MNREGA has made it difficult to get farm labour during peak farming seasons
Isn’t it strange? The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which was primarily designed as a radical and novel response to combat rural poverty, is actually hitting the very foundations of agriculture. Acute shortage of farm labour witnessed across the country at the peak and crucial time of crop harvesting and sowing is not only playing havoc with food production, but is increasingly forcing small farmers to abandon agriculture.
It isn’t aberrant weather, uneconomical farm prices and the increasing corporatisation of agriculture that alone is responsible for the prevailing agrarian distress, the unavailability of farm labour at the time of crop harvest has added on to farmers woes. In my opinion, it is the single most important factor that is forcing small farmers to sell-off their meagre land holdings and join the growing ranks of landless workers. No wonder, travelling across the country, the common refrain that I hear, is: “Please ask the government to ban MNREGA. It is killing us.”
I remember the time when trains steaming in from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh into Ludhiana, Patiala and other prominent destinations in Punjab would come over-loaded with workers. These migrant labourers would generally arrive in the second half of March and stay on till July, helping farmers with harvesting the wheat crop and also transplanting paddy with the onset of monsoon rains. Today, the railway stations look deserted. Getting hold of a farm worker has become the biggest challenge for any farmer. And if you think the situation in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala is any different, you are mistaken. Farm labour has simple disappeared.
MNREGA has now completed five years. Many believe with not much meaningful work available, it is already faced with a mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, it is in these five years that the crisis in agriculture has also worsened. For those who want to see, the crisis in agriculture is directly proportionate to the spread of MNREGA. The intra-state movement of labour, and of course the exodus from the rural hinterland to meet the burgeoning needs of real estate, expressways and urban infrastructure has diverted the workforce from poorly paid agriculture. And still, despite the recommendation of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry for Rural Development has refused to relent the slowing of MNREGA work during the peak farming season.
It is generally believed that pressure from agribusiness industry -- including the sectors dealing with farm machinery, herbicides and GM crops -- is holding the crucial decision of MNREGA’s convergence with peak farm operations.
Some years back, agriculture was brought under MNREGA activities after a lot of hue and cry was made. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had identified 50 districts for launching technological interventions by Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) on a pilot basis. These included operations like water harvesting, digging farm ponds, rooftop rainwater harvesting, drought proofing, micro-irrigation and renovation of traditional water bodies. These activities would certainly go into much needed asset creations in agriculture, but it is generally believed that pressure from agribusiness industry -- including the sectors dealing with farm machinery, herbicides and GM crops -- is holding the crucial decision of MNREGA’s convergence with peak farm operations.
MNREGA is incomplete without incorporating crop harvesting and sowing. Considering that two-third of the MNREGA work force comprises small and marginal farmers, and knowing that more than 42 per cent farmers (this data is still to be updated) want to quit agriculture if given an alternative, agriculture cannot be allowed to suffer any more blows. Already some studies have pointed to the frightening scenario of the country turning into a major food importer before the end of the decade. Some 45 years after the launch of Green Revolution, India is once again poised to return back to the days of “ship-to-mouth’ existence.
As a welcome move, I find some state governments are in the process of extending several benefits that have already been allotted to SC/ST families, to be extended to small farmers. In addition, I have two suggestions: First, the MoRD should direct the state governments to ensure no MNREGA work activities are undertaken during the peak farming seasons. This can vary from region to region, and from crops to crops. Secondly, and most importantly, since most MNREGA workers are land owners, the monthly wages applicable during the farming season should be given directly to them. Bringing convergence between farming and MNREGA would also ensure livelihood security.