Like most people I also harbour
plans dreams of eventually getting out of the corporate rat race, leaving the big bad city, and settling down in a farm far far away. Like the magical happily ever after, such a plan also stays right there in the horizon, neither coming closer nor going away entirely. Such topics also keep popping up in drunken conversations with much hand-wringing about how in Karnataka you have to either be part of a farming family, or earn less than Rs. 25 Lakh per annum.
In real terms, this has of course meant that a lot of folks have been buying up farm land, and farming in places right across the border – the Hosur/Krishnagiri belt or across the AP border. Recent changes introduced last week have now removed such restrictions making it a free for all. These changes have turned up along with a host of other changes like cap on income from agricultural sources, relaxations on restrictions in land holding etc.
As I mentioned this is something I have been following for a while, so just putting my thoughts down on what is happening. And it also has been a real while since I wrote anything.
For starters, it looks like a great idea, that those who want to get out of agriculture can now sell their lands and get a good price for it. Other states haven’t had any such restrictions, so why should Karnataka? This also seemingly opens up the market and prevents mafias like that of DKS from operating in the farm real estate area.
While this is good, the fine print and the other noises the government has been making don’t seem too encouraging. One claim is that “educated folks can take up farming“. Another claim goes that “IT/BT folks can bring innovative techniques to farming”. The trouble with these claims is that they assume that the problem with farming is the current bunch of farmers, who are illiterate and don’t know how to manage their own lands. Some years back, there was even someone who went on record saying that there’s nothing to farming – “sow a seed and water it, and the plant grows out, what’s there to it?”. (I don’t remember who, but if you remember, please comment below.)
This also assumes that engineers and folks who might have done some graduation and done a good job in a corporate structure, and know how to check the internet will be better placed to grow our food than inter-generational farmers who’d have learnt the job growing up.
It isn’t to say that people from the cities don’t know how to grow their crops. There have been people who have taken that step towards a farming life, and have done a good job of it. But from what I have seen, the scale tends to be lower than that of a farmer who’s livelihood depends on the produce. It is nice to be able to grow your own food, and some extra stuff that you can send to your friends. But growing tons of cereals per acre might be a different thing to manage.
Also, the goal seems to be to solve the farming crisis by encouraging farmers to sell their lands and getting away from farming. But this assumes that the farming crisis is about productivity which will be solved by IT/BT folks. For a new person coming in from a corporate job, getting the same productivity might be a hard task that would take a few years of effort to understand and manage. And we’d be nowhere closer to solving the crisis in farming, either.
First, the issue of climate change induced erratic weather events is not going to go away. Farmers who work in cities and do the job part-time of growing food are not going to solve it. They might move towards crops that are more weather resilient, and change their own diets. They might be ok with lower yields as the “experience” would be what matters. And anyway they won’t be dependent on the yields as there will be other sources of income. But the main issue is not going to go away.
The issue of food pricing is not going to go away either. Combined with the Central Govt’s move to get the market into the act, this would mean government price support will be a thing of the past. And given that the PDS and FSA were also part of the same deal, we can expect a lot of whittling down there, to loud cheers from economists.
The question also remains as to what farmers who sell their lands are supposed to do. The desperation that can cause a farmer to sell his/her holdings would usually stem from mounting debts, thanks to weather and pricing induced crises. Given this, and farming is all they know, the most likely scenario that will unfold is farmers selling their lands to richer farmers or their creditors, and ending up sharecropping on that land. Basically you do the same job as before for the same miserable outcome, but you no longer own the land.
There is also the worry that this will allow industries and other players to move in. This has, in fact, happened already. Even if a farmer is doing well, a not-so-lucky farmer next door might sell his land to an industry which might pull out ground water from under the whole village. Where does that leave the rest of the farmers? Also, this doesn’t seem like a great way to “encourage IT/BT folks to take up farming”. How likely are you to buy farm land when you know the above can happen at any time?
Combine the multiple “reforms” and you know who the real beneficiaries are. Caught between climate change, debtors, increasing input costs and an ever-more exploitative market, farmers will be forced to sell their lands. The govt then paves the way for anyone to buy land, with no limit on ceiling. And no clearance needed to convert agricultural land to industrial use. Where will the farmers go after selling their lands? If the land gets converted, even sharecropping won’t be viable.
What was needed was a lot more hard work.
- Understanding the need for climate-change friendly, drought-resistant farming. The moves towards millets and markets for millets was in the right direction for this.
- Getting farmers choices apart from BigAg companies. Again, the push for millets was a necessary move in that direction.
- Govt procurement, or good Minimum Support Pricing, and implementation of that. This is necessary for farmers to be protected from the vagaries of the market, which they cannot foresee or have control over.
- Stronger govt involvement in deciding how much food to grow and what to grow. All farmers growing sugar, or all growing rice will lead to high yields on good years and lower prices. Protecting against market vagaries can also be done by spreading the produce across different kinds of produce. And govt involvement need not be at the state level, but at the Taluk/Hobli level.
All these require a lot of grit work, with no immediate results that you can make votes off. But there is no market for such work anymore.
As always, farmers have been left clutching at air. Even the straws have gone.