We should stop politicizing India’s agricultural sector, as its crisis is much more fundamental and deep-rooted
More than 4 lakh farmers in India committed suicide between 1995 and 2018 – one of the main cases of agrarian distress in the world
Hustle and bustle has also become a fad and a rewarding career choice. In a globalized world, fundraising and branding is much easier and more fashionable. After a year of farmer unrest and the failure of 11 rounds of government-farmer talks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now withdrawn all three farm laws. Farmer unrest, however, is likely to continue towards a bigger political dividend.
While the current farmers’ protest seems more political, India’s agrarian crisis is far more real, fundamental and structurally flawed than it appears. More than 4 lakh farmers in India committed suicide between 1995 and 2018, one of the main cases of agrarian distress in the world. Most of them are marginal farmers.
Several datasets indicate that there are around 100-150 million farmers living in India, which is five times the population of Sri Lanka or twice the population of Germany or Britain. Almost 65 percent of them are marginal farmers who bear the brunt of chronic marginalization.
Sadly, however, India’s real agrarian crisis is still overlooked. We examine the structural issues of agriculture in BRICS countries in a comparative mode to understand the depth of challenges facing India’s agricultural sector.
BRICS Agrarian Sector
The agricultural sector in India suffers from three fundamental and structural problems that most governments have chronically failed to address. Using comparative land, labor and productivity data across BRICS countries, this article provides a comprehensive view of the depth of the land crisis in India.
The BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – offer a very diverse geography representing countries spread across four continents of Asia, Africa, South America and Europe.
Second, among the BRICS countries, China, Brazil, Russia, and India are structurally land-rich countries with greater agricultural possibilities.
Third, since Jim O’Neil conceptualized the acronym BRICS, the consortium has functioned as an ambitious global region of economic growth and development. Since BRICS countries interact and work in multiple levels of collaboration, it is beneficial to examine their agricultural sector for possible lessons and policy ideas.
Russia, Brazil and China are territorially much larger than India. Ironically though, among the BRICS countries, India has about 30 million hectares more arable land than China and Russia and over 100 million hectares more arable land than Brazil.
When we convert arable land to farming practices and cultivation, again India is way ahead of all BRICS countries. The data on rice and wheat cultivation clearly shows that India cultivates more land than any other BRICS member country.
Cumulatively, therefore, India is well ahead in terms of arable and cultivated land, especially when looking at rice and wheat cultivation. By default, therefore, India should ideally produce more rice and wheat than other BRICS countries. Unfortunately, the case is quite the opposite.
BRICS Rice productivity
In the 1960s, India and China, then predominantly agrarian economies, produced almost similar amounts of rice per unit of cultivated land.
Today, despite cultivating more land, India is the fourth largest producer of rice among the BRICS countries. China today produces nearly 1.5 times more rice per unit of land than India. Brazil and Russia are also far ahead of India in terms of rice production per unit of cultivated land. Since the 1970s, rice productivity in India has reached a structural limit. There is hardly any major government program or intervention to make our rice fields productive.
A similar story of under-productivity also haunts the saga of wheat growing in India. China produces significantly more wheat per unit of land than other BRICS countries. The productivity of wheat from Russia, Brazil, South Africa and India is almost comparable today.
However, as India cultivates more land, it becomes evident that we are producing comparatively less.
Labor market anomaly
India has a smaller labor force among the BRICS countries. While nearly 50 percent of the Chinese and Russian population work, only around 37.85 percent of Indians are in the labor market (it has declined from 41 percent previously). What does it mean? Job creation in India is less numerous and rather declining. As a result, 37.85 percent of India’s labor force must feed the remaining 63 percent of the population – a greater burden to earn more per unit of labor employed. In most developed economies like the G-7, nearly 50 percent of their population is a working population which keeps their households richer.
Economists have sufficiently clarified that the greater the dependence on agriculture, the poorer the country remains. Countries must industrialize to create jobs.
Sir Arthur Lewis, a Caribbean economist of African descent, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics in 1979 for his “dual sector” model, was one of the first to pioneer critical ideas in this sector. The two-sector model and several other modernization theorists have empirically argued that when populated countries lack industrialization and job creation, their agricultural sector will experience a concentration of excess labor leading to disguised unemployment phenomena. .
Surplus labor from the agricultural sector must be withdrawn as labor for industrialization. Industry and the agricultural sector (dual sector), working in tandem, will rationalize the distribution of labor. If the two sectors operate under optimal conditions, they will complement each other for greater wealth creation in the economy. China is the greatest example of this type.
China, India and most developing countries have adopted the Lewis model with varying degrees of success. In the 1950s and 1960s, China and India were primarily agrarian. In the absence of industrialization, nearly 80 percent of their workforce worked solely in agriculture. Based on the “dual sector” idea, China has succeeded in reducing its agricultural labor burden to 27% in about 40 years, while also becoming highly industrialized. The net result: China’s surplus agricultural labor force constitutes China’s industrial labor force, and China has become the “Asia Factory”.
On the other hand, even today, over 49 percent of India’s workforce is concentrated in agriculture, which is a serious structural economic anomaly. In most developed economies or G-7 countries, the agricultural labor force is only about one to two percent.
Lessons for India
No country can achieve economic development without being fundamentally correct. India urgently needs to engage in structural issues in real time. We have more land and we are cultivating it too. As the population is constantly increasing, if India’s farmland fails to gain in productivity, so will be poor with all your wealth. And not only is India’s farmland underproductive, India’s labor force is also underproductive.
It’s time to look inward and respond to structural fixes rather than the politicization of issues. India has adopted the Keynesian experience of the mixed economy. Beyond cosmetics, the government must provide irrigation and work structurally to make Indian farmlands productive, otherwise a million mutinies await Indian political space.
Professor RP Pradhan holds a PhD in International Relations and is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus, Goa.
Harshit Shah is a final year candidate in Computer Science and Economics at BITS Pilani Goa Campus.
Harshit Pruthi is a final year candidate for BE Computer Science & MSc Economics at BITS Pilani Goa Campus. The opinions expressed are personal.
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