The National Commission on Farmers called for attracting and retaining educated youth in the farming sector. Heeding to this advice the National Policy for Farmers adopted by Parliament in 2007 emphasised the need to involve youth in agriculture through providing appropriate support measures to retain them in agriculture and allied ancillary processing industries.
The stagnating farm sector with high number of suicides in different parts of the country provides a scary picture of the future of farming. Under such grim scenario, is it possible to attract youth to agricultural sector? Will farm based employment provide a decent livelihood opportunity to the educated youth with a life of assured income and dignity? Will they be rewarded for the risk they are willing to undertake to feed the countrymen?
The ‘youth’ power
Nandish, a youth farmer from Shikaripura in the dry regions of Karnataka, says, “When I started farming I realised that it not only calls for hard labor, but you need capital to buy high costs of inputs. With meager income from the sale of paddy, I realised that it is a losing proposition.” Under this condition, he wanted to quit farming.
Accidentally, he stumbled on the article on natural farming practiced by Fukuoka, in which he calls for generating local inputs rather than purchasing these from outside. Then he started to invent methods to reduce the input costs. Over decades he evolved farming methods that help him to produce yields that are almost 50 percent higher than conventional methods, with low external inputs.
In the region most of the farmers have shifted to cash crops like areca or maize. But he is confident that the cereal crop of paddy not only brings him enough cash income but provides satisfaction and mental peace! Even without the organic certification, the rice produced on his farm fetches premium price. He markets the produce directly to the consumers and there is ever increasing demand that he is unable to meet.
Pradeep, another young farmer in Banavasi, Karnataka has successfully diversified cash crops like areca, banana, paddy and he also does beekeeping that brings him extra income. He says, “I earn a decent income from these diversified crops and I am able to get fresh, nutritious food grown on my farm which are free from poisons.”
Young farmers like Nandish and Pradeep may be the exception rather than a rule that have opted for the high risk agriculture. However, majority of youth, even those belonging to farming families, do not want to pursue the vocation of their ancestors. They have experienced the harshness of the life of a farmer, where all his efforts to earn a decent income after putting in hard labor produces meager income or total loss during the time of drought, leaving behind the burden to debt. More than the economic hardships, the low status accorded to the farming generates a negative attitude among the youth. In most cases the youth engaged in agriculture finds it difficult to marry. Obviously, under such harsh circumstances how is it possible for youth to opt for the losing profession of farming?
With 25 percent of the country’s population between 18-29 years, it has great potential to entice them towards farm sector. Unfortunately, the macro economic and agricultural policies act as a barrier that hinders agriculture with low returns for the investment. In order to assist the economy to check the inflation, the farm gate prices are deliberately kept low. Over the years farmers are producing larger quantity of foodgrains. There is overproduction in some crops leading to fall in prices, wherein the farmer is unable to get any profit. The perishable commodities like vegetables and fruits need to be transported to the markets at right time. This needs reliable rural infrastructure, communications and transport systems. Similarly, the availability of credit and inputs, skills and technology at right time is very important in growing crops.
Neglecting the farmers
Unfortunately, the overall development discourser and education in our country is geared towards building urban sector. The policies do not favor who grow crops or cultivate the land and produce food. The policymakers think that food can be imported and there is no need to support the farmers. This attitude of neglecting the farmers who grow food to feed the hungry is an insult to farming community. Importing the food has disastrous consequences for the farm economy.
Our soils are poisoned with high chemical input sand pesticides, and they are showing up as residues in the food we consume. This has resulted in high incidence of diseases adding to the health costs.
Realising the gravity of the situation many youths have taken this as a challenge and have ventured into agriculture. Reverse migration from cities to the countryside has begun. This small number of dedicated youngsters taking agriculture as a profession is a positive sign. There is hardly any policy or financial support for those who are venturing into agriculture. When large numbers of established farmers are keen to quit, the young people are swimming against the tide taking enormous risks.
Creating enabling environment
We need to provide them with skills and develop their confidence through creating enabling environment. With the tools of modern technology, they are more capable of handling the problem of agricultural sector. For example, in order to handle pests and diseases they can use the modern gadgets and seek expert advice in minutes. The farmers and the farming in future are going to be very different from that of what was done earlier. There are more opportunities to diversify. He has to deal directly with market and consumers.
In Bagalkot, dry region of Karnataka APJ Abdul Kalam was speaking to a large youth gathering. During the question hour a village girl asked, “Sir you always ask the youth to become scientists and engineers. Why don’t you ask them to become farmers?” The ever confident ex-President struggled to provide a reasonable reply!
Nevertheless, there are numerous young farmers that have evolved techniques to achieve success against the odds. We need to build on their success and provide a purposeful life for youth, especially young women.
The government policies need to be reoriented towards involving youth. The youth power was responsible for installing the present NDA government in Delhi. Will they repay the debt through policies that provide economically satisfying livelihood for youth in agriculture?
By Pandurang Hegde, a development journalist and farmer based in Karnataka