Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Changing face of Indian agriculture-Mechanization vs manual operations

How often we hear the bland statement that rural India is responsible for feeding a population estimated at 1.20 billion in India and 70% of India's population is engaged in agricultural and other rural based activities, being the residents of more than 5 lakh villages across the country. However what is not clear is whether so many people are really needed to produce the quantum of foods being harvested year in and year out? There was this situation during the early stage of growth of this country when the technological base of agriculture, especially use of mechanical implements was indeed very weak, with most operations in the field being carried by the labor available locally. Over the years India's technological base has expanded and there is indigenous manufacture of many mechanical implements liker tractors which can fill the places of many manual workers with much more efficiency and it is no wonder that many well to do farmers are shifting to mechanized cultivation at least partially in many parts of the country, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Probably part of the productivity achieved during the last few years can be attributed to this factor. If this is so one wonders what ever has happened to the displaced labor caused by such mechanization trend? 

There is a strong feeling that the frenetic pace at which migration of rural population into urban areas must have some thing to do with declining opportunities for gainful employment in the farmlands in the country because of perceptible transition from predominantly labor oriented operations to a machine based production regime seen all over the country, though it is more in some states and less in some others. One of the amazing phenomena associated with this transition is that it flies contrary to the theory that small land holdings that characterize the land holding pattern in the country does not lend itself to mechanized farming unlike that existing in western countries where farm sizes can be 1000 acres and above in most cases. Look at the land holding pattern in India which brings out the stark reality about the predominance of marginal farmers in the agricultural landscape of the country. Almost 63% of the landholders have, on an average holding size of less than an acre of land to till while about 19% are relatively better placed by farming on a piece of land about the size of 3 acres per family. On the other end of the spectrum, 1% of the farming population own on an average 35 acres of land.per person. Others fall in between with average size holding in the range of 5 acres to 35 acres. The million dollar question that begs for an answer is how far such a landscape is amenable to mechanized farming? 

No doubt Indian agriculture is going through a transformation with governments, both at the state and central levels pumping in enormous money for sustaining the livelihood of the farmers, especially the so called marginal farmers. Minimum Support Prices offered to more than two dozen commodities and many farmer welfare programs are able to provide sustenance to millions of farmers. But at the same time more farmer suicides are taking place with a monotonous regularity defying any logical explanation. Billions of rupees worth of loans are being written off every year with politicians competing with each other in announcing such write offs! If India can boast of food grain stocks that is capable of ensuring food security we have to thank our hard working farmers who toil under adverse conditions like frequent droughts and floods. But can this situation continue indefinitely and will the farmers continue to stick to their land if agricultural activity becomes a perennially losing avocation? Land fragmentation in India is inevitable under a government regime where inherited land holdings by successive generations get shrunken in size and obviously becoming more and more non-viable. These inherited land pieces are not easily salable due to severe restrictive policies of the state governments with financially capable entrepreneurs barred from buying agricultural land. A classical Catch 22 situation!   

A recent report by one of the agencies under Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) provides interesting information regarding the changing agricultural scenario in the country. According to this report, Indian farmers, in spite of enormous hurdles and limitations are increasingly using more and more power based mechanical devices replacing the human element to manage their lands. India is known for its bullock driven economy till a couple of decades ago with agriculture contributing substantially to the national GDP and man and the beast combination successfully brought about the green revolution in the last millennium achieving the much desired food self sufficiency. Even to day many agricultural and social experts are not willing to write off the poor oxen which was an integral part of the rural settings across the country. A 1000 animal village with 60% milking cows and the rest dry cows and oxen is being propagated by the government of India for the integrated development of a village which can sell its milk for generating income while the byproducts from the animals like cow dung can produce cooking gas as well as manure for the farms belonging to the villagers. How far such novel schemes will succeed in an era when people are exposed to the convenience inherent in mechanical implements based agriculture remains to be seen.    

If ICAR findings are to be believed, Indian agriculture is going through a far reaching change mode beginning two decades ago. The share of human power available for carrying out the various operations in farming seems to have come down to less than 5% while draught animals' share also hovers around another 5%. More than 90% of the power is estimated to be drawn from mechanical sources like tractors and power tillers ( 47%); electric motors (27%) and diesel engines (16%). Compare this with the situation obtaining 40 years ago when 60% of the power was provided by humans and animals - 15% by farm workers and 45% by animals. These estimates are based on an average value of power that a human or a draught animal or any of the machines generate per unit of land. An average human being notionally capable of yielding about 0.15 kilowatt power per hectare of land worked while a tractor can give 30.21kW. .

It is true that overall farm mechanization in India has just reached about 40% which may be a low figure when compared to 95% levels prevalent in many developed countries. Thus 40% of farm operations for major crops are done by mechanical power sources and 60% is still being done by non- power sources like humans and bullocks.which generate only 10% of the total power available in farming. Naturally such over dependence on non-power sources has its own limitations in terms of efficiency. To day tractors are used mainly for initial land preparation by most farmers.while many use mechanical means for threshing and irrigation. Free supply of power for pump sets has helped those farmers having more than two acres of land while marginal farmers are denied this vital input free. Core operations like transplanting, weeding, fertilizer use etc are still done by farm workers. The small size of land holdings does not permit use of power driven tools for these operations. The use of power tillers and other farm machinery is facilitated by their easy availability on rental basis for a cluster of villages. 

Many social experts feel that such rapid mechanization trend can create a human problem because machines are bound to displace humans in the farm hinterlands of the country resulting in huge unemployment and under employment. However the national statistical figures available most recently tell a different story. According to the figures from the government there were 111 million cultivators and 75 million agricultural labourers in 1991 working to about 185 million people directly engaged in farming activities. Look at the latest figures and what a change has come about defying any rational explanation. As per the 2011 census there were 119 million cultivators and a whopping 144 million agricultural labourers, making a total of 263 million people working on land. If population increase during this period  is factored, as against a population increased of 43% during the last twenty years, the number of landless agricultural laborers registered an astonishing increase of 93%. The primary reason for this is that there is nowhere else where this army of under-employed people can find work, forcing them to crowd into agriculture or related rural work. It also pushes up migration to cities in search of jobs. 

The MNREGA, a novel initiative from the government to provide sustenance to persons not finding income generating activities, especially during the non-agricultural season in many rural areas has definitely helped to alleviate the situation to some extent. According to some estimates government had spent over 2 lakh crore rupees between 2007 and 2014 on this much touted welfare scheme though there is nothing much to show vis-a-vis permanent assets created, as per the original intention of the planners. Another paradox that is glaring is that there are not many takers for jobs offered under MNREGA with more than half the allocation remaining unspent for want of demand! Probably this program may have to be revisited for bringing about appropriate changes immediately to serve the purpose and create assets in the area of operation. 

If there are 144 million landless agricultural laborers hanging around the villages, largely under employed, what is the government going to do to prevent such a colossal waste of human resources year after year which is bound to go up if the present trend of agricultural mechanization continues at the current pace?  As there does not appear to be any clear policy orchestration still, are we going to see more and more people in the rural areas being pushed to poverty due to this?  In the light of the big push being given to the "Make in India" policy of the new government in the coming years, why not create massive industrial townships with adequate infrastructure for skill development in many rural areas with supporting family care facilities so that the vast population of under employed people, wasting most of their time, are absorbed by the industry on a regular basis? After all per in acre employment, agriculture cannot compete with industry and boosting manufacturing sector can be a sure way of utilizing the otherwise wasted man power. Reports from China indicate that large scale shifting of rural population to specially built smart towns and transferring the land to giant American agricultural companies with most modern technology and deep pockets are being attempted to expand the food production to meet future needs of a burgeoning population. This is not to suggest that we must ape China but the idea of rehabilitating rural population through such novel out of the box thinking is necessary to save the country from a potential melt down in our rural hinterlands causing turmoil all around.


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