Agriculture, Food Security and Rural Development amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Arjun Kumar, Nitin Tagade

Delivering his lecture in a webinar organized by Center for work and Welfare at 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 the synonym for development and people in rural areas migrate to the shining life of urban. 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 growth rate of food grain production with growth rate of only adult population then also self-sufficiency is a distant dream. The per capita availability of food grains stands at 401gms per person per day which is less than minimum international standard of 500gms 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 rate of agriculture share in GDP is not the same as the decreasing rate of the workforce in the agriculture implying that the carrying capacity of agricultural land in rural areas is increasing very fast with per 1000 hectares.

He criticised though the policies have always been focusing on the development of the industrial sector from 1951 onwards, still we have not achieved the desired growth unlike agriculture. Agriculture has always been at 3% growth rate for 60 years except during the periods of revolutions in 1967-68 and 1989-90. He questioned though the productivity is increasing, has the country contributed sufficient efforts and attention to the agricultural sector’s growth? 

He highlighted that since the 1960s 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 poor such as malnutrition, wasting, 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. The 9 Indian states having poverty density higher than the Indian average are Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh. 

The Indian economy has faced economic retrogression. Before COVID-19 pandemic, the economy of India was in a downward spiral with falling GDP growth rates steadily. Even institutions such as RBI even projected negative growth rates of GDP. But, the country governance 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 eleventh 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, PPE kits for doctors in rural areas is a hidden bomb. The average distance to PHC is about 48 km.

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

Prof Deshpande suggested that there’s a need to redefine economic contours. He suggested the following solutions which 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 bring 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 industrialization which will help employing rural people without migrating them far off,
  • Institutionalizing MGNREGs so that they will be the sole supplier of laborers for infrastructure projects and wages will be fixed by operators under MGNREGs.

Professor D N Reddy, Retired Economic Professor and Former Dean, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad highlighted the two responses which are being observed in rural, agricultural and food security sectors. Firstly, agriculture has been seen as the silver lining in the whole pandemic which is being taken very lightly by 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 the rural areas have not been severely affected by pandemic as compared to 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 pandemic has brought back our conscience towards the fundamental and resilient engine of Indian growth story – agriculture and rural economy, which must be bullet proofed 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 universalization of the scheme, it is important to have specific targeted beneficiaries.

Universalization or having bigger coverage, spread a very thin layer of resources to a very thick density cluster of population, which often doesn’t provide relief to needy; and, there is need to eliminate market Inefficiencies and instilling confidence and fair practices among various economic agents in the rural markets.

Other 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; Dr Pradeep Kumar Mehta Director, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation, Sehgal Foundation, Gurgaon.

Others 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; Prof Balwant Singh Mehta Research Director, IMPRI, New Delhi; Senior Fellow, Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi

YouTube Video for Agriculture, Food Security and Rural Development amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Picture Courtesy: Down To Earth