Some years ago, former President APJ Abdul Kalam was addressing students at an annual event organised by K Govindacharya's Bhartiya Swabhiman Andolan at Gulbarga in Karnataka. He exhorted students to work hard, educate themselves to become doctors, engineers, civil servants, scientists, economists and entrepreneurs. After he had ended his talk, a young student got up and asked why he didn't say they should also become farmers.
Abdul Kalam was floored. Whatever be his long-winding answer, the young student had actually punctured his argument, and at the same time brought out the great bias towards farming.
This incident came to my mind when I was reading a moving essay by a farmer from the United States. Bren Smith, a shellfish and seaweed farmer writes in The New York Times, "The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn't making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat." Accordingly, 91 per cent of all farm households in the US rely on multiple sources of income. No farmer wants his children to take up farming in North America.
This is happening in a country where the Farm Bill 2014 makes a provision for $962 billion of federal subsidy support for agriculture for the next 10 years. In Europe, the situation is equally alarming. Despite 40 per cent of the European annual budget being devoted to agriculture, one farmer quits agriculture every minute. In Canada, the National Farmers Union has in a study shown that while the 70-odd agribusiness companies are raking in profits, farmers are the only segment of the food chain incurring losses. As I have been saying for long, more than 80 per cent of the agricultural subsidies in America and Europe actually go to agribusiness corporations.
Farmers are a dying breed. Writing in Newsweek magazine, Max Kutner says: "For decades, farmers across America have been dying by suicide at higher rates than the general population. The exact numbers are hard to determine, mainly because suicides by farmers are under-reported (they may get mislabelled as hunting or tractor accidents, advocates for prevention say) and because the exact definition of a farmer is elusive." Well, what is happening in America is not an isolated development; farmers are dying across the globe.
According to news report, nearly 80 per cent of the 2,80,000 rural people who take their own lives every year in China are victims of farmland acquisition. In India, almost 300,000 farmers have ended their lives since 1995. Again, like in the US, farmer suicides are also under-reported in India with some states now trying to hide them by shifting these deaths to some other categories. Even in Europe, which provides massive subsidy support under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the serial death dance continues unabated. In France, 500 suicides have been reported in a year. In Ireland, UK, Russia, and Australia, farmers are a dying breed.
In India, although we keep on saying that agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, in reality it isn't. Employing some 52 per cent of the population, the share of agriculture in the country's GDP has been progressively on the decline. It is less than 14 per cent now. I have been saying for long that small farmers have to get into multiple jobs to keep their chulas burning. Such is the pathetic state of Indian agriculture that some studies point to roughly 58 per cent farmers relying on NREGA, which provides 100 days guaranteed employment.
Still worse, the people who feed the country actually sleep hungry themselves. More than 60 per cent go to bed hungry every night. Nothing can be a worse illustration of the great tragedy on the farm.
It's not because of any unexplained natural calamity or the attack of a virus that the farms across the globe are dying. It is part of a global economic design to move farmers out of agriculture and, by doing so, to shift food production into the hands of heavily subsidised and environmentally destructive agribusiness companies. It is generally believed that for any country to grow economically, the share of agriculture in the GDP must be brought down. In US, agriculture is only 4 per cent of its GDP. In India, it is less than 14 per cent now. By the end of 2020, I am sure it would be brought down to less than 10 per cent. Small scale agriculture is, therefore, deliberately being strangulated.
Such is the plight of Indian agriculture that in the past six years — from 2007 to 2012 — 3.2 crore farmers have abandoned farming and moved into the cities looking for menial jobs. According to census 2011, every day 2,500 farmers quit agriculture. Some other studies have shown that roughly 50,000 people migrate from a village (and that includes farmers) into a town/city every day. As per a NSSO study, 42 per cent farmers want to quit if given an alternative.
In Punjab, which is the frontline agricultural state in the country, 98 per cent rural households are under debt. Studies have shown that the average outstanding debt per household is about Rs4.5 lakh per year which accounts for 96 per cent of the yearly income. If farming is in such a terrible state in Punjab, the state of affairs in the rest of the country can be well imagined.
In my understanding, the unwritten economic prescription is to make farming non-viable so that farmers are left with no other choice but to quit. In a quest to keep food prices low, which comes in very handy to freeze the minimum support price for farmers the predominant economic thinking supports large agribusiness conglomerates. This is being made much easier by the growing demand for amending the newly enacted land acquisition law. More and more land will now pass on into the hands of industry and real estate, forcing farmers to do menial jobs in the cities. The demise of the farmer therefore is predetermined. It's only a matter of time before the farmer as a species goes extinct. That is why Abdul Kalam doesn’t talk of the pride in farming anymore.
The author is food policy expert