How to define a farmer

News: Categorising farmers based on dependence on farm income, land ownership is inappropriate.

Harish Damodaran and Samridhi Agarwal argue that India’s farming population is much smaller than is usually estimated. They used the 2019 Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households (SAAH) survey to establish their argument.

They claim that while the official estimate of the number of agricultural households in India was 93.09 million in 2019, the number of “serious”, “full-time” or “regular” agricultural households was only 36 million.

They categorise only farmers that earn at least half of their total household income from crop cultivation as serious/regular.

The authors go on to suggest that the agricultural policy should target only serious/regular farming households as they “genuinely depend on farming”.

However, their argument is flawed on several counts. Some of the key problems with the Damodaran-Agarwal argument is highlighted in this article.

What are the key problems with the Damodaran-Agarwal argument?

Firstly, the categorisation of farmers as serious/regular based on a single ratio of farm income dependence and an arbitrary threshold of 50% is a non-serious exercise. Such identification completely ignores the varied historical trajectory of development and livelihood diversification in diverse regions of India.

For example, in a poor yet mineral-rich state like Jharkhand, livelihood diversification may have been driven by poverty and local conditions of both farm and non-farm work, which may have intensified such coping mechanisms over time. Such a situation does not make the poor farmers who use their land for subsistence, and pursue other occupations in the lean season, any less dependent on farming.

Secondly, Using the term “Kisan” to identify farmers complicates the social and economic relations, including exploitative ones, that exists within agriculture. Farmers are not a homogenous category. They are differentiated into classes and castes. More realistic and useful categories of rich/middle/poor farmers or capitalist/petty-producer/agricultural labour is needed to identify those engaged in agriculture.

Thirdly, it does not take in to account the contribution made by  the remaining 70%, that is, marginal farmers possessing less than 1 hectare of land. According to Damodaran-Agarwal, their 50% “serious farmer” threshold is crossed at the all-India level by farmers with more than 1 hectare of land. This is possessed by only 30% of agricultural households.

Fourthly, the recommendations by Damodaran and Agarwal also have serious ramifications for socially disadvantaged communities. The historical and contemporary practices of caste-based exclusion and the failure of the state to undertake meaningful redistributive land reforms means that a large majority of the Dalit community remains landless.

Withdrawing state support to smallholders will have a disproportionate impact on the socially marginalised groups and would further push them into asset poverty.

Fifthly, the land and natural resource question was not addressed. If 70% of agricultural households are identified as non-serious farmers who should be moved out of agriculture, what happens to their land resources!

Moving non-serious farmers out of agriculture will lay the foundation for agri-business monopolies. Also, it is unlikely that agro-based industries will be able to create enough jobs to absorb the millions displaced from their lands.

Finally, the authors seem to be unaware of the function of agriculture as a social safety net in providing a source of sustenance to millions.

Damodaran and Agarwal do not discuss that the SAAH data also shows a fall in real average crop incomes between 2013 and 2019. The fall in returns from cultivation is driven by rising input prices and dwindling output prices.

Marginal and small farmers face disproportionate hardships in acquiring subsidised inputs or getting remunerative prices from public procurement. Smallholders also rely more on informal sources of moneylending, which adds to indebtedness.

What is the way forward?

For several decades now, successive governments have pursued policies that have led to worsening agrarian distress.

This has pushed millions into low-paying petty jobs and continues to plague those who are compelled to depend (even partially) on agriculture for survival.

The solution to the problem of Indian farmers needs a serious rethink of the economic policies and surely cannot lie in simply excluding them by redefinition.

Source: This post is based on the article “How to define a farmer” published in Indian Express on 6th November 2021.

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