When the National Sample Survey Organisation, in 2003, (59th round) found that over 40 per cent of farmers would quit farming if they had the choice to do so since it was not a profitable business, it made headlines that policymakers could not have missed. However, no worthwhile remedial action ensued. Later, the National Commission on Farmers, headed by noted farm expert M S Swaminathan, observed in a series of reports submitted in the mid-2000s that the average income of a farmer was less than the salary of a peon in government office. Still, it failed to elicit any response or corrective action.
The plight of the farm community has now been highlighted once more by a countrywide survey of the state of Indian farmers conducted by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies and sponsored by the non-political farmers' body, Bharat Krishak Samaj. The survey, based on interviews with nearly 5,350 farmers in 18 states held in December 2013 and January 2014, indicates that as many as 61 per cent of farmers wish to leave farming if they get good jobs in cities. That farm incomes generally fall short of livelihood needs is evident since nearly one-thirds of the surveyed farmers need to supplement their earnings by doing non-farm work. Besides, 67 per cent of women maintain that agricultural income is insufficient to cover household expenditure. Little wonder, therefore, that around 47 per cent of the respondents view the overall condition of farmers as "bad".
This survey records the intentions of the farmers to give up cultivation and not the actual extent of outmigration from agriculture. That data are available in the census numbers, which indicate that the total count of farmers has steadily shrunk from 110 million in 1991 to 103 million in 2001, and 95.8 million in 2011. Thus, over 2,000 cultivators are quitting farming every day.
There are numerous other facts brought out by this survey that underline the pathetic condition of farmers. Sadly, one in every 10 farm families has to occasionally go without food. Only 44 per cent of farm households eat three meals a day; 39 per cent normally have only lunch and dinner, and no breakfast. Besides, about 36 per cent of farmers live in either huts or kuccha houses, and 44 per cent others in kuccha-pucca or mixed houses. Just 18 per cent of farmers have pucca houses to live in.
Unsurprisingly, most farmers, though still hopeful of better days ahead, do not foresee any future for their children in agriculture. About 60 per cent of farmers want their next generation to settle in cities. So do the majority of rural youth. Apart from employment and basic civic amenities, the scope for good education is among the notable reasons cited for the desire to move to towns. Around 76 per cent of rural youth are unwilling to work on farms and prefer other jobs for their living.
The survey brings out two significant points that partly explain why the farmers' economic condition is dismal. One, minimum support prices (MSPs), meant to ensure remunerative returns on farm produce, do not normally serve this objective. Though MSPs are fixed for over 20 crops, these are applicable, for all practical purposes, only to two crops - rice and wheat - and that too in a handful of states where government agencies procure grains. A sizable chunk of farmers have to dispose of their produce at low prices in the post-harvest peak marketing season. Shockingly, 62 per cent of farmers are not even aware of MSPs, let alone benefitting from them. Worse, 64 per cent of those who have heard about MSPs are dissatisfied with the mooted rates, finding them too low to cover their production costs.
Second, the government's welfare schemes, including the flagship jobs programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, have failed to reach out to the needy. Nearly half the respondents of this survey maintain that only rich farmers benefit from such schemes.
With such being the ground realities, it is imperative for the government that assumes power after the general elections to revisit agriculture-related policies. The need is to improve farm income and provide better living conditions in rural areas.