12 Aug 2016 19:57 IST

The perils of farming in India

Young farmers are being crippled by mounting debt. A lot needs to be done to make things better

Had it not been for my father, I might have been a farmer. Till my grandfather’s generation, my family in Kerala was into farming. My father, though, had other plans. After completing his engineering degree in the State, he travelled to far-off Madhya Pradesh, and later, went to Bihar to work in steel plants.

My grandfather would quite agree with the call his son took. Because, over the years, factors such as exorbitant labour costs limited farming in Kerala to cash crops like rubber. Farming, at least unofficially, is dead in Kerala. Few youngsters now aspire to till the State’s otherwise fertile soil.

That is Kerala.

The downward spiral

Then there is Punjab, India’s perpetual wheat bowl. The romance of its bounty fields has been made famous by Bollywood and the greatness of her farmers has found mention in school texts.

Of late though, we have been hearing about the depressing turn that Punjab’s agriculture has taken. Farmers in the State are suffering under a debt pile of ₹70,000 crore. A combination of factors, including overuse of fertilisers and stagnant production, has left the sons of the soil in despair.

A recent study highlighted another aspect that could worsen the agrarian crisis in the northern State. Its younger farmers are wilting under the pressure of this calamity. The study, by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, says that 48 per cent of all farmer suicides, and 57 per cent of agricultural labourers’ suicides, were by those below the age of 35.

The story adds:

“The sample for the survey was based on census-based reports of the Punjab government on farmers and agricultural labourers’ suicides, which showed that more than 7,000 farmers and agricultural labourers committed suicide in the State during 2000-2010, due to agrarian distress and indebtedness.”

This year, 56 of the 363 reported farmer suicides in the country occurred in Punjab alone. Given the situation, one can only expect more and more youngsters to move away from agriculture and look for alternative careers.

Urban migration

Not just Punjab, the trend is now showing up in other States too. In Mandya, known as the rice bowl of southern Karnataka, hundreds of youngsters are moving to Bengaluru in search of jobs. Mandya has been facing a water crisis for three years.

This migration of the young into urban areas has serious implications — pressure on an already stressed urban infrastructure, low job satisfaction and depression (as, in many cases, the men leave their families behind).

The phenomenon is not India-centric — it is now increasingly visible in developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America. The developed countries would not be as affected due to the large-scale mechanisation of agriculture that has replaced the need for human hands.

All is not lost

At the same time, international experience shows that all is not lost. Many countries, especially in Africa, are engaging with the youth to limit the loss. A few countries are attempting to make the farming environment conducive for the farmers.

In Ethiopia, for instance, dry lands are being restored to encourage cultivation. In India, there are now many instances of well-educated, young and middle-aged professionals leaving their urban, corporate jobs to go to the villages to start farming. But their numbers are few.

Much more needs to be done — and urgently — to make things better for our young farmers. This will have a lasting impact on India’s self-sustenance in food requirement.