How Can Agriculture Be Made 'Cool' For India's Youth?

This article discusses the waning interests of rural youth in agriculture and suggests interventions to mitigate this issue.

Nishant[1] had a simple logic. He wanted stability and consistency in life. His father, a farmer from a village in Washim in Maharashtra (India), has had a tough life.

“There were years when we were extremely rich, and then there were others where the situation was foot to mouth. My father left his government job thinking that he was educated, and hence could add better value to the family’s farming business. But the weather was unpredictable, and markets were whimsical. Neither were the MET reports of much help, nor was the announced Maximum selling price of realising back what was invested in the absence of public procurement. This has been a vicious cycle over the years. Besides, being an engineer was much cooler than being a farmer”.

This is the story of many young men and women in India belonging to farming families.

Lakshmi from west Godavari in Andhra Pradesh says:

“My father’s family has large agricultural lands. We have handed over the lands to third parties for agriculture.  Most of my uncles and aunts are government employees and most of my cousins are engineers. That narrative tells the tale of many folks in Rajul [a village in the west Godavari district] and the neighboring villages. My brother and I do not have any intention of leaving Hyderabad.” 

As per the 12th Annual Status of Education Report (2017), a significant proportion of youth aged 14–18 years are working (42%), regardless of whether they are enrolled in formal education or not. Of these, 79% work in agriculture, almost all on their own family’s farm. Yet only 1.2% aspire to become farmers. Currently, when it comes to selecting livelihood sources, agriculture is relegated to the last position. As per the National Sample Survey (2003), when given a choice, two out of five farmers would quit farming (MoSPI 2003). More recent figures indicate that 76% would prefer to undertake some other vocation instead of farming. The 24% who would be interested to continue, would do so only because it was their ancestral tradition (CSDS 2014).

Most rural youth are not inclined to return to agriculture; with 35% of the Indian population in 15–35 years age group and 75% of those residing in rural areas, rampant migration to cities is threatening the future of agriculture and food security and the topsy-turvy development of jobs has sent distress signals regarding who will manage farming in the times to come (Annual Status of Education Report 2017).

The phenomenon of youth abandoning agriculture as a profession is not one that is unique to India. For example, in most of the African nations, rural youth leave agriculture at alarming rates due inaccessibility to right information and knowledge, necessary inputs and credit for farming.  Perceived negative perceptions around agriculture, such as it being a low-paying job, fuel the disenchantment towards it. Rural poor in the Caribbean, as elsewhere in the developing world, are migrating towards the cities (Johr 2012).

Days of Abandonment

Across the world, the age of farmers is steadily increasing (Johr 2012). An average American farmer is 58.3 years old (Kurtzleben 2014), while in Japan the age is 67 (Nippon News 2018). The effect of ageing is also showing up among the farmers of Africa and Asia.  For example, the average age of the Indian and Kenyan farmers, respectively is 50.1 (Agriculture Census Division 2016) and 60 (UNDP nd) years.

Advancing age of farmers is likely to influence the growth of agriculture in ways that are uncertain and unpredictable. It can be ascertained that there will not be enough able-bodied farmers to feed the world by a single generation. In the absence of human resource participation, the economic potential of agriculture would drop, leading to perhaps a further slump in income of agricultural households (Johr 2012).

In India, the progressively increasing age of agriculturists has led to a phenomenon known as persistence of “uneconomic cultivators”: groups of farmers who continue to till land without necessary resources; living a life of insecurity and sub-marginal existence.

Seized with the problem, many national and international agencies have been consistently organising discussions/workshops/ conferences/ consultations/studies to map out strategies on attracting and retaining the youth in agriculture[2]. The challenges relating to agriculture are complex and not understood too well.  Too often, the problem defies simplistic recommendations, being presented as solutions. Most of the discussions focus on transfer of knowledge, training in youth specific programmes, group action, use of ICT, access to finance and markets. While these interventions are aimed at inspiring the younger generations to enter the agriculture section, the response is non-commensurate to the effors put in by the national agricultural research system and other international institutions.

Due to a lack of push from the policymakers and development departments, two fundamental issues emerge:  

i. Not engaging youth in discussions and overlooking their needs and aspirations have given rise to negative perceptions regarding agriculture as a profession.

ii. Absence of mapping the competency profile of the present-day youth vis-à-vis key requirements of accepting agricultural enterprise as profession.

Considering the aspect of competency, youth are now more qualified and tech-savvy. They do not lack drive, are aware of basic management principles and have some commercial orientation too. These attributes point to trainability of present-day youth in agriculture-specific entrepreneurship building programmes. It has to be considered that before accepting the agriculture sector as a viable source of livelihood, youth will pitch themselves against someone working in the private/public sector raking in a steady income every month. Accordingly, a young “agripreneur” or “white-collar farmer” is likely to look for aspects of agriculture enterprise or allied activities that are risk free and generate stable revenue. For example, a pay package equivalent of Rs 1 lakh per month from a marginal size farm of two acres (Figure 1).

 

Such a profit, on a monthly basis from a standard monocrop agriculture is quite remote. To gain such profits, farm activities will have to be diversified with cash yielding, low volume, high value and market-relevant quality output. For example, one way of making farming “cool” and “smart” is to use a combination of adopting sun-rise crops (flowers/exotic vegetables), multiple and vertical use of farmland (juxtaposition of two crops of contrasting growth habits), farming specialty animals (say ducks, quails farming, cuniculture).

However, in order to succeed, the relevant operations and activities would have to be:

  1. Managed under controlled conditions with assured water supply to stabilise output by pacifying the adverse impact of weather conditions, like shade-net or polythene protected caged agriculture.
  2. Conducted scientifically following precision irrigation in open field farming, for example, trailing the vines by wire props to grow erect rather than creep along the ground and plant crops on raised beds through holes in an organic or plastic mulched ground.
  3. Backstopped by preliminary processing and value addition of produce (safe, standard and packaged produce).
  4. Followed by pre-organised and established market links.
  5. Would have to be undertaken by individuals who have been trained in the art and science of all aspects of expert farming techniques, handling of tools and tackles on the one hand and on the other are fully aware of government schemes supporting local corporatisation of tiny farms into producer companies or producer information groups, and the pecuniary carrots and legal sticks governing the same. 

On an overall basis, the proposed Rs 100,000 per month, the income model of farming is knowledge, know-how and investment intensive.

Budding agripreneurs must be educated enough to be trained in utilising alternative agricultural technologies. They also need to possess a mindset not to pursue their business as a lone furrow. Additionally, they should have competence and skills for identifying emerging but site-specific agribusiness opportunities and resources to translate those into an efficient and competitive industry. Success would also hinge upon backstopping by proactive government policies and support of civil society organisations.

Making Agriculture ‘Cool’ Again: Six Interventions

Investigate the issue: There is a need to study the needs, aspirations and perceptions of youth with regards to agriculture. The findings of such investigations can form the guiding principles of devising action plans on educating, mentoring, and assisting young men and women in the areas such as professional farming of plants and animals, management of emerging business opportunities, evaluation of markets and consumer demands and monitoring of the business progress, being part of a network of a producer group.

Awareness of what is contemporary: Necessary awareness on agriculture business (modern methods of crop/animal production, input and service provisioning institutions and schemes, farm machinery management, produce handling and processing, markets and consumer) through experiential learning has to be created. Special training programmes on production of high value, low volume products adapted  to controlled and uncontrolled conditions need to be launched under the auspices of Agriculture Skill Council of India.  Reorienting pedagogy that assures transfer of fresher knowledge with assurance on lifelong learning would be necessary.

Converting agri-farmers to “agripreneurs”:   Development departments should institutionalise youth-specific schemes facilitating unhindered access to financial services. Role of civil society bodies in organising the aspiring young men and women is equally important.

Developing a market: Success in emerging specialty agriculture depends upon quick growth in marketing and trade. Elimination of existing barriers via real-time transfer of information on right decision support products, markets and consumer demands by infusing the state of the-art ICT tools would be crucial.

Value adding processing: Value addition to agricultural produce by primary processing (cleaning, grading, packing whole or packing ready to cook normal or freeze-dried cuts) is known to cause an additional surge in income and employment. It, however, requires establishing a processing plant on agricultural farm. This amounts to change in land use. Present laws do not permit this mutation without seeking approval of the competent authority. The compliance procedure is both time-consuming and full of hassles. It would be appropriate to introduce necessary wavering of archaic clauses allowing setting up of a processing plants on farms. Since a value adding facility is treated as industry, it attracts commercial tariff on power consumption. In order to encourage primary processing, which maximises income and employment and minimises waste, it is suggested that the set-up continues enjoying subsidised electricity as is available to regular cultivators.

Policy intervention and institutionalisation: Since an intervention like “sun-rise agriculture enterprise” is a potent strategy to attract and sustain the youth in agriculture and to generate new jobs, it calls for a comprehensive backing (institutional, financial, legal) of public policymaking bodies (NITI Aayog) and Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare Ministry in that the core concerns of youth are addressed effectively.  

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