FEROZE VARUN GANDHI
India’s small farmers have been struggling for centuries now and they need social and governmental action to change their future
Of India’s 121 million agricultural holdings, 99 million are with small and marginal farmers, with a land share of just 44 per cent and a farmer population share of 87 per cent. With multiple cropping prevalent, such farmers account for 70 per cent of all vegetables and 52 per cent of cereal output. According to National Sample Survey Office data, 33 per cent of all farm households have less than 0.4 hectares of land. About 50 per cent of agricultural households are indebted. In Sultanpur district, Uttar Pradesh, cultivation cost per hectare for wheat has increased by 33 per cent in five years. Such farmers face an uncertain Hobbesian life: poor, brutish and short.
Rain-fed agriculture has been practised since antiquity in India, with Indus Valley farmers growing peas, sesame and dates. Greek historian Herodotus had noted in The Histories: “India has many vast plains of great fertility. Since there is a double rainfall, the inhabitants of India almost always gather in two harvests annually.” With the British era came the zamindars, the ryots and penury. As Tirthankar Roy notes in The Economic History of India, 1857-1947, “from 1891 to 1946, diminishing returns coupled with growing land-shortage and yield deceleration led to an acute crisis, particularly in Bengal.” India’s marginal farmers have been worse off for centuries.