UPA-II has done a lot for agriculture, but farmers still want to get off the land—that’s a powerful signal
Through its regular hiking of minimum support prices (MSP), UPA-II has done more than any government in the recent past to fix the terms of trade between agriculture and industry. And thanks to its huge spending in rural areas, rural wages have been growing at rates seldom seen before—indeed, till they started slowing a few quarters ago, firms that had a large rural presence tended to grow faster. When, despite this, over three fourths of farmers polled, say they want to quit farming, it doesn’t come so much as a surprise, as it does a wake-up call for policymakers. The survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Lokniti has been done in 274 villages across 137 districts.
There is, first, the issue of the efficacy of government policies. The MSPs, for instance, really make a difference only to big farmers who sell to FCI; for the rest of farmers, thanks to a largely cartelised system of purchases and immense state controls, the upside of higher retail prices hardly exists. As for government programmes, given their leakages, it is not surprising, as the survey shows, most farmers are not aware of various government programmes. More than that, it is rising aspirations. The UPA may feel happy about keeping people on the farm, in villages, but people want to move out to cities, to blue-collar jobs and, with education, to white collar ones. It seems unfair, given what the UPA has done for farmers that 30% of farmers surveyed want to vote for the BJP versus 17% for the Congress, but that’s the signal the political class needs to hear. Farmers are also aspirational and they see an industrial/urban life as the way to fulfil this. And right now, the survey suggests, they feel the UPA is not offering them that choice. Indeed, the lack of industrial/service sector jobs is so acute, Crisil estimates that as compared to 52 million such jobs created in the last 7 years, just 38 million will be created in the next 7—which means, while farmers want to get off the land, another 12 million persons will have to move back to farms.