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Agriculture, Food Security And Rural Development Amidst The Covid-19 Pandemic

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Written by: Dr Arjun Kumar and Nitin Tagade, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

Delivering his lecture in a webinar organised by the Center For Work and Welfare at the Impact and Policy Research Institute, New DelhiProf R S Deshpande, Honorary Visiting Professor at ISEC, Bangalore, highlighted the macro picture: blearing the rural. He stated that urbanism has become synonymous to development and migration of people from rural areas to the shining life of urban areas. While stating facts and figures, he highlighted that 127 million in rural India are heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.

Blearing the Rural- A Macro Picture of Rural Development

Despite being the top producers of commodities like wheat, rice, sugarcane etc, India is not self-reliant. Even if we compare our growth rate of food grain production with that of only adult population, even then self-sufficiency is a distant dream. The per capita availability of food grains stands at 401g per person per day, which is less than the minimum international standard of 500g per person per day.

Prof Deshpande also explained that the Lewis Framework is wrongly applied in India’s migration scenario as migration out of agriculture is being compensated by the service sector instead of the manufacturing sector. The decreasing share of agriculture in the GDP is not the same as the decreasing rate of the workforce in agriculture, implying that the carrying capacity of agricultural land in rural areas is increasing very fast with per 1,000 hectares.

He criticised that before having achieved the desired growth in agriculture, we shifted our focus on the development of the industrial sector from 1951 onwards. Agriculture has always been at 3% growth rate for 60 years, except during periods of revolution in 1967-68 and 1989-90. Though productivity is increasing, he questioned, has the country put sufficient efforts and paid attention to the agricultural sector’s growth?

He highlighted that since the 1960s, the elasticity of availability of net food grains with respect to income has been far lower than one. This is conceptualised as Arithmetic Availability by Prof Deshpande, under which per person per day availability of food grains is increasing, but steadily, because of the possible reasons of diversified diet including fruits and vegetables, mutton, chicken etc. He opined that at the aggregate level, arithmetic availability cannot be lowered.

While highlighting the problems faced by the poor, such as malnutrition, wasting and stunting of the children, professor claimed that the lack of accessibility to food grains is due to the low purchasing power capacity of individuals. The factors hindering food security are road density, ration cards, gender related indicators, consumer price index, dependency ratio etc. The market is tainted with corruption in food markets and the public distribution system. Nine Indian states having poverty density higher than that of the Indian average are Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.

The Indian economy has faced economic retrogression. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy of India was in a downward spiral with a steadily falling GDP growth rate. Even institutions such as the RBI projected negative growth rates of the GDP. But the government still hoped that injections of investments would boost the economy, but now it is Covid-19 to blame for the continuing downward spiral. Even after 70 years of planning and independence, the list of backward districts in the country made in the second plan is the same as one in the 11th plan showing the namesake development.

The number of problems posed by Covid-19, as highlighted by the professor, are: shattering public health networks in rural areas as evident by the fact that 23% of the villages in India are without Public Healthcare Centres (PHC); lack of preparedness with no oxygen masks, ventilators; and PPE kits for doctors in rural areas that are a hidden bomb. The average distance to a PHC in rural areas is about 48km.

The cities, which boast of having the best medical facilities, are under pressure. So, the analogy goes all around the thinly distributed rural India and thickly distributed urban India. Agricultural supply chains have collapsed, leaving many people unemployed. This has increased dependents in rural areas. During Covid-19, reverse migration due to unavailability of money and food has the outcome of casualisation of the workforce where poverty and inequality have increased.

Prof Deshpande suggested that there’s a need to redefine economic contours. He suggested the following solutions that can bring back the rural economy on track:

  • Employment schemes need to be properly implemented across regions to reduce unemployment.
  • Primacy of agricultural sector needs to be brought back.
  • Returned migrant laborers must be settled in their original jobs.
  • There should be an increase in public investment in infrastructure in rural India.
  • There is a strong need for rural industrialisation, which will help employing rural people who are forced to migrate to far-off places.
  • Institutionalising MGNREGAs so that they are the sole supplier of labourers for infrastructure projects and wages will be fixed by operators under MGNREGAs.

two women farmers on agriculture fields

Professor D N Reddy, Retired Economic Professor and Former Dean, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad, highlighted the two responses that are being observed in rural, agricultural and food security sectors. Firstly, agriculture has been seen as the silver lining in the whole pandemic that is being taken very lightly by the state and Central governments. Similarly, with the availability of huge stocks and the fair performance of rabi and kharif crops, it is believed that there’s no food security problem.

In case of rural development, it is being followed that rural areas have not been severely affected by the pandemic as compared to the urban. The other way to look at it is by considering the disconnections in agriculture, especially with small marginal farmers, who continue to be devastated and are in distress. In the food security problem, the distress is caused by the demand side of economics, not the lack of supply, which has not been solved even with the state intervention and programs. He raised concern over little health infrastructure, which is devoted and concentrated to the urban areas, while rural areas are substantially by passed.

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI, recommended and opined that the pandemic has brought back our conscience towards the fundamental and resilient engine of Indian growth story – agriculture and rural economy – which must be bulletproofed with vigour for realising Doubling the Farmers Income by 2022 (75th Independence Anniversary of our Nation) and towards #AtmaNirbharKrishi. Moderating the session, he highlighted pertinent points that came out of Prof Deshpande’s lecture — rather than a universalisation of the scheme, it is important to have specific targeted beneficiaries.

Universalisation means having a bigger coverage spread a very thin layer of resources to a very thick density cluster of population, which often doesn’t provide relief to the needy. There is a need to eliminate market inefficiencies and instill confidence and fair practices among various economic agents in rural markets.

Others who participated in the webinar are Prof S Madheswaran Director, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore; Prof Sachidanand Sinha Professor, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi; Prof Utpal Kumar De Professor, Department of Economics, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong; and Dr Pradeep Kumar Mehta Director, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation, Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon.

Other discussants include Prof A Narayanamoorthy Senior Professor and Head, Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Karaikudi; Prof G Sridevi Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Central University of Hyderabad; Prof Amalendu Jyotishi Professor, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bangalore; and Prof Balwant Singh Mehta Research Director, IMPRI, New Delhi; Senior Fellow, Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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