 100 years. D.R. Gadgil, the pioneer of Indian economic planning, had argued that, in a poor agrarian economy like India, public irrigation investments should be judged on their social and economic returns rather than their financial returns. Soon after Independence, irrigation charges were drastically reduced; and even these declined to a small fraction. Have public irrigation investments in free India delivered the irrigation—and the socio-economic returns they were designed for as Gadgil had hoped?  Unfortunately, the answer to the question is ‘No’; and there lies the heart of the problem. The financial rot was the harbinger of a much deeper crisis of stagnation and decline in public irrigation systems whose social and economic returns turned out to be far smaller than imagined.