The problem

 

NEARLY two years after the Covid-19 crisis hit us, we are yet to come to terms with the devastation it has wrought. The heart-rending sight of migrant workers walking back home during the early days of the lockdown in 2020 woke up the nation’s conscience to a vast humanitarian crisis. The hunger that ripped through rural India, along with a collapse of employment and the fear of this new disease (which even made people hide the fact that they were sick) will continue to haunt us for a long time. CMIE (www.cmie.com) estimated that 122 million people lost jobs after the onset of the pandemic and the national lockdown that followed. Consequently, the unemployment rate in June 2020 stood at 10.99%1 and was still at about 6% by the end of the year. The worst and deepest impact of the Covid crisis has been on the casual labourers in farm and non-farm occupations and the landless. Their living conditions worsened considerably due to lack of access to essential provisions, safe drinking water and medical assistance.

The Covid crisis came on top of an already grim situation in rural India in terms of poverty, incomes, and employment. A recent study estimates that more than 189 million people were undernourished in India during 2017-19, which is more than a quarter of the total such people in the world.2 In 2019, India had 28% (40.3 million) of the world’s stunted children (low height-for-age) and 43% (20.1 million) of the world’s wasted children (low weight-for-height) under-five years of age.3 The 2021 Global Hunger Index Report ranked India 101st out of 116 countries and this data does not reflect the impact of the pandemic. Compounding this have been extreme weather events, including record-breaking rainfall, increasingly attributed to global warming induced climate change, whose impact has been magnified due to ill-conceived construction along floodplains, drainage channels and fragile ecosystems, from Uttarakhand to Kerala.

While the government has provided some relief in the form of rations under the National Food Security Act, it has mostly been rice and wheat, with the country still saddled with domestic scarcity and growing imports of pulses and oilseeds. The last two years have also seen hectic activity on the legislative front – the three controversial farm laws and the new labour laws were passed by the Parliament. The former has evoked a critical response from farmers, civil society activists, and many agricultural experts across the country. Concerns have been expressed about the growing corporatization of agriculture and the possible implications of growing oligopolies in input and output markets for the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers, farm workers, traders, wholesalers, and retailers in the agricultural marketing system. The government has also signed MOUs with several information technology giants (Microsoft, CISCO, Amazon, Jio, among others) to digitize agriculture in an effort to improve productivity and boost incomes, but critics have raised concerns of data privacy and surveillance capitalism.

More problematically, these responses to the rural and agrarian crisis are stuck within a mainstream paradigm that treats agriculture primarily as an extractive economic activity, ignoring the broader social and ecological context that shapes it. The model of monoculture farming based on external inputs (seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation pump sets and tractors) popularized with the Green Revolution has resulted in drastic ecological consequences. Land degradation, loss of biodiversity, toxicity of water, soil and air, and over-extraction of groundwater are fundamentally altering the natural resource base of agriculture.4 Moreover, this input-intensive model has resulted in the expansion of area under rice, wheat, and sugarcane even in areas where they are not suitable, while crops like millets, pulses and oilseeds have failed to keep pace. Even though they have not escaped recognition by the governments, the policy imbalances, such as subsidies to selective crops and agro-ecologically unsuitable farm practices, persist. Farmers who are unsuccessfully riding the treadmill of industrial agriculture are unable to make the shift towards more nature friendly farming options to produce safe, healthy, and nutritious food, since there is hardly any incentive or institutional support for them to do so.

Further, the non-farm sector has become more important at the household level in rural India, as employment in agriculture has remained stagnant or declined. However, non-farm employment growth has been slow in recent years, and the Covid-crisis induced lockdowns have exposed its precarious nature. The dominant model of development that relies on maximizing GDP growth as the pathway of enhancing human well-being, has led to a situation where the very same activities which provide employment also damage the health of workers and destroy the environment, including precipitating cataclysmic climate change.

All these effects have been compounded given the caste, class and gender hierarchies that have framed rural lives. Underprivileged caste groups, especially dalits and adivasis, along with women, have borne the brunt of policies promoting extractive models of development, and form the footloose millions that walk-through migration routes across the country. Rural distress has several other manifestations like rising numbers of suicides (more than 350,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last 30 years), pervasive under nutrition among women and children, growing disease burden and rising healthcare costs.

Rural India is in urgent need of an alternative vision for its sustainability and the well-being of most of its people. It is necessary to understand that the rural economy is an integral part of a larger ecosystem. Policy makers, scientists and industrialists committed to modern industrial agriculture have refused to acknowledge the true value of natural resources (food, fibre, minerals, forest wealth) which this model indiscriminately draws upon. The environment has also been converted into a sink to which waste is dumped. To structurally address this issue, we must transform these relationships from extraction to coexistence, centred on the perspective of agro-ecology, by combining insights from knowledge systems and practices of local communities with insights from the sciences.

This would require us to challenge the conventional divides between urban and rural, between industry and agriculture and between farm and non-farm. It is imperative to think of rural-urban linkages of production and consumption as an integrated whole. Given the crisis of livelihoods we face currently, the problem of the rural cannot be solved by making the rural redundant. Any effort in this direction would indeed be futile, given that 800 million or nearly 50% of India’s population will continue to live in rural areas even in 2050. There is a pressing need to develop technologies and market relationships that can support the work of people in diverse rural livelihoods without replacing them entirely.

The state and the market have both traversed problematic development trajectories in relation to rural India – over-centralization, a distorted subsidy regime, populist policies, coupled with market cartelization, a patent regime favouring formal innovation systems and privatization of knowledge. However, the state can be held accountable for its actions and a collective demand for decentralization and democratization of rural and agricultural policies will go a long way in bringing the voices of the marginalized into policy making process and strengthen the democratic fabric of the nation. Working with provincial governments has already borne fruit in the last several years. While the Centre may provide overarching guidelines, it is imperative that there is freedom to frame policies and guide agendas at the provincial level. This requires a systematic effort at building state capacities, especially those of the frontline functionaries, at different levels to enable economic, social, ecological, and technical planning in a decentralized manner (starting from the Gram Panchayats).

The task is to reclaim the ‘rural’ as a positive space of transformation, not as a residual, or a disadvantaged space. The rural, historically, has been a space of agro-industry-services – whether it was the growing of cotton and the making and export of fine textiles to the rest of the world in the pre-colonial period, or metal extraction and forging of weapons that furnished the armies of pre-colonial kingdoms, not to mention the objects of everyday use that were built using local materials and maintained and repaired locally. Today, all of this has been outsourced to an industry that is physically located in the rural but is considered as non-rural. We must re-envision the rural as a space of innovation and resilience, which makes possible a host of occupations, including agriculture, industry, and services, but in ways which are ecologically suitable, meaningful, and satisfying.

Articulating new legal regimes that can safeguard the needs of the marginalized majority to conserve and use natural resources must form the bedrock of new policies. But this would require concerted action and building strong alliances of people – farmers, rural communities, urban communities, civil society actors along with the community of committed scientists, people’s representatives, and policymakers. Bringing the voices and experiences of the marginalized majority (the landless, tenant farmers, women farmers, underprivileged caste groups, forest-dwellers, fisher folk, adivasis, rural artisans, pastoralist groups, among others) into the policy making process would strengthen the foundations of rural India’s pluralism and revitalize its grassroots democratic polity.

Lastly, translating this alternative vision into practice would require abandoning conventional indicators and building new ones. We need to question privileging of growth as measured by the GDP as the key indicator to human welfare. The new set of measurements must take into account ecological sustainability, considering water and energy intensity of production systems, as well as ecosystem services (for instance, enhancement of biodiversity and sequestering carbon). They must also focus on social and cultural aspects, including redistribution of resources, thus push for reducing gross inequalities in ownership of assets and incomes, and promote inclusivity along dimensions of gender and caste.

Building upon ten years of engagement with rural and agrarian India, members of the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies (NRAS –  www.ruralagrarianstudies.org) Collective have contributed papers in this volume which aims to both, understand the levers which have shaped rural India, especially focusing on the pandemic but also suggesting ways to fundamentally address the situation towards outcomes that are socially just, economically stable, ecologically sustainable and politically democratic for rural India.

The Covid-19 lockdown has shown the importance of the rural as the lifeblood of the economy and society. Ironically, while formal indices consider agriculture to be contributing the least to the economy, it is the only sector showing vitality in the current phase, post-lockdown. Beyond the ecological implications, redefining what is growth and well-being is the way to come together to remake rural India into a livable, democratic, just, sustainable, and diverse place.

 

P.S. VIJAYSHANKAR and RICHA KUMAR

 

Footnotes :

1. Radhicka Kapoor, ‘The Unequal Effects of the Covid 19 Crisis on the Labour Market’, The India Forum, 27 July 2020.

2. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets. FAO, Rome, 2020: https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en.

3. Mihir Shah, P.S. VIjayshankar and Francesca Harriss, ‘Water and Agricultural Transformation in India: A Symbiotic Relationship’, Economic and Political Weekly 56(29), 17 July 2021.

4. Richa Kumar, Nikhit Agarwal, P.S. Vijayshankar and A.R. Vasavi, State of the Rural and Agrarian India Report 2020: Rethinking Productivity and Populism Through Alternative Approaches. Notion Press, Chennai, 2021.