Why ending poverty in India means tackling rural poverty and power

Vanita Suneja, Oxfam India’s Economic Justice Lead, argues that India can’t progress until it tackles rural poverty. This entry was posted on 3 February 2015.

More than 800 million of India’s 1.25 billion people live in the countryside. One quarter of rural India’s population is below the official poverty line – 216 million people. A search for economic justice for a population of this magnitude is never going to be possible only by relying on migration to the cities.  Rural-urban migration and absorption of labour in the urban economy has been slow, and will likely remain so due to the slow growth of employment, especially in labour-intensive manufacturing. The rural labour force will therefore have to find a way to improve their incomes back home in the countryside.

Agriculture is still the largest employer in rural areas. Of the total rural households (90.2 million), over half (57.8 percent) are involved in farming.  In any case, rural farm and non-farm incomes have a mutual sustaining relation in the rural economy and sustenance of a strong non-farm rural economy is possible only if the agricultural economy is doing well and vice versa.

So what works in boosting the rural economy? Concentrated policy interventions including spending and reforms in extension services from 2005-2014 has shown what is possible. Average agricultural growth jumped from 2.4 percent during the decade 19995 to 2004 to 4 percent for 2005 to 2014.

Small farmers are the backbone

But it’s not just about money – this is an area which also needs innovation and scalable pilots where grassroots civil society needs to play a much larger role . The first step is to look closely into the salient features of this sector and its actors.  More than 85 percent of farmers own less than 2 hectares of land. These small and marginal farmers are the backbone of India’s food security and can stimulate broad based inclusive growth in rural areas.

Another feature of the farm economy is the feminization of agriculture.  Though there are still more men than women in agriculture, employment data shows more men are getting out while the absolute number of women farmers in India has increased by about 62 million from 2001-2011, and now accounts for 37 percent of the total agricultural population.

Many women smallholders are part time farmers, earning part of their incomes from employment in the non-farm sector (typically in day work such as construction).

Incomes are very low. The government estimates average monthly incomes per agricultural household across the whole of India from July 2012- June 2013 as just Rs.6426/- ($105), out of which farming accounted for 60 percent and nearly 32 percent came from wages.

Investment and land rights are critical

Investments and policy reforms in agriculture need to give priority to these small and marginal farmers and specifically facilitate more entrepreneurship opportunities for women. The major obstacle is often absence of land titles in their name, which hinders their access to technology, irrigation, credit and markets. It is vital that technology outreach, agricultural schemes, and information on the Minimum Support Price (MSP) are not restricted to full time big farmers but reach to part time famers especially women.

But achieving inclusive growth and prosperity in rural India is not just about farming. Forest-based employment has been seriously neglected over the years. Forest-dependent communities are often in conflict with the government’s Forest Department, demanding rights over their forest resources. Around 1/4 of the rural population including 87 million tribals, are living in and around forest areas and depend on forest resources for their livelihoods.

Indian women farmers. Photo: OxfamSixty per cent of India’s forest area is in tribal areas. So-called ‘scheduled tribes’ lag 20 years behind the general population, display the worst indicators of child malnutrition and mortality and are at risk of becoming locked out altogether of sharing prosperity. The states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha together account for 1/3rd of total tribals, ¼ of forest resources and 2/3 of minerals – conflicts around mining are commonplace.

Ending the exclusions of forest-dependent communities is hardly rocket science – they need secure access to their forests; support for building up value chains based on minor forest produce (MFP), and  an end to the government forest bureaucracy’s  dual control on forest resources and their sale.  Though the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 recognized community rights over forest resources, its implementation has been systematically undermined by the Forest Department. It is important to expedite the implementation of FRA and bring further reforms under it – for example the FRA does not provide explicit rights over timber.

One progressive step has been the introduction of a government scheme to provide a Minimum Support Price (MSP) to forest dwellers for some of their products, but again, its implementation leaves much to be desired, while many important products such as tendu leaves (used to make beedi cigars) and bamboo are nationalized and under the control of the forest department.

Protecting livelihoods

Two external forces further threaten rural livelihoods: Firstly, dispossession by the state for mining, industry and infrastructure; secondly, the impact of climate change on both agriculture and forestry. Safeguards to minimize forced dispossession; informed consent, resettlement, rehabilitation and adequate compensation are some of the key elements needed to protect broad-based growth in rural areas. State Action Plans on climate change and especially adaptation budgets need to be made effective and acted upon swiftly.

Climate change cannot be seen as a standalone issue, disassociated from wider issues of resilience in rural India, which in turn depends on sustained incomes and control over natural resources such as agriculture, forestry and renewable energy – these are the essential components of a structural shift towards intra country equity and resilience to climate threats.

Last but not least is the role of social protection programs under the Food Security Act, 2013, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Mid-day meal scheme (MDMS) and the Maternity Benefit program in rural India. All act as safety nets, addressing malnutrition and hunger, and are a necessary condition for populations to strive for economic justice.

Demanding policies and investments for a resilient and prosperous rural India where people have dignified livelihoods still remains a transformative and necessary agenda, just as it was for Gandhi.

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