They say economy runs by demand and supply. And who supplies what is in demand prospers. But then why are most farmers who supply the most indispensable need of mankind – food, are in distress? Obviously there is much more to agriculture than just the demand and supply formula.
The travails of agriculture and the small farmer
The condition of the small farmer can be gauged by the number of suicides among them, and the cases of abandonment of agriculture. Large families and cattle used to prosper from the same profession once upon a time. But not now.
High inflation for decades has ensured living costs have grown much faster than farm incomes, turning farmers impoverished and increasing the rich-poor divide.
Living needs have also increased from just sustenance to higher education, medical expenses etc. Among the top problems farmers face are – high costs, low and uncertain returns, natural disasters, poor quality materials such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, bad supply chain that is exploited by middlemen, poor storage facilities etc.
There are innumerable schemes available from governments. There are several universities involved in research. At every election there is the promise of loan waivers. Many have tried to improve market accessibility etc. Many of these don’t generally reach the last man. Education and connectivity is also a major roadblock.
There will be no end to farmer woes until the focus changes to improving per unit profitability in agriculture.
The problem caused by shortage of labor
Ensuring sufficient supply chain logistics and genuine raw materials is basic hygiene and this is where governments and many organisations are working on. But is that all…?
One important aspect has been ignored – the ever rising costs of farm labor and its scarcity. This often turns out to be the single largest cost item.
The reasons include alternate employment through certain guaranteed employment schemes, migration to cities looking for higher income to meet their own increasing expenses. The problem will become even more intense in future as the next generations of these communities are taking up better education and jobs. While this has helped the traditional farm labor community to prosper, it has had a equivalent impact on agriculture.
So farmers now have access to neither economical labor nor machinery to replace them, all this when agriculture is very labor intensive. Machinery doesn’t just mean tractors for tilling land. It has to go much far ahead than a tractor.
What is needed now
In modern times, when western countries have faced the problem of exorbitant labor costs, they brought in machines to literally do everything that a man can do. Their farmers can hence manage agriculture with minimal human effort. We are amazed to see machines so deftly pick out potatoes and separate them like an assembly line. Or wheat being processing right while reaping. Or just every imaginable human task in farming. They even feed livestock using machines. It is literally one man farming. Manufacturers like Kuhn make machines for almost type of farming effort.
The dire need for India is to manufacture low cost, durable and high quality machines for every phase of farming activity – plowing, tilling, seeding, fertilization, manuring, sowing, spraying, harvesting, shredding etc.
The way washing machines replaced dependency on a maid servants. Instead of waiving a lakh of loan, it would be a thousand times better to gift them a lakh worth of farm machinery that would save a few more lakhs. Or local bodies in villages should make them available on rental basis. The aspect of durability and quality is very important as most farmers operate in remote areas.
Crucial for sustenance
For current and future sustainability, Indian agriculture needs science and technology to make machines that can replace human labor in every phase of farming from sowing to harvesting.
It is an irony that we have institutions to make the best of satellites but not high utility farm machines ! It is time for corporate sector and startups to venture into this area. By whatever measure these machines can reduce labor dependency, that much would agriculture prosper. Still over 60% of Indian population survives on agriculture, hence the need is immediate and crucial. Prospering villages are also needed for cities to prosper! The reason? Good agriculture helps manage inflation, in addition to reducing excessive immigration to cities.