Kerala, which has been facing a labour shortage in agriculture for a long time because of its distinct socio-economic status, is sustaining agriculture through a women’s self-help group (SHG) programme, Kudumbashree. Launched in 1998 by the state government for poverty alleviation, the Kudumbashree programme has four million members and covers more than 50 percent of the households in Kerala.
The farming sector in Kerala has been facing labour shortage since the 1990s primarily because of the high literacy rate, which has prompted labourers to shift from farm to non-farm sectors. According to NSSO data, between 1993-94 and 2004-05, the number of farm hands in Kerala declined by 879,000, though the total number of workers increased by 1,605,000. In 2004-05, only 35.5 percent of Kerala’s workers were engaged in agriculture while the national average was 56.5 percent.
The shortage of labour in the state has forced many to quit farming. The state lost over 500,000 ha of paddy fields between 1980 and 2007 and harvest came down by almost 50 percent, severely threatening its food security.
Kudumbashree first experimented with farming in 2013 when its SHG group from Madakkathara village signed an agreement with the Kerala Agricultural University to take up vegetable cultivation on a two-hectare land of the university that was unused because of labour scarcity. Within months, the women’s group earned Rs 2 lakh from selling vegetables. Seeing the success, other SHGs under the scheme entered farming. In 2014, a total of 47,611 groups under Kudumbashree entered farming across the state. They primarily started farming on farmland that were abandoned because of labour shortage. Today, it is popularly said that the state has more SHG members farming than farmers.
To bolster the initiative, the state government has now started setting up joint liability group of women farmers (JLG) under Kudumbasree. The groups are eligible for agricultural loans and receive subsidy on the loan interest. The state government gave loans worth Rs 123 crore last year to facilitate farming. The state has also started the Master Farmer Programme to train 10,000 women in farming from all the panchayats in the state.
Going back to work
In Uttarakhand, the crisis in the farm sector is largely driven by heavy migration and abandonment of farming. As a result, large tracts of farmlands lie barren in the hilly state. But now former labourers have taken the lead to recover the land and prepare it for farming once again. It is a win-win situation for both farm owners and labourers.
For instance Gaurikot, about eight km from Pauri town in Uttarakhand, former agricultural labourers and their families set up a cooperative farming enterprise called the Gauri Swayam Sahayata Samuha in December 2013. The farming cooperative used a loan of Rs 470,000 acquired from a local cooperative bank to invest in new tools and alternative techniques to make a living out of farming again. Today, Gauri Swayam Sahayata Samuha has 26 families collectively farming on about 2 ha. The cooperative is currently earning money through poultry and will start selling their farm produce by next year. They say the loan has to be repaid by 2018.
After setting about the painful task of clearing abandoned farm plots of unwanted wild plants, the self-help group, spearheaded by women, invested in power tools. “We acquired a power tiller with the help of government subsidies. Now we can till the soil without cattle which have become difficult to keep because of increased leopard attacks,” says Rekha Rawat, deputy secretary of the group as she fires up the tiller and demonstrates its usefulness on an empty plot.
Investment in power tools is not the only innovation the group has undertaken. The farming cooperative has diversified into organic horticulture, poultry and pisciculture.
The group is now contemplating opening huts as home stays for tourists. So where did the members of Gauri Swayam Sahayata Samuha get these ideas? Rawat says that Nepali labourers who have taken up farming in neighbouring areas have been their teachers in resourcefulness. One such migrant from Nepal, Arjun Singh, has been working hard over the past three years on farms abandoned by the owners. “We used to be migrant labourers, but over the years several families have moved to Pauri and other districts to farm. We usually pay the land owners about Rs 10,000 every year to do farming on .4 ha and the business is great in most places,” says Singh as he displays his plots of radish, tomato, pea, bitter gourd and ginger.
In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, a different kind of cooperation is taking shape. Here, the government, the apple orchard owners and the private players are coming together to adapt to labour shortage. Farmers say there has been 30-40 percent labour workforce reduction in the agriculture sector in the recent years. The state witnessed the worst crisis in 2010 when several horticulturists could not find enough employees to pluck their bumper apple crop and the fruit was allowed to rot. The primary reason for the labour shortage in the state is that the labourers, who are mostly from neighbouring Nepal, are travelling to other countries for higher pay. Over the past five years, a major chunk of the Nepalese labourers has started moving to Qatar, Dubai, Oman, Malaysia and even Canada for higher income. A large number of them also prefer to work in infrastructure projects within India and as porters.
But unlike in other states, complete mechanisation is not possible in Himachal Pradesh because of the topography, say farmers. “The steep slopes in the case of apple and the small terraced fields in case of vegetables leave almost no scope for use of large machines,” says orchardist Baldev Chauhan from Rohru village in Shimla district.
what did the farmers do? “Since the vocation continues to be labour intensive, we have no option but to be at the mercy of the workers. Last year, I had to get additional workers from Jammu and Kashmir. Small orchardists also rent workforce from bigger farmers for a few days during the harvesting season,” says Sanjeev Thakur, an orchardist from Matyana village near Shimla.
Agriculturists and horticulturists are also entering into contracts with labourers for carrying out different cultivation phases in return for some portion of their produce. “This year, I entered into a contract that gave the other party the right over 50 percent of the produce on my land. There seemed to be no option. Massive rainfall would have destroyed the entire produce. Harvest had to be done at the right moment,” says Manish Verma, a farmer from Kaylar village in Solan district. Many apple growers in the area are following this practice, says Chauhan.
Farmers point out that the entry of some private players who have set up cold storage units has provided some relief to the apple growers. “The headache for the grower remains to the extent of plucking and transporting the apples to the private firms, who then do the grading and packaging,” says Dewan Justa, an orchardist from Jubbal village in Shimla district.
While farmers in most states are innovating to tide over the labour crisis, farmers in Haryana, which is one of the country’s most agriculturally productive and mechanised states, are making money by renting farm machines to neighbouring states. One such farmer is 44-year-old Krishna who rents his harvester to other states. “Just a decade ago, labourers would regularly come from states like Bihar, but the supply shrunk slowly,” says Krishna, sitting on a cot with a friend at a dhaba on National Highway-10. He says farm machines from the state are rented to farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha.
Thirty-four-year-old Jagdeesh Singh, who recently returned to his village, after working on soybean and wheat plantations in Indore, says, “I travelled over 2,500 km this harvesting season, and earned Rs 4-5 lakh in two months.” He normally travels with a team of four men. “Local agents from the areas facing acute labour shortage contact us during sowing and harvesting periods. These agents know hundreds of local farmers who want to get their crops harvested,” says the farmer from Haryana’s Daryapur village. He charges Rs 1,000 per ha for soybean, Rs 1,500 per ha for wheat and Rs 2,500 to Rs 8,750 per ha for paddy, depending on the quality. “They find the rent cheap because of the high labour cost,” says Jagdeesh.
Another farmer, Sharavan Singh, says he recently returned for Kota, Rajasthan after harvesting soybean crops of 200 farmers. “During harvesting season, our demand is quite high. We get calls from different parts of the country, especially from farmers’ groups from the northern or central region,” he says. Om Prakash, an Indore-based agent who has been in the business for the past three years, says farmers prefer hiring machines because the job is done quicker, which is crucial because of extreme weather events. He says he shifted to machines two years ago after his rabi crop was destroyed by unseasonal rains and hailstorm during the harvesting season.
A new opportunity
The labour crisis has given Rajesh Jejurikar, the chief executive of the farm equipment division of the world’s largest tractor manufacturer, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd (M&M), a reason to be happy. This is unusual because even industries are facing acute labour shortage. A recent survey by industry body Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) shows 90 percent of industries are facing labour shortage, just like farming. Ask Jejurikar the reason for his happiness and he says, “Farm mechanisation has become an attractive option for those farmers who either have a shortage of workforce or want to adopt new modern technology.” This new-found urgency among farmers to embrace farm mechanisation is resulting in huge profits for all industries that are engaged in farm equipment.
According to CRISIL, the farm equipment sector will grow at the rate of 10 percent annually for the next five years. And big players such as M&M are going the extra mile to capitalise on the growth. The company has established around 150 special centres across the country to reach out to farmers. M&M’s Samriddhi centres will provide access to hybrid seeds, crop care and micro-irrigation products, soil and water testing facilities, finance and insurance along with supporting knowledge to farmers to manage their farms, according to the company’s website. “We are focused on providing complete mechanisation solutions for the entire agri-value chain,” says Jejurikar.
Companies are also launching machines for labour-intensive processes like transplantation of paddy fields. M&M recently launched two rice transplanters for paddy cultivation. Similarly, several other companies, including VST Tillers Tractors Ltd, Redlands Ashlyn Motors, have launched a range of transplanters. According to a study by the Directorate of Rice Research on the status and prospects of mechanisation in rice, manual and self-propelled transplanters can reduce the cost of rice transplanting by 45-50 percent and labour requirement by 75-80 percent.
This has prompted companies to invest heavily in research and development. M&M has a dedicated research and development centre for its automotive segment and tractors in Chennai. Similarly, Chennai-based Tractors and Farm Equipment Ltd recently opened two R&D centres in Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu that employ over 300 specialist engineers dedicated to farm machinery.
The recent labour crisis has made it clear that the agriculture sector has to mechanise if it wants to survive. Will all the stakeholders—farmers, companies and government agencies—work together to realise the goal ? This remains to be seen.
(This is the concluding part of the two-part series. Views expressed are personal.)