Steep rise in inputs and uncertainty over water availability are among factors

More and more small and marginal farmers are selling their meagre landholdings to become agricultural workers.

This is how agriculturists, policy-makers and economists explain the finding in the Census for Tamil Nadu: Between 2001 and 2011, the strength of cultivators declined and the number of agricultural workers went up. In the 10-year period, there was a fall of about 8.7 lakh in the number of cultivators and a rise of nearly 9.7 lakh among farm workers.

With agriculture remaining unprofitable generally, many cultivators are forced to give up farming and consequently sell their lands. Uncertainty over water availability, steep rise in inputs, particularly fertilizers, and inadequate procurement price for food grains are among the factors that drive out farmers from their basic calling.

According to the State Planning Commission’s 12th Five Year Plan document, the overall average size of landholding had come down from 0.83 hectares in 2005-06 to 0.80 hectares in 2010-11.

“What is ironical is that when the scope for agriculture is shrinking, the number of agricultural workers is on the rise,” says K. Balakrishnan, president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam and Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA from Chidambaram. Farmers not getting fair compensation in times of floods or droughts and cumbersome procedures associated with crop insurance are other reasons that make the farming community have second thoughts over continuing with agriculture.

S. Janakarajan, professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, and a seasoned expert on agrarian issues, refers to the trend of agricultural land being purchased in a big way by institutions of higher education and companies that are putting up thermal power plants. “This is happening in the Cauvery delta,” says Prof. Janakarajan, who has just carried out field surveys in eastern parts of the delta, particularly in the Nagapattinam-Vedaranayam belt.

Pointing out that the big picture is extremely disturbing, he says that pull and push factors are in operation against farming. While the push factor pertains to the distress conditions in which agriculturists are placed, the pull factor refers to “greater opportunities,” as viewed by farmers, in urban areas, for their livelihood. According to him, the most important finding of the Census – the urban boom in Tamil Nadu – means conversion of rural poverty into urban poverty.

However, a senior policy-maker, who had a considerable stint in the State Agriculture Department in the last 10 years, sees the trend differently. “What we are witnessing is economic transition. When an economy matures, the contribution of the primary sector to the overall economy becomes less and less. At one stage, it will stabilise.”

What everyone acknowledges is that given the level of urbanisation in the State, many farm workers are no longer dependent solely on farming for livelihood.

For some months in a year, they get into non-farming activities such as construction. In fact, another policy-maker says there should be enough avenues for non-farm income for the agriculturists so that they do not find themselves in economic distress in times of successive spells of drought.

As regards the Census finding on the increase in the strength of farm workers, not many are willing to agree with it. The policy-maker says that be it in the Cauvery delta or in Cuddalore-Villupuram belt, the dearth of workers has been the general complaint.

S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, says there is a perceptible fall in the number of labourers even in the delta over the years. With vast improvement in connectivity, the practice of people in rural parts of the region going to faraway places for livelihood is no longer uncommon.

A substantial workforce in the Tirupur knitwear industry is from the delta, he points out.

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