Contextualising the agrarian

The nature of India’s industrialisation needs to be synchronised with its agricultural profile

Shivalika Gupta | July 9, 2018


#Farmers Income   #Farmers   #Agriculture  
Photo: Arun Kumar
Photo: Arun Kumar

India is looking at a twin set of developmental challenges. First is the sustainability of the rural ecosystems for local prosperity including enhancing farmer incomes. Second is the sustainable development of urban spaces in the face of fast-growing burden on them. These twin set of challenges, however, are not dichotomous.

Policy analysts have long focussed on a structural change theory where an economy moves from agriculture (rural) to industry (urban) at the expense of the former as it becomes more developed. In practice, this gives birth to a mindset issue where development of rural and urban seems like a binary choice. In our socio-political paradigm, the urban is assumed to drive the aspirations for the rest of the country, and farming is considered a domain of the rural; while in fact both rural and urban are rooted in a system that is fundamentally agricultural. The nature of industrialisation can also be aligned to this agricultural nature. But before any such prescription, this article engages with the mindset issue. Why is agriculture so relevant for the Indian growth story? Why are experts raising concerns over a seeming neglect of this sector? More importantly, why should you, an urban reader of this journal, be concerned about agriculture at all? 

Because agriculture is existential

Agriculture is the basis of all settled civilisation. The relevance of agricultural upheaval as an issue is not just for the rural, but the urban as well – across regions, religions, castes and geographies. Equally important is to recognise that rural and urban are part of the same continuum with farming at their base, rather than binary. Imagine a tomorrow when the whole world becomes urban; at least some dwellers of such demography will essentially become farmers to grow food. Even today, an estimated 194 million people live in starvation in India; the figure is 795 million for the entire globe. Agriculture is also the single biggest anthropogenic intervention that draws most heavily on natural resources.

Yet the inadequacy of structures to provide food for all remains unaddressed; as is the inadequacy of the structures to provide enough income for the producers of food. Add to it the increasing chemical interference with food production, proven to upset soil ecosystem as well as damage human health. Disruptions in natural ecosystems such as vanishing bees are a threat to efficiency and sustainability in agricultural production, and hence to food security. Is it merely a delivery failure? Is it the farmers’ reluctance to adopt new practices? Is it because of the population boom and emerging land use patterns? Is modern-day commercial economy conducive (or not) to healthy, fulfilling agriculture? Do we recognise that sowing as a human activity is external to nature?

Because agriculture drives philosophy

The contribution of agriculture in our lives is beyond just food. The agricultural conduct shapes our philosophy; philosophy drives our culture; and culture drives our civilisation. For example, the karmic adage ‘as you sow, so you reap’ that forms the basis of credit and debit of a commercial economy is rooted in agrarian conduct.

Demand-driven externalities in forming production networks impede nature from restoring itself from the disruption caused by the human act of sowing. The debits in nature have been made, without providing much buffer for crediting for the same. Nature, however, if left alone, maintains an inherent balance. What grows freely in nature may be reaped by any and all. How, then, the rules of trade driven by principles of maximisation impact modern agriculture in specific and nature in general? Has the wheel been reversed – is the civilisation now driving culture to steer philosophies and ultimately farming?

Let us go back in time to the story of Prithu, a man named in Atharvaveda said to have invented ploughing – marking a shift towards settled agriculture since a man could now make furrows to cultivate. An interpretation in later Puranic texts reads that his father Vena had been eliminated for exploiting the Earth to an extent that she stopped producing food. When Prithu was crowned king in a drought-hit land, the Earth was still eating up seeds without producing anything in return. Prithu, angry at the Earth’s insolence, decided to ‘kill’ her only to realise that he and his subjects cannot survive without her nourishment. He is then said to have laid the rules of sustainable conduct with the Earth.

Consider the story to be a timeline. We have eliminated Vena’s ignorance with conscious recognition of food security and environmental threats as matters of international importance. We have turned to mimicking the nature for sustainable solutions to human engineering problems through bio-mimicry. But are we still living in the age of Prithu’s anger? The existential crisis looming over humanity that led to creation of robotic pollinator bees – has that crisis been averted or have we made a move further closer to it?

Because agriculture is key for locally accessible development

India’s biggest strength is the embodiment of the triad – suitable land, weather and indigenous knowledge base for farming. The nature of India’s industrialisation needs to be synchronised with its agrarian nature. The recent farmer agitations are only symptomatic of the manner in which agriculture has been dealt with over a long period of time, perhaps pre-dating 1947. The situation is such that a farmers’ son does not want to become a farmer. There are two felt impacts of this situation: migration to cities for accessing economic opportunities, and emergence of the low-skill low-wage construction sector as a major rural employer. Unsustainable as these are, they add little to the overall well-being of our society in the long run. Mushrooming of local agribusinesses that consume input nearer to the site of production, and generate sustainable employment at the very grassroots can offset the void of gainful employment in the rural areas.

Two important state deliverables are investment and skilling. Both these instruments can be leveraged to effectively transform the agriculturalist into a partner in growth rather than a passive beneficiary. Investing in agri-value chains at local level contributes to all three sectors of the economy – agriculture, manufacturing and services. Initiatives such as Madhya Pradesh’s custom hiring centres have mobilised local investment towards agri-allied activities. Policy analysts will need to recognise that agriculture is an education, a knowledge system in itself. The farmer is the ultimate custodian of agrarian practices, as he/she is the bearer of knowledge collected through years of agricultural interactions with the soil. The onus will also lie on individual initiative to bring about any meaning to such strategic alignment. Testimony are cases from some of India’s most water scarce areas such as Ahmednagar and adjoining districts where drought hit, poverty ridden villages have transformed themselves to cause prosperity driven reverse migration. It needs to be considered if these could define India’s much needed link between global stewardship and locally distributed sustainable growth.

Gupta is a Young Professional at NITI Aayog. Views are personal.

(The article appears in the July 15, 2018 issue)

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