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Marginal farmers find it difficult to access govt schemes as their number grows, income shrinks

The 'State of Marginal Farmers of India 2024' report released by FEED is as worthy of a parliamentary discussion as NEET irregularities or Delhi airport's collapsed roof

The ‘megatrend’ among marginal farmers quietly adapting to the reality about farm income not being the mainstay of their economic survival will never make it to the front pages of the newspapers. Nor will it become a reason for disruption in Parliament where the alleged irregularities in NEET results and images of a collapsed roof at Terminal 1 of the New Delhi airport take precedence. But the ‘State of Marginal Farmers of India 2024’ report, released by the Forum of Enterprises for Equitable Development, or FEED, is as important an issue for discussion as anything else.

This year, the theme for the study was the impact of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of farmers—who own/operate/lease in less than one hectare of land. The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare describes this category of farmers as ‘marginal’. But then, as per the last All India Report on Agriculture Census 2015-2016, over 65.4 per cent farmers in our country are marginal. The farmers who own land between one to two hectares are called small farmers. Together, these two categories constitute 89.4 per cent of all farm families, and their numbers are growing. However, we have to juxtapose this with the counter-intuitive proposition that the number of beneficiaries under PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi has come down from a peak of 10.47 crore in 2022 to 9.26 crore in the latest round.

This goes against the conventional wisdom of increasing fragmentation. But it could also be reflective of increased incomes from the non-farm side, thereby rendering many among them ineligible, or disinterested as the scale of support is suited only for farmers with marginal incomes. On the positive side is the fact that over 86 per cent of the respondents have reported a Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) transaction—mostly that of PM-Kisan. However, on all other parameters—institutional credit, access to extension, crop insurance, and soil health cards—the picture leaves much to be desired.

As such, the recurrent point raised by the authors and discussants of the report is that all our policies on agriculture, horticulture, livestock, and dairying should be made keeping in mind that while land as a factor of production is limited, capital, labour and technology are not. And therefore, meaningful interventions can be made in dairying, livestock, horticulture, bee keeping, intensive protected cultivation, and technical support services for commodity clusters. The report notes that as things stand, marginal farmers, as a distinct group, find it difficult to access water, seeds, technical inputs, and credit.

A distressed group

Markets are important, but so is the fact that marginal farmers often engage in ‘the peasant mode of production’, meaning they produce just about enough to meet the requirements of the family, with little marketable surplus. Now, the extreme weather conditions further intensify the challenges faced by this group.

This year’s report shows that the percentage of farmers seeking supplementary incomes is increasing year upon year. This could be a secular trend, or conditioned by the delayed monsoon and comparatively milder and late onset of winter in the past few years. For the Kharif season (2023), nearly 50 per cent of the respondents reported crop losses in paddy and cotton, while 45 per cent reported the same in Rabi wheat and potato, thereby impacting their incomes. One pithy observation of the report needs to be quoted at length: “Most of the income diversification had to do with increased engagement in other part-time occupations, increased dependency on animal husbandry, i.e. earning through livestock produce, including sale of milk, eggs, and sometimes meat, or as one in three stated, temporal or distress migration for wage labour earnings. The issue that needs further investigation is that whether or not such livelihood diversification is happening anyway because of shrinking farm incomes (as concluded by the first-round survey conducted by Development Intelligence Unit in 2023 titled ‘Annual Survey of State of Marginal Farmers in India’) or whether it is a direct outcome of erratic weather conditions rendering agriculture farmers a risky proposition.”

While farmers had heard of Climate Resistant Agriculture (CRA), the ability to cope with this depends largely on the extension services and technical inputs, and herein lies the real challenge. It is true that many of them have been compelled to change the sowing time and method, but this has been by default rather than design. Input suppliers at the village level continue to be the main source of their information on seeds, nutrients, insecticides, and pesticides. With regard to custom hiring centres, warehouses and cold stores, the extent of coverage and use leaves much to be desired.

Linking MNREGA with CRA is an important intervention, and several states like Odisha, Maharashtra, and Bihar have shown good initiatives in this regard. Expectations about better convergence between the ministries of rural development and agriculture have certainly been raised as both are now under Shivraj Singh Chouhan, under whose chief ministership Madhya Pradesh recorded the highest growth in agriculture (7.3 per cent) in the country in the last decade. His idea of meeting agriculture ministers from states and seeking feedback about the best practices and challenges will certainly make the farm policies more grounded.

One of the issues that the new agriculture and rural development minister must consider is the pan-India replication of Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) of the Government of Odisha, which extends the coverage, not just to marginal farmers but also to sharecroppers and landless agricultural workers to take up cultivation, thereby ensuring that no lands are left fallow. Then there is the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana of Madhya Pradesh in which the government compensates the farmer for the price differential between the farm gate and MSP. Since Chauhan implemented this programme, he knows the policy’s ‘nuts and bolts’ and will find it easier to roll it out in states that show interest.

Govt, society, market 

Finally, the question. Are we going to depend only on the government or should roles and responsibilities be shared by markets and civil society organisations? Together, they create the ecosystem for the lives and livelihoods of marginal farmers. The report lists 27 schemes administered by the agriculture department, but also lays emphasis on the role of the Samaj (civil society) in mobilising community through interventions like farmers’ collectives (FPOs, SHGs, PACCS) to improve their bargaining power for greater access to services and markets. 

Then we have the third component of markets (Bazar), in which some notable initiatives have been launched to promote climate-smart agriculture. These include ITC’s climate-smart villages, micro-insurer IBISA’s partnership with NGO Dhan Foundation, Tata Trusts’ Collectives for Integrated Livelihoods Initiative that reaches out to thousands of farmers with its digital weather index-based insurance, and EM3 Agri Services, a custom-based hiring company that has created a pan-India network of farm service centres. 

The point is that there is increasing realisation among all — sarkar, samaj, and bazaar — that their relationship is complimentary, not adversarial. At the same time, the player that could and should have taken the lead role — the farmers organisations and/or frontal organisations of political parties — has opted to take a confrontationist rather than a conciliatory role. FEED will reach out to them to onboard their concerns as well; however, the leadership of these organisations is often aligned to political rather than economic concerns of farmers. But having said that, many of the concerns, including those of asymmetrical terms of trade, ease of agricultural operations, including access to updated land records and credit, are common to all. All stakeholders will have to work together to ensure that marginal farmers become viable entrepreneurs in the green economy of a Viksit Bharat.

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He is the honorary chairman of the Forum of Enterprises for Equitable Development (FEED), which commissioned the report. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

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