No land to farm

With urbanisation of rural areas, space for food production in India is decreasing

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

With urbanisation of rural areas, space for food production in India is decreasing

imageIt is usual in India to play up the rural-urban division. In terms of economy, the division creates space for politicians to shape up arguments. As the countdown to elections in five states starts, unusually, the rural-urban division seems to have lost its sacredness. The GDP, or gross domestic product, has emerged as the most powerful political argument. There are also high-pitched arguments that deride the rural-urban division citing the fact that rural people have the same aspirations as urban voters. So, as political debates point out, economic growth is going to be the holy political grail.

The census of 2011 has brought out the rapid urbanisation India is going through; it is the fastest in the country’s history. As vast rural areas turn into urban areas, rural aspirations have also definitely assumed different contours, seemingly resembling that of the middle class. According to the census, India has more agriculture labourers than cultivators. This is despite the fact that operational landholdings have increased minus the corresponding increase in production. The same trend is observed among the economically weaker scheduled caste and tribe groups. So, why will a politician seek votes in terms of the historical rural-urban division? Instead, as government policy papers invariably propagate, politicians will support urbanisation as the way to bridge the gap between the two groups. This is where the fault line appears.

There is no doubt India is in the middle of a transition, even though its journey to complete urbanisation is very long. There have to be many questions over the fallouts of the transition. But the one that is fundamental and equally devastating for both rural and urban areas is: how rapid urbanisation will impact India’s food production. Increasingly, more lands, once used for food production, will be devoted to urban uses. At the same time urbanisation has pushed up food demand significantly, particularly of high value food items like milk and vegetables. The contest is simple: we need proportionate amount of land to produce food grains. How will the transition impact farmers or, say, the predominantly rural districts that once produced the bulk of agricultural produces? Is there any positive impact of the transition? It all depends on where one is geographically located. First, let’s look at how urbanisation is impacting rural areas, the core of India’s food production. Of India’s top 50 districts with high rural population, mostly located in eastern India and partly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two-thirds have reported higher urbanisation rate than increase in rural population. These districts are traditional consumers of local crops like cereals and coarse grains. But with the increase in urban population, the food pattern has also undergone changes. There is more demand for vegetable, poultry and milk. So, a group of farmers must have benefitted by switching over to new crops. But this change in the cropping pattern has had a negative impact on the local food availability. As it emerges, rural districts in the backyard of major urban centres have undergone a complete change in their cropping patterns. There is already a generation of farmers who have quit the traditional crop and are now net buyers of foodgrain. This, as many food rights activists have pointed out, is causing nutritional insecurity, even though food is available.

Interestingly, most of the rapidly urbanising rural districts are also highly malnourished. Most of the rapidly urbanising districts are in the rainfed region of India. This is the region that is targeted for ensuring India’s food production security as the irrigated areas have plateaued in production. Now, the decline in foodgrain production in these districts will also mean India’s future food production strategy is at stake.

This is a threat that has not been pronounced much in the current political dialogue. It is paradoxical, given that two-thirds of India’s parliamentary constituencies are rural and must have been going through the transition. Either, politicians have already attained consensus on selling growth and urban aspirations as the main electoral issue. Or, there is helplessness in intervening to make the transition work for farmers. During the debate over the National Right to Food Security Act in Parliament, there was not a single member of Parliament who did not acknowledge the threat to food security in India. But nobody saw it as an outcome of urbanisation. There are just 100 districts in the country left with more rural than urban population. They serve as the living fossil of what used to be an agrarian country. In all probability, these are the districts from where India may get its food. It will be interesting to see how voters here look at the ongoing political debate over rural-urban division.

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