How forests can help in doubling farmers’ income

Forest rights, support for ecosystem services could be part of strategy to help farmers living in forests

By Ranjan Panda
Published: Tuesday 20 August 2019

When the latest budget of the Government of India was being debated on prime time television channels in early August, an economist, who is also a member in the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, said: “One of the best ways to double farmers’ income is to halve the number of farmers.” 

It surprised me and I asked the question to many on Twitter and other social media handles. What surprised me more was that many people in the country, or to be specific on social media, bought that argument.

The Government of India is working out a plan to double farmers’ income by 2022, but how would that be possible by halving the farmer population is something that remains a mystery. The government plans to take up a number of measures and expand into allied sectors, promote zero-budget farming, organic farming, etc to double the income of the exiting farmers.

However, the government itself is aware that the task to double farmers’ income is a stupendous one and not possible by the target year. During the July-August Parliament session in the Rajya Sabha, Purshottam Rupala, Union Minister of State for Agriculture admitted that at the current four per cent rate of growth, it was not possible to double farmers’ income by 2022. 

Agriculture is the mainstay of the Indian economy even though it contributes less than 15 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product. Almost 50 per cent of Indian families are dependent on farms for their livelihood and they have made India a food-surplus country. The food-surplus aspect, however, is controversial and we will discuss that some other time.

Just in a nutshell, surplus production in some of the irrigated pockets — by canals, lift irrigation from rivers and groundwater — has not only made farming unsustainable for the small segment of farmers who have attained some sort of a success and achieved a good amount of income, but has also destroyed ecology and local food diversity.

At this point of time, while the so-called ‘successful’ farmers are struggling to maintain their income, which essentially means putting in more and more investment, the other farmers are busy struggling for subsistence. 

So, when the protagonists of halving farmers’ population argue for the 50 per cent mass displacement of people from farming to other sectors, they basically talk about the farmers who are in a ‘loss-making venture’. 

In other words, and as some of these people argued, the small and marginal land-holders should shift to other sectors as wage labourers as their farms are fit only for subsistence and their land holding is so small and fragmented that it is difficult to go for intensive agriculture.

True to some extent. That is the reason the youth in the villages are no more interested in farming. According to the 2011 Census figures, 2,000 farmers are giving up farming each day.  In 2016, the average age of an Indian farmer was 50.1 years and that’s worrying. 

If the trend of farmers moving out of their original occupation continues like this, it will be a great challenge to meet our food requirements by the year 2050 when the food demand is expected to double than what it is now as because our population is expected to touch 1.9 billion, more than two thirds of which will be in the middle-income group.

Food imports will be too costly and if farm distress continues the way it is, we can’t anyway keep all farmers in villages and in their farms anyway. Whether they will be gainfully employed in other sectors is another big question and we are not dealing with that at this moment. 

While average statistical figures don’t actually tell us as to which category of farmers — the intensive agriculture segment or the subsistence segment — is gradually vanishing from the farms, experience tells us that the small farmers are more vulnerable to migration.  And that’s exactly where we have a big problem. 

We have about 83 per cent rural people who are either entirely landless or own less than one hectare (ha) of land. Another 14 per cent own less than three ha, and that is as good as a small and non-profitable farm holding depending on the irrigation status and other factors.

Only about 0.25 per cent of rural households own more than 10 ha of land and a minuscule 0.01 per cent own over 20 ha.  In terms of national per capita income parameters, the majority of small farmers — let’s say more than 80 per cent — cannot stick to agriculture if they are not provided with other supports and social security measures.  Their younger generations would have no motivation to stay with farming anyway and will gradually move out. 

Farmers are also forest protectors  

There is a specific segment of farmers who live in and with forests. Most of these small and marginal farmers, including the indigenous communities, who live in and around our forests, do another big job for all of us. 

They protect our natural forests, besides adding to the country’s food security. There are thousands of villages in India that are protecting local natural forests for various reasons.  Many of these indigenous communities consider the forests as their ancestors, part of their family; and protect them for fuelwood, household timber, food, nutrition, medicinal plants and various other profits which they derive. 

In fact, globally, such communities are said to own or manage at least a quarter of the world’s land surface. While a recent global study says that as much as 22 per cent of income for the rural people living in and around forests comes from timber and non-timber forest resources, my own assessment from several villages spread across India’s central highlands finds out this to be up to 50 per cent or even more.

In fact, there are other benefits if these people stay with the forests. They help absorb a huge amount of our carbon emission. New analysis reveals that indigenous peoples and local communities manage 300,000 million metric tons of carbon in their trees and soil — 33 times the energy emissions from 2017.

For this segment of farmers, therefore, the doubling of income would need different strategies.  Rights to the forests, better systems to support them for the ecosystem services — including water conservation through forestry — they are providing, improved market and augmented price for the various forest produce they market as a major livelihood support system, and provide them with better amenities.

In her budget speech, India’s Finance Minister said the government is considering zero budget farming as a key tool in their strategy to double farmers’ income. These communities can take a lead in organic farming and even zero budget farming as most of them are still practicing low external input farming in their rain-fed farms. 

Ranjan Panda of Water Initiative Odisha is a researcher, environmentalist and activist. He describes the threats to rivers and water bodies of Odisha 

This column is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Down To Earth

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