22 November 2016

Rapporteur's Report: Agrarian Distress, Family Farming, Land Management and Other Issues

I begin with apologies on two counts. First, for not being able to come personally to the Conference, something that I really wanted to do, but could not for logistic reasons. Second, for the delay in preparing this rapporteur's report. Having said that, I take this opportunity to thank the office bearers for bearing with me and for the opportunity that they conferred on me. It is an honour. I enjoyed reading the papers for the theme on 'Agrarian Distress, Family Farming, Land Management and Other Issues' for the 76th annual conference of the Indian Society of Agricultural Economics being held during 21-23 November 2016 at Assam Agricultural Uiversity, Jorhat. Under this theme, there are two full papers and 17 abstracts, all selected anonymously. I came to know the identity of the author's much later and I should complement the office bearers for their professional conduct. I will not elaborate on the papers or even attempt to summarise them, as they have been presented in the conference, but will highlight certain aspects that appeal to one's academic sensibilities that are relevant to the theme.

The Theme
Distress in Indian agriculture has two analytically interrelated domains - the agrarian and the agricultural. The former is about the distress that the farmer (as also the agricultural labourer) is in. In other words, it is about the distribution of the agricultural produce and its impact on the livelihood of the people involved in or dependent on agrarian activities. The latter is the distress that the farm is in on account of a production focus (the target of 4 per cent growth not being met). To be specific, it raises questions about the inadequacies and inappropriateness of the agricultural developmental programmes.

A symptom of the agrarian distress is farmers' suicides. Equally important is the link of suicides to livelihood concerns. Of course, absence of suicides in a region does not do away with agrarian distress. Similarly, debt, or non-serviceability of debt, is a symptom of the agricultural distress (note that its absence does not imply absence of distress).

Land evokes many questions. The rights of the tenant or even sub-tenants as also the concerns of the land owner, increasing usage for urban and industrial purposes, and digitalisation of records among others. At the farm level, land management aspects require an understanding of soil health, the relevance of cropping practices that espouse sustainability (for instance multiple cropping and crop rotation).

Climate change is an important concern. It is not only about rising temperatures, but also about intense wet spell and long dry spells. Conventionally risks were identified with weather shocks (that is, abundance or shortfalls in water leading to production loss) or price shocks (low returns per unit of output). However, it was understood that these two shocks moved in opposite directions reducing the impact of their combined risk. Over the years, this has changed and both can occur concurrently. At the same time, there is an increase in marginalisation, casualisation and feminisation. Researchers working in the field as also others are conveying that the median age of the farm worker (cultivator and agricultural labourer) is increasing. Farms are increasingly being dependent on the older or female populations.

Understanding of the agrarian and the agricultural will require and enquiry that encompasses the economic, the social, the multiple facets of agricultural sciences (soil, hydrology, seeds, livestock, fisheries), the agro-ecological aspects, and the emerging technological dimensions (for instance, genetically modified seeds) among others. This requires studies that go beyond disciplinary boundaries and within disciplines they need to apply mixed methods are challenges that need to be taken head on.

The Two Full Papers
It is interesting to note that one of the full papers on 'Assessment of risk due to exposure to drought: A study of farm households of  Nagaland' by Baiarbor Nongbri, S.M. Feroze, Lala I.P. Ray and L. Devarani is a collaborative endeavour by a Masters student of Agricultural Economics with three Professors from different disciplines - Economics, Natural Resource Management and Agricultural Extension. The scholars not only go beyond disciplinary boundaries, but also go beyond state boundaries - the scholars are based in Meghalaya, the conference is in Jorhat, Assam and the paper is on Nagaland. The merging of boundaries is the call of the hour to enhance our understanding from a mixed method perspective. In examining the persistent shortfalls in rainfall, the paper captures the vulnerability of farm households to drought, which also has implications on their riskiness. It calls for research into drought tolerant varieties, water-saving technologies for agriculture as also household (including drinking water) and other requirements.  

The other full paper on 'Status and Determinants of Livestock Insurance in India: A Micro Level Evidence from Haryana and Rajasthan' by Subhash Chand, Anjani Kumar, Madhusudan Bhattarai and Sunil Saroj is also another piece of collaborative exercise. It permeates institutional boundaries with scholars from a national institute joining together with an international institute. Using primary data based on field work in two states - Haryana and Rajasthan, the scholars highlight the low penetration of insurance among livestock farmers and call for farmer-friendly insurance products.

Agrarian Distress
From the 17 abstracts, there are about six papers with the word distress in the title. One paper is on Maharashtra, one compares and contrasts the scenario of cotton farmers in Maharashtra and Telengana, one is on Odisha, two papers are on Punjab and one is on backward regions.

The paper 'From Food to Cash: Has it Caused Distress? (Case of Maharashtra)' by Sangeeta Shroff and Jayanti Kajale discuss the grim scenario in Marathwada and Vidarbha of Maharashtra on account of a shift from food to cash crops, particularly a shift from Paddy and Jowar to Soyabean and Cotton. The cash crops are particularly vulnerable to drought conditions, as the regions are largely cultivated under rainfed conditions. Besides, Marathwada and Vidarbha are also regions where more than 70 per cent of the workforce are dependent on agriculture, it makes them vulnerable.

'Are Farmers in Rainfed Region Credit Constrained? An Enquiry in the Context of Farm Distress by A. Suresh, K.V. Praveen, A. Amarender Reddy  and D.R. Singh' compare and contrast the scenario among cotton farmers in Maharashtra and Telengana and observed that almost all farmers have availed credit (98 per cent in Maharashtra and 96 per cent in Telengana). A  concern that arises is that a substantial portion credit is obtained from non-institutional sources (32 per cent in Maharashtra and 82 per cent in Telengana; the difference to some extent explained by the relatively higher penetration of cooperatives in the former) with a greater interest burden. This is particularly so for the smaller as also Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

'Agrarian Crisis, Indebtedness and Farmers Suicide in Odisha: An Analysis' by Urmi Pattanayak and Minati Mallick juxtapose the period prior to 1990s with the period after that by pointing out that in the former period the agricultural growth took us out from a ship-to-mouth existence as agricultural production was more than the population growth, but this is not the case in the recent period. Further, with an increased reliance on input-intensive technology, also increased the reliance on credit and with non-serviceability has led to indebtedness among farmers. In Odisha, nearly half the farmers are indebted and the proportions are relatively higher among other backward classes.

The two papers on Punjab are based on primary data and point out the increasing stress in rural areas. Randeep Kaur and Kuldeep Kaur in their paper 'Punjab Agriculture-The Crisis of Indebtedness' refer to relatively greater reliance of credit from non-institutional sources by marginal and small farmers at a higher interest burden. They call for a restructuring of the credit delivery system that favour the marginal and the small farmers.

In 'Emerging Problems of Agriculture and Mounting Distress of Farmers – An Assessment', Sukhdev Singh and Maninder Kaur point out that the farmer is at a crossroads. While the aspirations of the rural/agricultural consumer wants everything on par with the urban consumer, the returns from agriculture is shrinking and productivity growth is stagnant. What is more, there is a loss of natural resources. These have been exacerbated on account of policies that facilitated rice-wheat cultivation while other crops have been declining. The shift away from paddy and other food crops in Marathwada and Vidarbha (as indicated above) is in sync with shift towards paddy in Punjab (largely being grown as a cash crop, as they do not generally consume paddy in Punjab). This cruel irony stem from earlier decisions to stem us out from the ship-to-mouth existence.

This calls for restructuring the way we do agriculture. One such approach is integrated farming that K. K. Datta, Uttam Bhattacharya and  Shiv Raj Singh address in their 'Distress of the Agricultural People in the Backward Regions in India: Exploring A Development Process through Crop- Livestock Linkages'.

Land: Tenancy and Marginalisation
The concern around tenants not getting their due and the fear of the landowner are assuming importance. The NITI Aayog has come up with a model law to address these. In this context, the paper on 'Changing Dynamics of Land Leasing and Tenancy in India: Emerging Policy Issues' by Sukhpal Singh adds value. The paper examines secondary sources of data to outline a contour of tenancy across the country and draws primary insights from field in Punjab (with a focus on reverse tenancy) and Gujarat (with lowest reported tenancy penetration).

When it comes to land, the decreasing size of holdings is a matter of concern. Sanatan Nayak's 'Marginalisation of Land Holding in India: A District Level Analysis' addresses this. While pointing to variation across states, it does highlight the relatively higher marginalisation in certain states (Bihar and Kerala) and certain communities (Scheduled Castes). What should ring the alarm bells is that more than one-third of the districts in the country are facing high ranges of marginalisation and large scale landlessness.
There is a peasant saying stating that 'Give us water, we will give you gold'. In monsoon India where one-third of the area is drought-prone due to uneven distribution of rainfall, V.G. Pokharkar, K.R. Waikar, A.J. Amle and S.P. Kalhapure examine the 'Impact of Farm Ponds on Economy of Beneficiary Farmers in Ahmednagar District' of Maharashtra. The study observes that construction of farm ponds had an overall positive effect with greater diversification, better crop-livestock linkages, improved production, increased employment, and higher income.

The search for water has led farmers in Chikballapur district of Karnataka to dig deep tube wells. The paper 'Farmer’s Choice for Deep Tube Well Irrigation by C.K. Soujanya, S. Varadha Raj and R. Balasubramanian observes that the younger (those with relatively less experience) educated farmer is digging deeper and deeper to strike that elusive gold (nay, to address livelihood concerns) through cultivation of water-intensive crops. However, this 'tragedy of commons' like scenario would have long-term adverse implications on availability of groundwater and calls for sustainable practices.

A study on ecologically fragile distressed areas 'Microfinance in Drought Areas of Rajasthan, India: Some Issues' by Gyanendra Mani points out the constraints faced by female Self-help Groups (SHGs) after bank-linkages. In particular, apathy of banks, denial of credit, insufficient credit that would make debt non-serviceable, prevention of internal lending, and absence of coping mechanism during periods of stress among others.

'Feminization in Indian Agriculture: Extent and Dimensions' by Pragya Sharma is based on an analysis of agricultural census data for 2005-06 and 2011-12. It observes an increase in proportion of women land holders at the all India level as also in many states. The concern, however, is absence of entitlement and calls for conferring ownership rights and promotion of cooperative farming.

Resource Use
The paper on 'Crop Planning for Improving Resource Use Efficiency and Sustainability in Western Maharashtra (Plain Zone) of Maharashtra' by R.R.Nirgude, A.V.Gavali, K.G. Sonawane and D.B. Yadav observes diversity in cropping pattern, but non-profitability in certain crops takes them to apply linear programming to suggest an optimum cropping pattern. Exploring the applicability of such post-fact analysis to real-life setting with features to compensate for possible loss could be attempted.

'Resource use and Disposal Pattern of Major Cropping Sequence in Zone IV-a&b (Sub-Humid Southern Plain and Aravali Hills) of Rajasthan' by P.S.Rao and Hari Singh is based on Udaipur district where the dominant cropping system is maize-wheat. It observes that costs per hectare increases with farm sizes reflecting perhaps a greater risk-bearing capacity. Lack of irrigation facilities, unavailability of newly developed high yielding variety seeds, and imbalanced use of fertilisers are major constraints that adversely affect yield.

Comparing and contrasting organic and conventional farmers growing brinjal and chilli in Attur taluka of Salem district is the paper 'Resource Use Efficiency and Determinants of Adoption of Organic Farming in Select Crops in Tamil Nadu by M. Anjugam, P. Saranya, S.Varadha Raj, and M.Chinnadurai. The study observes that organic farming is economically viable. However, they raise the concern with regard to less than optimum use of inputs (perhaps to reduce costs). A secondary source of income and possession of livestock had positive association on adoption of organic farming. There is a need for provisioning extension services for facilitating organic farming.

The concerns of income are important. 'Farm Size, Farm Income and Efficiency: The Case of Commercial Pineapple Farming in Kerala' by Jomy M. Thomas and P. Indira Devi compare small and medium farms and observe that per hectare costs are lower for small farms, but per hectare returns are higher for medium farms. Scale economies, better output through high plant density and better quality fruits have contributed to this. They point out the more than optimal use of chemical fertilisers, and build in a case for improving efficiency, particularly among the small farmers.

In the paper 'Unpredictable Income and Farmers Suicides – The case of Karnataka' by T.N. Prakash Kammaradi, H. Chandrashekar, K.J. Parameshwarappa, Harsha V. Targal, Gireesh P.S. and Mali Patil Vijay Kumar want to draw attention to stability and predictability of farmers' income.  They articulate a need to reduce the gap between what the consumer pays and what the producer receives and suggest increased production, reduction in costs, and that market transactions at least ensure the minimum support price. However, they do concede that even these may not be enough to provide a decent standard of living to majority of the farmers because of small holding size. This calls for serious introspection to provision for alternative sources of income and come up with a minimum living income for farm-dependent households. They suggest the need for a farmers' income commission in line with pay commission.   


The theme 'Agrarian Distress, Family Farming, Land Management and Other Issues' had two full papers and 17 abstracts. The takeaways are as follows. The two full papers and five of the abstracts have four or more authors and they take about collaborative endeavours that break disciplinary and institutional boundaries, which is a good thing for the discipline. In some of these collaborative endeavours as also other collaborative endeavours, one sees that younger scholars (Masters and PhD scholars) are not only part of the team but are taking a lead role, which is commendable. The issues on agrarian distress, land, water, gender, resource use and income mentioned in the abstracts as also in the two full papers raise important concerns, provide suggestions and build up cases for further studies. I apologise to the authors for any inadvertent failing on my part. I take this opportunity to once again thank the office bearers for giving me this opportunity.

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