ARTICLE: IS INDIAN AGRICULTURE TOTTERING BECAUSE OF FARM LABOUR SHORTAGE?

By Kamlesh Tripathi, positions held : former General Manager, Mahindra &Mahindta Ltd., Head Operations, Mahindra Shubh Labh Services Ltd., Head- Agri & Engines, Escorts Ltd., Vice President Reliance Retail (Writer and Author)

Yes it is; and may be for some more time to come, till the takeover of ‘farm mechanization’ is complete from end-to-end. And while reminiscing, admiring and complimenting the age old traditional asset of Indian agriculture- the devoted farm labour that worked generation after generation in the farmland, but is now scaling down the path let us understand the table below, etched out of the latest Indian Agriculture Census 2011 report. While the table is simple the message is all about a paradigm change.

CENSUS 2011 REPORT

PERCENTAGE SHARE OF DIFFERENT FARM POWER SOURCES IN INDIAN AGRICULTURE
YEAR AGRICULTURE WORKERS DRAUGHT ANIMALS TRACTORS POWER TILLERS DIESEL ENGINES ELECTRIC MOTORS POWER/KW/HA
1971-72 10.64 52.86 8.45 0.11 17.16 10.79 0.424
1981-82 9.2 33.55 18.46 0.11 22.85 15.82 0.592
1991-92 7.22 20.5 26.14 0.16 21.14 24.84 0.907
2005-06 5.39 9.97 38.45 0.44 20.09 25.66 1.498
2009-10 5.12 8.55 41.65 0.52 19.01 25.13 1.658

• Since 1971-72 the percentage share of agriculture work force has gone down from 10.64 to 5.12% which means a big chunk of 50% has moved away to either cities and or employment in other sectors. The figures, post 2010 are not out and therefore ascertaining the impact of MNREGA may be a miscalculation as of now. And the major impact however, has been between 1981 and 2005.

• And, similarly, but with a more aggressive intensity the percentage of draught animals has also come down from 52.86% to 8.55%. Most draught-animal farmers are small and marginal in the <2ha category or maximum medium. Therefore, maintaining these animals without proper land holding is becoming an extremely expensive proposition. For the cost of animal feed is constant or only going up but the work is seasonal and so the proposition is becoming less remunerative. And therefore the above table points to the reality of draught animals being gradually replaced by mechanization of the small and micro variety.

• And so the moot point that emanates out of the Indian Agriculture scenario is of coming down of life factors and up trending of mechanization.

• The usage of tractors has also gone up but the figure doesn’t talk of horse power trends where, 60, 45 and 35 HP category markets have largely been replaced by smaller HP categories such as 25 and 16. In fact states with high HP category industry such as Punjab, Gujarat, Maharastra, AP, TN, Karnataka and Kerala have also taken a switch to smaller HP category on account of reduction in land holding sizes. But where you have black cotton, clay soil that requires extra lugging power, the markets have continued in the domain of 35 HP and above. And also where you have sugar mills, and tractors are required for pulling double trolleys loaded with sugar cane; 35, 45 and 60 HP still rule the roost.

• The trends are also upward in case of Power tillers, which has grown quite insignificantly from 0.11% to 0.52%. The restricted growth has primarily been due to conservative marketing by small and medium players, no precise farmer training on farm economics and availability of alternative products, lack of industry cartel and even lack of focussed Government promotion to encourage micro equipment. But with the changing farm-profit trends this will catapult into a major industry by grabbing industry share from the tractor industry.

BUT WHERE IS THE WORK FORCE HEADING TO:

The major chunk of farm labour are the land less peasants who do menial yet critical farm operations such as weeding, transplanting, pesticide spraying, fertilizer application in row crops and are paid in kind.

With the percentage share of Indian agriculture declining in Indian GDP to fifteen percent, the ongoing high pressure of population’s dependence on agriculture and increasing fragmentation of land holdings leading to decreasing availability of cultivated land area per household; the availability of such seasonal jobs is becoming more and more, scarce.

Job opportunities in factories, infrastructure projects and services are becoming more lucrative. And also the advent of MNREGA that guarantees 100 days of work per annum has smothered the charm of working as a farm labourer.

India still spends almost half of her/his total expenditure on food while roughly half of India’s work force is still engaged in agriculture for its livelihood. Being both a source of livelihood and food security for a vast majority of low income, poor and vulnerable sections of society, its performance assumes greater significance in view of the proposed National Food Security Bill and the ongoing act of MGNREGA. And with this decrease in the availability of farm labour the cost of labour has also gone up. And also the cross country movement of labour for example from Bihar to other states such as Punjab has dried down.

The decrease in agriculture’s contribution to GDP has not been accompanied by a matching reduction in the share of agriculture in employment. About 52% of the total workforce is still employed by the farm sector which makes more than half of the Indian population dependant on agriculture for sustenance but the trend may change in times to come. However, within the rural economy, the share of income from non-farm activities has increased.

65% of India’s population is below 35 years of age: Knowledgeable and ambitious. They do not have the wherewithal to do donkeys work in the farm as their ancestors did. They, therefore, would like self- operated micro farm mechanization and would like status tag to be added to agriculture as an industry and end-to-end mechanization.

Trained labour shortage also encourages use of excessive weedicides and herbicides by farmers less trained in the activity that gets into the food chain resulting in increased health issues, like in some districts in Punjab groundwater is no more potable and cases of cancer rampant.

THE WAY FORWARD

The inevitable pressures of the Indian agriculture are only going to increase and the government needs to have a four cornered policy that takes care of the environment, farming viability, farm labour and productivity

• There is immediate need to have a cropwise, areawise farm profitability review. In this review each cost should be ascertained for the marginal and medium farmer.
• There is need to introduce micro cropping equipment to marginal and medium farmers for diversified critical cropping activities, more for self-farming, cost control and increase in productivity.
• Environment concerns should be addressed forthwith even it requires changing of cropping pattern. Like paddy in Punjab which requires heavy water consumption should be replaced with some other crop requiring less water and farmer profitability should accordingly be addressed
• Skill training to be imparted to farm labour for better farm economics, environmental concerns and certainty of employment for farm labourer.

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