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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Why are Farmers Moving to the Cities?

Thursday 2 July 2009, by S G Vombatkere


Technology-driven industrialisation has necessarily caused a shift in human values, certainly among those sections of society that have benefited from industrialisation in India. Such people speak and think about liberty and freedom without stopping to think whether there are others who cannot even dream of those desirable conditions of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The freedom they seek is to “consume” without the responsibility of leaving something for others, or regenerating resources or even a thought for the resources for generations as yet unborn.

The juggernaut of industrialisation leaves most people with the choice of climbing aboard (like the growing ”Great Indian Middle Class”) over the bodies of the struggling masses, or staying out of the way. Given the enormous momentum of industrialisation, the very existence of those who cannot do either, like our farming or tribal communities or Dalits—who have been oppressed for centuries and are even today oppressed—is threatened. Reacting to the economic violence of industrialisation, some take up weapons to fight (extreme self-assertion) while some choose suicide (extreme self-abnegation). But for the vast, silent majority this is a ’sentence’ to suffer the filth and degradation of urban slums, their final earthly destination.

Farmers of Desperation

Most farmers’ suicides are desperation-driven due to heavy debt combined with inability to face usurious creditors, many of whom keep harassing his family members with insults and threats. He sees no way out of the debt-trap situation, because only a fresh, larger loan can pay off a previous one that has bloated due to unpaid interest, and he has already pledged his wife’s jewels, his land and even household utensils as security for previous loans. No doubt there are some farmers who borrow money for social reasons like the (questionably heavy but socially demanded) expenses and dowry of a daughter’s marriage, or for medical treatment of a family member. Money borrowed for social reasons usually leads to ruination, which is more rapid if a crop, the expected income from which is to service the loan, fails due to meteorological or technical causes. But excluding the social-cause loans, poor farmers’ survival-cause loans are on the order of several thousands to purchase seed or fertilisers and pesticides or draft or milch animals, or ten-twenty thousand to drill a borewell and buy a pump. The small farmer is always “on the edge” and any untoward incident, natural or man-made, can cause a failure of the small farm, leading to final ruination. The farmer (if he hasn’t committed suicide) and his family always wind up as landless labourers in rural areas and eventually as migrants to urban areas. This is about small farmers who own land and constitute only about 20 per cent of the rural farming community. They have a fighting chance for survival only if successive crops succeed and there is no heavy medical or social-cause expenditure. But for the majority who are landless agricultural labourers, there is no hope at all. The failure of a land-owning farmer means that landless labourers lose their only source of income.

Sometimes, State governments offer aid to small farmers when there is large scale failure of crops due to the vagaries of weather or meteorological drought. Recently, the Uttar Pradesh Government offered “relief” to drought-hit farmers with disbursement of sums like Rs 3 (three) and other figures below Rs 100 which banks refuse to encash. (As if, in any case, Rs 100 is of any use even if the farmer has a bank account!) It is strange that the same governments do not offer a viable minimum support price for farm produce and thus drive the small farmer to financial loss even when the crop is successful. Financial loss repeated over two or three years leads to taking loans and ultimately to suicide or ruination.


Money through government doles and relief cannot solve the problem of small-farm viability. But there is no salvation at all for the landless rural poor, who migrate to urban areas to occupy slums. Seasonal migration changes to permanent migration. It is estimated that the metros are swelling with a daily influx of about 1000 people, with somewhat less into large and small cities and towns. Perhaps about 1,00,000 rural people move every day to urban areas all over India, making annual migration to the tune of about 3.6 per cent of the population—that is the magnitude of the tidal wave of urbanisation. Thus the suffering of both rural and urban slum populations is compounded, making for the typical lose-lose situation.

Things have gone beyond the point of farmers reacting to the insult of providing grossly inadequate relief like Rs 3 that can only buy one cup of tea. They do not need or want pity. What they want is a fighting chance to live in dignity, even if poor. That can only be provided by proactive change in the present wrong agricultural policy that is at the root of the problem. But policy and actions by Central and State governments regarding agriculture (and arguably also in some other sectors) especially since NEP-1991 when reforms began, is Nero-like.

Governments are prepared to give enormous areas of farmland (by displacing farmers) for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and, what is more, 10-year tax holidays to large industrial enterprises in SEZs, foregoing revenue to the tune of Rs 1,75,000 crores. At the same time, tax arrears at the end of 2004-05 were Rs 1,11,107 crores, most of this due from “high-value” taxpayers in the corporate sector, and taxes foregone on account of exemptions (again to business corporations) at the end of 2005-06 amounted to Rs 1,58,661 crores. There is a definite, undemocratic bias in favour of the corporate sector and wealthy people, and little intention to energetically address the real-time problems of poor farmers. This bodes ill for the nation.

Why is the survival of small farming an issue? Would it not be better for business interests to club together many small farms (never mind the farmers!) and create more “efficient”, viable-size farming by mechanised contract farming? Even if contract farming is successful in growing food by optimum use of land—this is certainly disputable, but arguments against it cannot find place in the present discussion for reasons of brevity—the real question is about where the people displaced due to mechanised contract farming will go. Thus the spectre of urbanisation again rises, and with it, the need to create jobs (for farmers who have no skills other than farming and very little formal education), provide water, civic facilities, housing, health facilities, schools, etc., which is far beyond the capacity of governments and municipal bodies even today, let alone a tomorrow of increased population influx and dwindling natural resources. The result of social tensions that will surely arise in Indian metros and cities will make India sit up and take notice.


Is there at all a solution for this situation? But before looking for solutions, the causes of the problem need to be understood. The main causes are: (1) no land or poor land due to neglected land reforms, (2) farmers’ food-security being based on the market by purchasing food for himself through income earned by sale of his farm produce, (3) agricultural policy encouraging cash-crops rather than food crops, or marketable, water-intensive food crops rather than rain-fed food crops, (4) neglect of rural agricultural water-security by neglect of localised watershed management, (5) soil erosion due to deforestation, (6) loss of soil fertility due to continued use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, (7) lack of micro-credit to farmers, (8) industry-based high-input-cost technologies in farming including “high-yield”, water-demanding seed, instead of sustainable organic methods, and (9) caste-based limitations to cooperation between farmers. These main causes have a self-evident set of solutions, which will reduce the seasonal and permanent migration of rural people to urban centres. People who migrate to urban centres need jobs (employment) and this causes the government to attempt to create more jobs by further industrialisation. Sensible solutions to the causes of today’s farmers’ crisis situation will not only largely relieve the government of the need to “provide jobs” since rural people will have occupations that will keep them independent and working on the land, but will also increase foodgrain production. This will perhaps generate the win-win situation for which there is a crying need. I hasten to clarify that what is suggested above is a holistic set of solutions, and not the much-vaunted PURA (providing urban facilities in rural areas) scheme.

Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi, in 1996 after 35 years in the Indian Army. He holds a Guinness Book and Limca Book record for design and construction of the motorable bridge at the highest altitude in the world (18,300 ft) in Ladakh in 1982. He holds a Ph.D degree in structural dynamics from IIT, Madras, and the President of India awarded him Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. Since retirement, he is engaged in voluntary work with the Mysore Grahakara Parishat, and is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for students from University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their programme of Studies Abroad in South India. He can be contacted at:

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