• From farm subsidies to farm loan waivers, the Indian government spends crores on farmer welfare, but these efforts will be inadequate unless they can tackle an increasingly daunting barrier lack of land.
• The provisional figures from the latest agriculture census reveals how land—the most critical input for agriculture—is getting more fragmented.
Analysing the agricultural census
• Since the first agriculture census over 45 years ago, the number of farms in India has more than doubled from 71 million in 1970-71 to 145 million in 2015-16, while the average farm size more than halved from 2.28 hectares (ha) to 1.08ha (chart 1).
• Between 1970-71 and 2010-11, the number of farms increased by 194%, almost exactly in line with rural population, which increased by 189%.
• Within India though, there is significant variation in farm sizes.
• With an average size of 5ha, Nagaland is home to India’s largest farms.
• Punjab and Haryana, two states known for their agricultural output, also have larger farm sizes (3.6ha in Punjab and 2.2ha in Haryana).
• The majority of India’s farms (86%) are less than 2ha. The bulk of which are located in the poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
• They find that in 2013, for marginal farmers(less than a hectare of land), household consumption exceeded net monthly income of less than ₹ 5,500 from both farming and non-farming activities.
• Using the 2015-16 census data, this would mean nearly 100 million farming households would struggle to make ends meet.
• Examining farmer incomes between 2003 and 2013, they find that incomes grew the least for marginal farmers and growth of incomes was proportional to the size of a farm. Doubling of farm incomes is a reality only for the largest land-owning group.
• One obvious solution to small farm sizes will be consolidating land into larger farms by enabling land leasing.
• However, this can be a complex and costly process, made more difficult by the lack of accurate land records. As a report by PRS Legislative Research has highlighted, land records in India are poorly maintained and do not reflect ground realities.
• It pointed out that, despite most states computerizing and digitizing land records, as of 2017, spatial data had only been verified in 39% of villages.
• This is particularly problematic for small farmers who, without accurate land records, cannot access credit or secure insurance.
• India’s farmers are not alone in these struggles. A 2016 study estimated that around 84% of the world’s farms are less than 2ha.
• While many of these small farms face the same challenges, some small farmers, such as those in China, have been more successful in securing sustainable livelihoods.
• This is a result of several different factors, but economists agree that improving land records, investing in research and development, providing local rural non-farm employment opportunities and building better rural infrastructure are policies that can help small farmers.
Mains Paper 3: Agriculture | Land reforms in India
Prelims level: Stats mentioned in the newscard about land holdings
Mains level: Analysing the challenges for “Doubling Farmers Income”