Make Agriculture Aspirational Again
While the recent poll promise by the Janata Dal (Secular) to provide Rs. 2 lakh to women who marry farmers’ sons is a novel freebie promise, it also reflects a myopic outlook of what could be done to protect India’s ailing agriculture sector. The belief that the next generations will become interested in agricultural communities merely on the basis of such freebies is not only a false belief but also a dangerous one. This illusion causes blindness toward the deep-rooted structural problems plaguing agriculture in India. The existing farmer experience and systemic problems have moved the youth away from agriculture. The next generation displays an intense repulsion toward continuing with agriculture as their career and this repulsion cannot be dissipated through such policy solutions.
Several studies and facts point to the growing attitude of rejection of agriculture amongst the larger agricultural community. A study by the Azim Premji University analyzing the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) of over 41,000 households in rural India discovered that while income mobility improved across the country between 2004-05 and 2011-12, farmers’ children were 21.1 percentage points less likely to adopt farming as a profession in 2012 than in 2005. Pointing to the shift of surplus labor from the agricultural to the non-agricultural sector for the first time in the post-Independence era, the authors of the study suggested that as the youth acquired a better education, they developed aspirations of what they deemed were better jobs. Similarly, a 2017 survey by Lokniti observed that as exposure to education increases, the interest of youth to take up agriculture falls. In another case, 30,000 rural youth in the 14 – 18 age group from across the country were surveyed in 2017 by Pratham. Out of those working, 79% worked in agriculture – with nearly all of them working on their own family’s farm. However, only 1% of them expressed aspirations to work in agriculture in the future. Even farmers themselves strongly discourage their children from picking up farming. In a survey by The/Nudge Institute across the southern states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, about 89% of the participating 107 farmers did not want their children to continue in the occupation.
This disinterest stems from real challenges in agriculture. The experience of the average farmer has been dismal. Though the current regime must be appreciated for linking policy performance to farmer incomes, agricultural income has remained low. The Dalwai Committee’s target was to increase farmers’ income to about Rs. 16,118 per month by 2022-23 from the then income of Rs. 8,059 in 2015-16. While there are minute differences across surveys about the baseline, they largely revolved around these figures. The Land and Livestock Holdings of Households and Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households, cited in the Economic Survey 2021-22, revealed that the average farmers’ income stood at Rs. 10,218. Evidently, it is an inadequate income for most farming households. The same study also reports a constant dip in average land holdings to 0.512 hectares in 2019. Studies have established how small land holdings make farming less and less profitable due to reasons such as the presence of low marketing surplus curtailing the bargaining power of farmers, increasing costs of inputs, and so on. A closer examination of the composition of the income of small and marginal farmers (that represent over 80% of Indian farmers) suggests that small landholdings virtually reduce such farmers to agricultural wage laborers. A reduced share of income from cultivation also increases the vulnerability and exploitation experienced by the farmer. The conditions of these farmers are aggravated by the uncertainties in the sector. From rainfall volatility and climate risk to the threat of crop diseases, and financial and price risk, there is a dire need to de-risk agriculture. There are also other structural issues such as poor public spending on agricultural research for long-term innovation and resilience in food systems. Moreover, it could be that the increasing primacy of new forms of media in society has created stereotypes around agrarian jobs while popularising other occupations, that are also influencing the career choices of the children of farmers.
On the back of a variety of push and pull factors, the career choices of the younger generations are ignoring agriculture. The decline in rural wages has only accelerated this repulsion. As the country seeks to answer the looming questions of food security and nutritional security in the face of climate change, there is a strong argument to have educated human talent that has strong familiarity and trust with the agricultural communities. Such human talent can only be retained when there is a sustained policy intention toward long-term investments in the sector. Policy decisions at both, the center and state levels, must be fiscally and environmentally sensitive. Importantly, these decisions and narratives as part of efforts to reform agriculture must include the issue of youth aspirations. Sops for temporary electoral gains, such as the one being offered, will only serve as palliative treatment in making agriculture aspirational again.
Arjun Kumar Singh
Center of Policy Research and Governance.