We have all become experts on farming. Gandhiji used to say that farming was the noblest of professions and always advised young men and women to take to farming. He himself grew carrots and cauliflowers and fed them to his unwilling guests who quietly put them in their pockets and got rid of them as soon as they left the ashram.
Things are worse now. You can’t buy a cauliflower for less than ten rupees and a bunch of carrots can make a big hole in your pocket. But nobody wants to become a farmer, even those who know their Gandhi backwards. Farming is no more a profession, noble or otherwise. It is almost being sentenced to lifetime hard labour, which you try to avoid as best you can, even if you have to starve.
Women are much more knowledgeable in such matters than men. In Maharashtra, they refuse to marry farmers, come what may, with the result that young farmers in the state are forced to remain unmarried for life. You really can’t blame the girls: Why go through years of college if at the end of it you have to spend hours fetching water from a river ten miles away and put your nose to the grindstone from morning till evening with a few hours off for cooking in a dusty kitchen, while in cities, you can go to the nearest supermarket and pick up the stuff off the shelf? So the young women, not just in India but all over the world, have decided against getting hitched to farmers and prefer to live in cities where life is not a drudgery and you can see Shah Rukh Khan once in a while in your nearest multiplex.
Things are really bad in villages no matter how you glamourise the job of growing food. Firstly, the incomes are low, about a fifth or sixth of incomes in cities. There are too many farmers, about twice as many as are actually required. There is little work for them and many of them end up committing suicide.
When Henry Ford started producing his car at the start of the last century, about 40 per cent of Amercia’s population consisted of farmers, nearly the same as currently in India. That means almost every other American was a farmer.
By the end of the century, the proportion had been brought down to about four per cent, that is, one in twenty-five. Now, it may be just one or two per cent, which means that one or two per cent of Americans produce food for 98 per cent of their countrymen and have a huge surplus for exports. In fact, the tiny one or two per cent of Americans produce more food and other farm products than India’s entire GDP. This shows how efficient US farmers have become.
Indian farmers complain, and rightly so, that their incomes are meagre, not enough to provide their families with a decent living, unless they send some family members to cities where the wages are high. Farm incomes are low in most countries, including America, in relation to incomes in other sectors, so the governments subsidise the incomes. We also try to do so, but we cannot do it on a large scale, because we are a poor country and there is not enough cash to go around.
Agriculture will always remain a problem, because it is not the kind of industry that can be put into a factory and you can start the machines at the flick of a switch. In many rich countries, villages are being abandoned because there are not enough able-bodied men and women to do the work. In Japan, the second richest country in the world, thousands of villages have been abandoned in recent years. In fact, the government has decided to import Brazilians to do the work for them. There are now hundreds of thousands of Brazilians working on Japanese farms, and soon there will be millions, if the experiment succeeds. Fifty years from now, may be earlier, countries like Japan will be totally dependent on foreign labour for much of their economic activity, and, one day, Japan may be taken over by Brazil, or may be China, look, stock and the last bushel of rice.
Agriculture was a problem with communists too, both in Russia and China. The Soviet communists tried to solve the problem by getting rid of surplus farmers by slaughtering them. They did the same in China where man-made famines took a big toll of farmers. You cannot do that now, though the communists might try. But that does not mean there will not be wars over food.
The Chinese are pouring money into Africa buying up huge chunks of land in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique. At the moment, Chinese farmers there are only being used as farmers but it is a matter of time before they are used as soldiers. This has happened before, also in Africa, whose thousands upon thousands of British farmers appropriated land from the locals. This was known as colonization. Now it will be the turn of the Chinese to replace the Europeans, for in an unusually hungry world, no land can lie fallow forever.
But that does not really solve the problem, for, twenty or thirty years from now, there will be the question of bringing them back and rehabilitating them in their own country. But this is easier said than done. Will so many Chinese and their families return home at all after so many years abroad? And will the Chinese government want them back? My feeling is that the next wars will be food wars, and the first one will be in Africa, that is, China vs. African countries like Angola and Congo, with China, a big military power by then, having an upper hand. And will it stop in Africa? What is the guarantee that China will not try to do the same in Russia, where too old men and women are dying and the population of able-bodied workers is depleting by the day?
I am surprised that our planners have not taken any of these likely developments into account and are going about as if the food problem in India is only one of prices and occasional shortages. It is much more serious than that, for the food problem is now a global problem and may soon have to be tackled on a global scale, just like climate change. But, to start with, it has to be looked on as a problem of dealing with surplus manpower in farming for whom there is no work. As I said, we have about 25 per cent of the workforce that is at present without work, excluding the idle workforce in urban areas. We have to transfer this surplus manpower from farming to non-farm sectors, as the Americans did in the last century, and as the Chinese are trying to do through non-conventional methods. Our farmers are committing suicide now; a few years from now, they may be forced to commit murders, as the Naxalites are doing.