Why Large Parts of North India Turn Dystopian Every Winter

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Burning of rice residues in SE Punjab, India, prior to the wheat season.
— Picture by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Burning of rice residues in Punjab, India, prior to the wheat season.

In the end, it’s all about incentives, perverse or otherwise.

My parents moved to Delhi in 2009, after my father retired from Coal India. Since then I have spent all Diwalis in Delhi, though this Diwali due to reasons beyond my control, I will most probably be in Mumbai.

The last few Diwalis in Delhi have been very difficult for me. In fact, last year, I could smell smoke inside the house even before the Diwali day (so, it was clearly not because of crackers). Delhi and many other parts of North India go totally dystopian during winters.

On some days when one gets up and looks out of the window, there is so much smog that one gets a feeling that Armageddon is here.

One of the primary reasons for this smog/pollution is the rice stubble burning that happens in Punjab, Haryana, parts of Uttarakhand and Western Uttar Pradesh. From the looks of it, the situation doesn’t seem to be very different this year.

Newsreports suggest that stubble burning is currently on and was responsible for 40% of Delhi’s pollution on November 1, the highest it has been so far this season. Last year on the same day, the stubble burning’s contribution to Delhi’s pollution had stood at 44% on November 1.

Let’s try and understand this issue in detail and why it happens every year.

This is a great story of how noble intentions on part of politicians and bureaucrats (yes, you read that right) along with incentives that seem right when they are introduced, can really screw up things in the years to come.

And once a system is in place, right or wrong, it is difficult to change it, given that many individuals benefit from the status quo.

Why do farmers burn rice paddy stubble?

They do it primarily because the time farmers have between harvesting rice paddy and sowing the wheat crop, is very short. That’s the short answer. But there is a lot more to it than just this.

Mechanical harvesters found their way into Punjab sometime in the early 1980s. Around four-fifths of the rice crop is harvested using combine harvesters and not human beings (if you still thought humans being carry out harvesting in Punjab, you haven’t moved beyond Hindi cinema of the 1960s).

These harvesters cut and clean rice from the rice paddy, but they leave behind straws on the field. These straws are six to eight inches long and for all practical purposes are useless.

The straws remaining after harvesting of wheat can be used as animal fodder. Rice straw cannot be used as animal fodder primarily because of its high silica content. If this straw is used as animal fodder, it impacts the quality of milk, with the quantity of calcium in the milk coming down. This is not true about straw left behind after harvesting basmati rice, which has low silica content.

But basmati is grown only in a limited area. Like this year, rice was planted on a total area of 27.36 lakh hectares. Of this, basmati was planted on around 6.5 lakh hectares or 24% of the total area under rice. This was primarily because the government does not buy basmati rice under the minimum support price (MSP) structure. (We shall look at this in detail later).

Farmers have a time of around 10-15 days for removing the rice straw and get the fields ready for planting wheat. The easiest thing in this situation is to burn the rice straw. All it takes is a single well-lit matchstick. The cost is close to zero.

This burning leads to higher pollution and deterioration of air quality even in places hundreds of kilometres away. The heat from burning the rice straw leads to an increase in soil temperature which kills beneficial soil organisms. The burning is also a potential source for greenhouse gases. Also, it is worth remembering that the burning of post-harvest rice stubble forms around 50% of the all the crop residue burning in the country.

Let’s take a look at stubble burning in incidences reported in Punjab and Haryana, where most of the burning takes place.

Source: Price Policy for Kharif Crops – The Marketing Season of 2020-2021, Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices.

As can be seen from above table, the number of stubble burning incidents have come down over the years. The total number of incidents in Punjab and Haryana have come down by 52% between 2016 and 2019. In 2016, the total number of incidents had stood at 1,18,065. By 2019, this was down to 56,742.

So there has been some improvement on the number of fires front over the years. But there are other ways of looking at the situation; the total weight of the stubble burned and the total area of stubble burned. The Chief Secretary of Punjab Vini Mahajan said on October 31, that the total straw burning area in 2020 was 7.49 lakh hectares, which was 5.23% lower in comparison to 7.90 lakh hectares last year.

A Amarender Reddy, the principal scientist at the ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture recently wrote in The Wire that last year the farmers burnt 11 million tonnes of rice stubble in Punjab and Haryana. This is a little over 40% of the total stubble of 27 million tonnes of rice stubble produced in both the states. Reddy expects the figure to be the same this year.

There has been some improvement on the paddy burning front. One reason has been the distribution of Happy Seeder, a machine which cuts rice stubble and plants wheat seeds at the same time. Reddy writes that the Punjab government has distributed around 24,000 Happy Seeder machines though the state needs nearly 50,000 seeder machines to remove all the rice stubble in the short period of time available before wheat seeds are planted.

Also, farmers have complained about low germination of wheat seeds when the Happy Seeder machine is used. The central government, like most central governments, has allocated more money to solve the problem. Using this money, machines to tackle the rice stubble can be bought at a subsidy.

While, all this is fine, it doesn’t answer the most basic question: why do semi-arid states like Punjab and Haryana, grow a water-intensive crop like rice paddy in the first place?

Why Punjab and Haryana grow rice?

Punjab has the highest yield of 4,132 kgs per hectare when it comes to rice, against the all India yield of 2,659 kgs per hectare. The rice productivity in Haryana is better than the all India average and is at 3,121 kgs per hectare. But this does not take into account the total amount of water used to produce this rice.

As the document titled The Price Policy for Kharif Crops: The Marketing Season for 2016-17, brought out by the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices, points out:

“If water consumption is measured in terms of per kilogram of rice, West Bengal becomes the most efficient state, which consumes 2,169 litres to produce one kg of rice, followed by Assam (2,432 litres) and Karnataka (2,635 litres). The water use is high in Punjab (4,118 litres), Tamil Nadu (4,557 litres) and Uttar Pradesh (4,384 litres). … [This] shows that the most efficient state in terms of land productivity is not necessarily the most efficient if irrigation water is factored into. This is because of high rainfall in the eastern region.”

Haryana also uses a lot of water to grow rice.

What this means is that Punjab and Haryana given that they are semi-arid water deficient areas, should not be growing rice in the first place. In the early sixties, Punjab used to grow crops which did not require a lot of water. These included maize, bajra, pulses, oilseeds etc. But over the years, the share of these crops in the overall cropped area has come down dramatically. Take a look at the following table.

Source: Economic Survey of Punjab, 2019-20.

Rice paddy was grown only on 4.8% of cropped area in 1960-61. In 2018-19 it was grown on around 39.6% of cropped area. What happened here? Sometime in the mid 1960s, the central government launched the Green Revolution in Punjab, in order to build food security in India and reduce our dependence on import of American wheat under the Public Law 480 (PL -480).

The farmers were encouraged to plant a high-yielding variety of wheat. In order to incentivise them, the government bought this wheat from them at a minimum support price (MSP) which was declared every year.

A look at the above table tells us that the cropped area under wheat jumped from 27.3% in 1960-61 to 40.5% in 1970-71. The fact that the government bought the wheat at the MSP, led to an increase in wheat plantation.

The government started buying rice at an MSP as well. This led to a jump in number of farmers planting rice in Punjab and Haryana because they had a readymade customer in the government willing to buy at a fixed price. They weren’t subject to the vagaries of price and India’s underdeveloped agricultural marketing system.

The farmers were first incentivised to grow wheat (rightly) and then incentivised to grow rice as well (right from the point of food security, but wrong from all other angles).

Take a look at the following chart which plots the total amount of area on which rice has been planted in Punjab, over the years.

Source: http://punenvis.nic.in/index3.aspx?sslid=5882&subsublinkid=4993&langid=1&mid=1 and Agricultural Statistics at a Glance 2019.

As can be seen there was a major jump in the area under rice production between 1970-71 and 1990-91, from 0.39 million hectare to 2.02 million hectare. This was primarily because of rice being bought by the government at a minimum support price announced every year. The next jump came in the mid 1990s.

In the year 1997, free electricity for farmers was introduced in Punjab. This encouraged farmers to grow rice even more. They could now pump groundwater for free. This could be used to grow rice. Take a look at the following table, which plots the number of tube wells in the state over the years.

Number of tubewells (in lakhs)

Source: Economic Survey of Punjab, 2019-20.

As can be seen from the above table, the number of electrically operated tube wells has gone up dramatically over the years. In 2018-19, the number is more than 13 lakhs. With free electricity, farmers were incentivised to buy electricity operated tube wells and pump as much ground water as required to grow rice.

This has led to the exploitation of groundwater. As the latest Economic Survey of Punjab points out:

“A state-wise assessment of the groundwater resources in the country showed that 80% of 138 blocks assessed were ‘Over-exploited’, 2 blocks were ‘Critical’, 5 were ‘Semi-Critical’, and 22 were ‘Safe’.”

In fact, 95% of groundwater is extracted for the purpose of irrigation.

Along with this, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) buys up a bulk of the rice produced in the state. It is worth remembering here that Punjab is not much of a rice eating state. Take a look at the following chart.

Procurement of rice in major producing states.


Source: Price Policy for Kharif Crops – The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

In 2018-19, Punjab produced around 12.82 million tonnes of rice. Of this, 11.4 million tonnes was procured by the government through FCI and other state procurement agencies. In Haryana, around 4.5 million tonnes of rice was grown. Of this, around 85% was procured. The major reason for this lies in the fact that given that the green revolution started here, FCI has the best infrastructure to procure and store foodgrains, in this area.

The government doesn’t procure basmati under MSP because there is a huge international demand, given its fragrant smell when cooked. Hence, farmers don’t plant much of it. While there is international demand, the farmers also need to suffer the vagaries of price.

This easy procurement along with free electricity encourages farmers to grow rice in what is largely a semi-arid area. But this still does not explain how the farmers came around to burning rice paddy stubble. I mean, I have been going to Delhi for more than 35 years now, but the city was never dystopian during winters earlier. This is clearly a phenomenon of the last decade. What changed?

What led to farmers burning rice stubble?

As we have seen, the government policies over the years, have incentivised farmers to grow rice. At the same time, these policies have led to the water table in Punjab falling dramatically. Given this, the government had to something about this and it did. (I am talking more about Punjab than Haryana here, simply because the number of fires in Punjab is many times more).

As the Economic Survey of Punjab points out:

“It requires 4,500 litres of water to grow one kg of sathi rice when it is sown in April-May. But if sowing is done around mid-June, water requirement reduces to 1,500-2,000 litres. Water requirement is high in April-May because the evaporation rate is high and there is no rain. As a result, all the water used in irrigation is groundwater. In June-July, rainfall supports water needs of the crop.”

This logic essentially led to the enactment of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009. As per this law, farmers are not allowed to sow paddy seeds in nurseries before May 10. They are not allowed to transplant the saplings before June 10. The idea being that by the time farmers start transplanting the saplings in the fields, the Monsoon would have already arrived and hence, lesser groundwater will be used to grow rice. Haryana has a similar law.

The intention behind the law was noble, but the incentive it created for the farmer was again perverse. The end to end production of rice takes 120 days. The process of growing rice used to start in April earlier. But this was pushed back by a month due to the law to prevent the overexploitation of groundwater.

This led to a situation where farmers were left with a time of around 15 days to get their fields ready for the plantation of wheat. The quickest way to turnaround is to burn the rice stubble and that is precisely what has been happening for the last decade.

History plus perverse incentives are at the heart of this problem.

What’s the way out of this?

The central government recently told the Supreme Court that it was planning to bring a new law to tackle the stubble burning problem. This is a classic way of how any government tries to tackle a long-term problem. They either bring a new law or throw money at it, in the hope of solving the problem.

But the question is will this law or any law be of help? The Punjab government did bring in a law to solve one problem and ended up creating another one, without really solving the first one.

In the short-term, innovations like the Happy Seeder have clearly helped. But the problem can only be solved if the Punjabi and other farmers in the semi-arid areas of North India are incentivised to not grow rice and to grow other crops which do not require a lot of water.

But at the risk of repeating a cliché, it is easier said than done.

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) Over the years, the government has bought much more rice and wheat than it needs to maintain the operational reserve and the strategic reserve. Like in September, the rice stock in the central pool of the FCI was at 22.2 million tonnes. As of October every year, FCI needs to maintain an operational reserve of 8.25 million tonnes and a strategic reserve of 2 million tonnes. Clearly, the FCI has much more rice than is required.

This reserve can be brought down by buying lesser rice in the time to come. If this policy is followed for a few years, the farmers will automatically be disincentivised to grow rice. If they are disincentivised to grow rice, there will be lesser rice stubble to burn.

Of course, this is a politically risky move and in the process a section of farmers is bound to face losses, until they move away from growing rice.

2) Another way is to buy more rice from states like West Bengal, which is best suited to be growing rice, given it uses less water to grow rice, in comparison to other states. In fact, West Bengal produced 16.05 million tonnes of rice in 2018-19. Of this, the government purchased just 1.9 million tonnes. The point to remember here is that West Bengal is a rice eating state.

So, unlike Punjab the government cannot buy almost all the rice that is produced. Hence, buying by the central government shouldn’t lead to a shortage of rice in the state, forcing it to buy rice from other states, in the process. The solution lies in helping increase the rice yield per hectare in the state. In 2018-19, West Bengal produced 2,906 kgs of rice per hectare. This was significantly lower than Punjab’s 4,132 kgs per hectare, but more than the national average of 2,659 kgs per hectare.

3) The most important way in weaning away farmers from rice is to change incentives. Let me offer an analogy here. Why does a wealth manager/insurance agent/personal banker/mutual fund agent mis-sell? Simply because their incentives are so aligned.

Along similar lines, if the farmer has an incentive to grow rice (and unlike financial salesmen, the incentive here is an honest one), he will grow rice. We can’t judge him for this.

One way out is to encourage farmers to grow maize, like they used to in the sixties. In 1960-61, 6.9% of the total cropped area in Punjab was used to grow maize. By 2018-19, this had fallen to 1.4%. As the document titled Price Policy for Kharif Crops—The Marketing Season of 2020-21 points out: “Maize cultivation is more water efficient than rice… [It has] a great potential for crop diversification in rice-wheat cropping system areas of north-western plains, where substantial groundwater depletion has occurred.”

The trouble is that maize has low profitability in comparison to rice “due to low and fluctuating prices and yield of maize.”

As the Price Policy document points out:

“There is a need to find alternative uses of maize in the country for industrial uses like feed, starch and ethanol as well as for direct consumption, mainly value-added products… Allowing maize as raw material for ethanol production would help in crop diversification and ensure remunerative prices to farmers.”

This will help increase the demand for maize and help increase its price.

Along similar lines, there is a need to encourage and incentivise the growing of pulses and oilseeds, which we don’t grow enough of. As the Price Policy document points out:

“Instead of promoting water-intensive crops like rice… it is important to promote production of pulses and oilseeds by encouraging farmers to grow these crops by providing better quality seeds, technology and appropriate price support to address gap between domestic production and consumption and maintain stability in the domestic market.”

The fact of the matter is that the private agriculture markets in the country don’t function well. At the same time, in order to encourage farmers to grow particular crops, the government cannot buy a large amount of it, like it buys rice and wheat, simply because it doesn’t have enough money to do so or the right infrastructure to store what it has bought. Pulses are an excellent example. The reason FCI cannot buy pulses is simply because it doesn’t have the right infrastructure to store them.

In this scenario, getting farmers to grow something other than rice is going to be very difficult and will take a lot of concentrated effort on part of the politicians as well as bureaucrats. Will that happen? On that your guess is as good as mine.

The moral of the story being, just because there is a problem, doesn’t mean it has an immediately implementable solution.

 

It’s Surprising That More People Aren’t’ Moving to Urban India

Farm_Life_Village_India

Filmstar and member of parliament, Hema Malini, blamed the recent Kamala Mills fire tragedy, on India’s population and migrants. She was quoted in a Zee News report as saying: “The population is so high. When Mumbai ends, another city should begin. But the city keeps extending. Uncontrollable… The administration has allowed every migrant to live in the city. However, looking at the wide population in the city, the authorities should have brought in some restrictions here to control the population.”

Of course, migration and population, had nothing to do with the Kamala Mills fire. It had everything to do with the collapse of governance that Mumbai (or for that matter most Indian cities) has seen over the years.

Having said that migration is a huge issue that many Indian cities are facing. In fact, as a recent discussion paper titled Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth, authored by Ramesh Chand, SK Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, and published by the NITI Aayog, points out: “As per the 2011 Census, 68.8 per cent of country‟s population and 72.4 per cent of workforce resided in rural areas. However, steady transition to urbanization over the years is leading to the decline in the rural share in population, workforce and GDP of the country. Between 2001 and 2011, India‟s urban population increased by 31.8 per cent as compared to 12.18 per cent increase in the rural population. Over fifty per cent of the increase in urban population during this period was attributed to the rural-urban migration and re-classification of rural settlements into urban.”

The question is why is this happening. The answer is fairly straightforward. Agriculture, as a profession, is not as remunerative as it used to be. The average size of the land farmed by an Indian farmer has fallen over the decades and in 2010-2011, the last time the agriculture census was carried out, stood at 1.16 hectares. In 1970-1971 it had stood at 2.82 hectares. This has happened as land has been divided across generations. This fall in farm size has made farming in many parts of the country, an unviable activity, leading to the size of agriculture as a part of the economy becoming smaller and smaller, without a similar fall in the number of people who continue to be dependent on it.

In fact, the situation could have only got worse since 2010-2011, as farm sizes would have shrunk further. Further, there are states like Kerala and Bihar, where the farm sizes are smaller than the average 1.16 hectares across India.

The NITI Aayog discussion paper points out that in 2011-2012, agriculture contributed 39.2 per cent of the rural economic output, while employing 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce. In 2004-2005, agriculture had contributed 38.9 per cent of rural economic output, while employing 72.6 per cent of the rural workforce.

What this basically means is that between 2004 and 2012, many rural workers essentially moved away from agriculture to other areas. Many would have migrated to cities for better opportunities as well.

What it also shows is that way too many people continue to remain dependent on agriculture. The sector has what economists refer to as huge disguised unemployment. If we look at the national level, agriculture contributes around 12 per cent of the gross domestic product (a measure of economic output), while employing 47 per cent of the workforce.

This clearly means that those working in agriculture are worse off than those not working in agriculture. In fact, the NITI Aayog discussion paper points out that the average urban worker made around 8.3 times the money an average agricultural worker does. The average urban worker makes 3.7 times the money an average cultivator does.
Given this, huge difference in income, it is not surprising that people want to migrate from villages to cities. Another data point that adds to this trend is the fact that only around half of the rural workforce looking for a job all through the year, is able to find one. In urban India, this is more than 80 per cent.

Given this, many people need to be moved from agriculture into other activities. The NITI Aayog discussion paper points out: “To match employment share with output share of agriculture another 84 million agricultural workers are required to quit agriculture and join more productive non-farm sectors. This amounts to about 70 per cent increase in the non-farm jobs in rural areas.”

What all these factors come together to tell us is that it is surprising that more people not moving to urban areas from rural areas, given the huge difference of income between rural and urban workers and the fact that there is a huge disguised unemployment in agriculture. Given the limitation of data (with the Census only being carried out once every 10 years), we will come to know the real situation only once the next census is carried out in 2021. But seeing how things are currently, it is safe to say that more people will move from rural to urban areas, than was the case in the past.

The column originally appeared in Daily News and Analysis on January 7, 2018.

The Crisis in India’s Agriculture Sector Which No One is Really Talking About

agriculture
The slow growth of agriculture remains a weak link in the overall Indian economy. Let’s take a look at Figure 1. Figure 1 uses the new gross domestic product (GDP) series, which was launched in January 2015, to plot the GDP growth and the growth of agriculture, forestry and fishing, within that, over the last few years.

What does Figure 1 tell us? It tells us very clearly that the overall GDP growth is much faster than the growth in agriculture on the whole. There are exceptions to this rule. In the period of three months ending December 2013 and March 2014, growth in agriculture was a little faster than the overall GDP growth.

Figure 1: 

The trouble is that the new GDP series has data starting from only June 2011. Given this, we have growth rates from June 2012 onwards. In order to look at periods before June 2012, we need to use the old GDP series. On the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy website, I could find data from December 1999 onwards.

I have plotted that data in Figure 2. Figure 2 plots the overall GDP growth along with the growth in agriculture, forestry and fishing.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 like Figure 1 clearly tells us that even as per the old GDP series, the GDP growth as a whole was much faster than the growth in agriculture, forestry and fishing. Of course, there were occasions (though not many) where the overall GDP growth was slower than growth in agriculture.

The result of this slower growth has been the size of agriculture as a part of the overall economy has been shrinking over the years. This becomes clear from Figures 3 and 4. Figure 3 uses the new GDP series data, whereas Figure 4 uses, the old GDP series data.

Figure 3: 

Figure 4: 

What Figures 3 and 4 tell us very clearly is that the size of agriculture as a part of the overall economy (measured by the GDP) has shrunk rapidly over the years. This has happened because the overall GDP (i.e.the non-agriculture part of the economy) has grown at a faster rate.

As can be seen from Figure 4, in 1950-1951, agriculture formed more than 40 per cent of the economy. By now it is down to 12 per cent. This has happened as the average land holding on which farming is carried out has fallen over the years, as land has been divided across generations. The average size of the land farmed by the Indian farmer has fallen over the decades and in 2010-2011, the last time the agriculture census was carried out, stood at 1.16 hectares. In 1970-1971 it had stood at 2.82 hectares. This fall in farm size has made farming in many parts of the country, an unviable activity, leading to the size of agriculture as a part of the economy becoming smaller and smaller.

The trouble is that agriculture still employs a large portion of the workforce. While, it’s contribution to the overall economy has come down, a large number of people continue to remain dependent on income from agriculture. Take a look at Table 1.

Table 1:

YearAgriculture’s share in the rural economic output (in per cent)YearShare in rural employment (in per cent)
1970-197172.41972-197385.5
1980-198164.4198383.6
1993-199457.01993-199478.4
1999-200051.41999-200076.3
2004-200538.92004-200572.6
2011-201239.22011-201264.1

Source: Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth, Ramesh Chand, S. K Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, Discussion Paper, NITI Aayog, December 2017.

As can be seen from Table 1, the share of agriculture in the rural economy has fallen from 72.4 per cent to 39.2 per cent, over the four-decade period between 1970-1971 and 2011-2012. During the same period, the proportion of people dependent on agriculture as a mode of employment, hasn’t come down at the same rate.

In 1972-1973, the share of agriculture in rural employment was 85.5 per cent. This came down to 64.1 per cent in 2011-2012. So, 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce produced 39.2 per cent of the rural economic output in 2011-2012. Hence, agriculture has many more people dependent on it, than is economically feasible.

It is clear from Table 1 that between 2004-2005 and 2011-2012, the proportion of people dependent on agriculture as employment has come down. This is a trend that would have continued. Even with that many more people continue to be dependent on agriculture than is economically feasible.

Also, given their lack of technical skills, it remains difficult for people trying to move out of agriculture to find other jobs. Or find jobs that pay better.

Table 2: Education level (general and technical) of usually employed rural workers of age 15-59 years

(per cent)
Percent of rural workersMaleFemalePersons
2004-052011-122004-052011-122004-052011-12
Secondary Education and above19.727.16.811.814.922.3
With technical education1.71.60.70.71.31.3
With vocational training14.215.413.012.713.814.6

Source: Authors estimation based on unit-level NSS data on employment and unemployment survey.
Source: Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth, Ramesh Chand, S. K Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, Discussion Paper, NITI Aayog, December 2017.

Table 2 tells us that the education and technical skills of rural India are fairly limited. Given this, their ability to find a job outside agriculture remains limited. Also, the secondary education which more than a quarter of men had had in 2011-2012, cannot be taken very seriously. Madhav Chavan, of the Pratham Education Foundation, estimates that in the period of the ten years up to 2015, 10 crore children completed primary school without the ability to do some basic reading and mathematics.

If people are to be moved out of agriculture, first and foremost the quality of education being imparted in rural India needs to improve. The focus, at least in the initial years, needs to be on teaching basic skills of reading, writing and the ability to do basic maths, rather than complete the syllabus, as is the case currently. Also, the current system of no exams till class VIII needs to change. Further, skill development in order to make individuals employable, needs to be encouraged further and happen at a much larger scale than it currently is.

There are a whole host of issues that are holding Indian education back. These need to be tackled with obvious as well as out of the box solutions. And for this to happen, the ministry of human resource development needs to be a high-profile ministry, in fact the most important ministry in the government, which it currently isn’t, nor was it earlier.

The column was originally published in Equitymaster on December 21, 2017.

Gujarat Elections: In 2018 and 2019, with More Socialism, Modi Will Become More Like Manmohan

narendra_modi

As expected the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), won the state assembly elections in Gujarat. The margin of victory though left much to be desired.

Before the elections, the party president Amit Shah had talked about the party winning 150 out of the 182 seats in the state assembly. The party finally ended up with 99. So, there was a clear gap between expectation and reality. I say this because Amit Shah is a brilliant electoral strategist and his words should never be taken lightly.

Finally, it is the massive support that the BJP enjoys in the cities of Gujarat that pushed it through. In the four biggest cities of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot, the party won 46 out of the 55 seats (Ahmedabad 16 out of 21 seats, Surat 15 out of 16 seats, Vadodara nine out of 10 seats and Rajkot six out of eight seats).

What this clearly tells us is that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) wasn’t as big an issue in the cities of Gujarat, as was made out to be in the days leading up to the elections, in the media. It clearly impacted a section of the population, but that wasn’t large enough to make an electoral difference. The only other explanation for this lies in the fact that even those impacted negatively by the GST, couldn’t get themselves to vote for the Congress.

The other interesting point here was that more than 5.5 lakh voters chose the NOTA (none of the above) option while voting. This amounted to 1.8 per cent of the total eligible votes. The NOTA votes were more than or close to the winning margins in nearly 24 constituencies. One explanation for this that has been offered is that a small section of the population which is unhappy with the BJP didn’t want to vote for Congress either.

Manmohan-Singh_0

The trouble with this explanation is that there is no way to verify it. It could even be the opposite.

Anyway, getting back to the point I was trying to make—the BJP won 46 out of the 55 seats in the four biggest cities of Gujarat. How did the electoral results look in the remaining 127 seats? The BJP won 53 of these seats. The Congress won 71. Hence, the Congress clearly did much better than the BJP beyond the four biggest cities.

There will be economic and political implications of these electoral results in other states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the elections are scheduled in the months to come. Some points are as follows:

a) The basic problems in India’s rural economy are not going to go away any time soon. The size of the average agricultural holdings in India has fallen as land has been divided across generations, making agriculture as a profession very non-remunerative.
Over and above this, India has too many people in agriculture than is economically feasible. A recent discussion paper by Niti Aayog points out that as of 2011-2012, agriculture employed 64 per cent of the rural workforce but produced only 39 per cent of the total rural economic output. Hence, for agriculture to be economically feasible 8.4 crore agricultural workers need to be shifted out of agriculture. This is around 70 per cent of the non-farm workforce in the rural areas. This isn’t going to happen overnight.

b) Of course, given this huge disguised unemployment in agriculture, people working in agriculture try to work in other areas as well. But the trouble is that there aren’t enough jobs going around for them. Data from the Labour Bureau suggests that only 52.7 per cent of the people looking for jobs all through the year, in rural India, are able to find one. Given this, nearly one in two people in rural India do not have jobs all through the year.

Hence, rural India has a problem at two levels: 1) Agriculture as a profession is no longer as remunerative as it used to be. 2) There are not enough other jobs, given their low skillsets, which people working in agriculture can take on, to add to their income over and above what they make in agriculture.

This explains why land-owning castes have been protesting all across the country. This includes the Patidar Patels of Gujarat.

c) Given this, the BJP in every state that it goes to election after Gujarat, it is likely to promise a farm loan waiver, as it has done in other states over the last one year. This is going to cost state governments all across the country a lot of money. It will also create moral hazard with future borrowers waiting for farm loan waivers than paying off their loans.

The question is why did the BJP not promise a farm loan waiver in Gujarat? The rural areas in Gujarat are not as badly placed as in other states. One reason for this lies in the fact that the livestock economy in the state, has continued to grow robustly. Also, over and above this, the non-farm economy in the rural areas, created job opportunities because of the overall faster growth in the state.

In fact, farm loan waive offs will become even more important given that, the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, are not as urbanised as Gujarat is.

Also, in the run up to 2019 Lok Sabha elections, I see the minimum support price of agricultural crops going up. As per the Shanta Kumar Committee, the minimum support price system benefits under 6 per cent of the farming households in the country. While, increasing MSPs may not benefit many farmers, it does have a strong signalling effect.

d) The Modi government will also look to consolidate its position in the urban and semi-urban areas. And for that, chances are it will waive off Mudra loans of Rs 50,000 or lower. In total, over 7 crore of Mudra loans of less than Rs 50,000 have been given out.

e) As far as the Congress is concerned, it needs to start rebuilding itself, particularly in the rural areas because that is where its support is. This is a rather obvious insight.
To, conclude, the Modi government will give out doles and waive off loans, in order to improve its position. This strategy will not be much different from what the Congress led UPA government led by Manmohan Singh, did in the 2009 elections. This again goes with the broader point that I keep making—India has only one model of governance and that is the Congress model.

In the end, socialism will win. We will have a bigger government in areas that we really shouldn’t.

The column was originally published in Equitymaster on December 19, 2017.

India Has 8.4 Crore More Workers in Agriculture Than is Economically Feasible

Farm_Life_Village_India
One of the themes that I have often explored in my columns and discuss in detail in my book India’s Big Government, is that India has way too many people working in agriculture. Or as economists like to put it, we have huge disguised unemployment in agriculture.

A new discussion paper titled Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth, authored by Ramesh Chand, SK Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, and published by the NITI Aayog, makes a few interesting points on this front.

As per this discussion paper, the rural economy in 2011-2012, formed 46.9 per cent of India’s economy, though it employed 70.9 per cent of its workforce.

Most people tend to believe that India’s rural economy is primarily concerned only with agriculture. Agriculture contributes around 12-13 per cent of the overall Indian economy.

Given that, the rural economy contributes 46.9 per cent to the overall Indian economy, it basically means that there are other areas that the rural economy is contributing to as well. And some of the findings of this discussion paper may surprise many people. Let’s look at them one by one.

1) One of the misconceptions that prevails is that rural India is totally dependent on agriculture. The discussion paper sets this right. As it points out: “Contrary to the common perception about predominance of agriculture in rural economy, about two third of rural income is now generated in non-agricultural activities.” This was clearly not the case earlier.

2) This is primarily because agriculture as a profession is nowhere as rewarding as it used to be. As the discussion paper points out: “In year 2011-12 per worker income varied from Rs. 33,937 for agricultural labour to Rs.1,71,836 for rural non-farm workers.” The ratio of rural non-farm rural income to income of agricultural labour has increased over the years, though it has fallen in the recent past.

Take a look at Figure 1. It plots the ratio of non-farm rural income to income of agricultural labour over the decades.

Figure 1: 

Take a look at Figure 2. It plots the ratio of average urban income to that of average income of an agricultural labour.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 clearly explains why people migrate from rural areas to urban areas. As the discussion paper clearly points out: “Between 2001 and 2011, India’s urban population increased by 31.8 per cent as compared to 12.18 per cent increase in the rural population.

Over fifty per cent of the increase in urban population during this period was attributed to the rural-urban migration and re-classification of rural settlements into urban.” There is a clear economic incentive for people to move from rural areas to urban areas.

3) With two-thirds of rural income now being generated from non-agriculture activities, the rural economy as a whole when it comes to income is moving away from agriculture, but that is not true when it comes to employment. This is something that I have been talking about for a while. Indian agriculture employs way too many people in comparison to what it needs.

The discussion paper points out that in 1970-1971, agriculture formed 72.4 per cent of India’s rural economy, and employed 85.5 per cent of the rural workforce. By 2011-2012, the size of agriculture had nearly halved, and it formed 39.2 per cent of India’s rural economy, but it still employed 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce. This data points shows that agriculture continues to employ many more people than it should.

4) Having said that, there is another point that needs to be made here. While, the overall employment in agriculture given its share in the rural economy remains high, it has fallen dramatically between 2004-2005 and 2011-2012. In 2004-2005, agriculture formed 38.9 per cent of India’s rural economy, while employing 72.6 per cent of the country’s rural workforce. By 2011-2012, agriculture formed 39.2 per cent of India’s rural economy, and at the same time employed 64.1 per cent of the rural workforce.

Hence, there has been a fall in the total number of people dependent on agriculture. But is this goods news?

5) As the discussion paper points out: “Sizable occupational shifts in workforce were also observed between 2004-05 and 2011-12. Out of 33 million workers who left agriculture 27 million (81%) were female and 6 million (19%) were male. Further, outgoing workforce from agriculture comprised both cultivators and agricultural labours with their respective shares of 56 per cent and 44 per cent. It is worth mentioning that out of 27 million female workers who left agriculture, only 5 million joined non-farm sectors and rest withdrew from labour-force itself.”

So, the point is that while lesser proportion of the workforce is now dependent on agriculture than was the case in the past, many of the women who have dropped out of agriculture, have stopped working all together. Indeed, this de-feminisation of the workforce, is a very disturbing trend.

6) The takeaway from the NITI Aayog discussion paper is that in 2011-2012, agriculture employed 64 per cent of the rural workforce and produced only around 39 per cent of its economic output. In an ideal world, a sector producing 39 per cent of output, should employ 39 per cent of the workforce.

For something like this to happen, nearly 8.4 crore agricultural workers need to be shifted to sectors other than agriculture. As the discussion paper points out: “This amounted to almost 70 per cent increase in non-farm employment, which looks quite challenging.” It also amounts to around one-fourth of the rural workforce of 34.2 crore as of 2011-2012. Chances are the 8.4 crore number would have grown between 2011-2012 and now.

Over and above this, the bigger challenge is the agriculture workforce lacks skills to do anything else. As per the discussion paper: “Only 1.3 per cent of the rural workforce of the age group 15-59 years possessed technical education. Similarly, only 14.6 per cent of the rural workforce of age group 15-59 years received vocational trainings, which aim to develop competencies (knowledge, skills and attitude) of skilled or semi-skilled workers in various trades.”

These skills cannot be improved overnight and jobs be created. Hence, the fear is that the current generation of Indians still largely dependent on agriculture, are going to lose out in the process. As time goes by, this looks more and more likely.

7) One area which has added to employment is construction. Construction formed 3.5 per cent of the rural economy in 1970-1971. This increased to 10.5 per cent by 2011-2012. The share of the sector in rural employment in 1972-1973 was at 1.4 per cent. This jumped to 10.7 per cent in 2011-2012.

One area where agricultural workers can be nudged towards is construction. As the discussion paper points out: “Rural areas are characterised by poor infrastructure and civic amenities. Similarly, a large per cent of houses are in need of upgradation. These facts indicate considerable scope for growth of construction sector in rural areas.”

Over and above this, the real estate sector in urban areas can be a huge employment generator. But for that to happen, the prices need to fall, and more than a few real estate companies need to go bust.

While the role of the government in India to be able to achieve anything significant is limited, this is something where both the state governments and the central government, can have a major role to play. Road construction is one area where many jobs can be generated. This can then act as a multiplier for the services sector as well. As people earn more they are likely to spend more.

To conclude, the fact that India has way too many people employed in agriculture, is probably the country’s biggest social and economic challenge. The trouble is no one really is even talking about it, let alone working towards a solution. The first step towards solving any problem is acknowledging that it exists.

The column originally appeared in Equitymaster on Dec 13, 2017.