Where are farm hands when you need them? by Devinder Sharma
MGNREGA is certainly a good idea. But it can’t be allowed to play havoc with farming operations by weaning away labourers during peak season
RURAL DEVELOPMENT Minister Jairam Ramesh recently rubbished the need for freezing the flagship rural job scheme MGNREGA during peak agricultural season. Dismissing the possibility, Ramesh had said: “The matter has been examined by the Mihir Shah Committee and rejected.” Knowing that Mihir Shah’s entry into Planning Commission was entirely based on his blind support for MGNREGA, I’m not the least surprised. What baffles me is the ease with which Ramesh, one of the more sensible of the Union Cabinet ministers, rejects the need when the farming community is faced with a terrible shortage of labour at the time of harvest.
Ramesh was reacting to Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s longstanding demand for freezing MGNREGA activities in the three peak months of harvesting and sowing. This also found a mention in the Economic Survey, 2012, thereby inviting Ramesh’s ire. The survey had rightly stated: “While the overall performance of MGNREGA has been good, there is scope for improvements like focussed planning, shifting to permanent asset and infrastructure building activities… avoiding peak seasons in agriculture.”
Considering that MGNREGA provides for 100 days assured employment, and there are 365 days in a year, I don’t see why the Planning Commission, the rural development ministry, and as well as the National Advisory Council, should have any objections to the legitimate demand of the agriculture ministry. After all, if the rural employment guarantee programme is hampering agricultural operations, the first and foremost need is to redraw the contours of the programme in a manner that agriculture is least affected. Even if it needs an amendment in the Act, it must be done. At no cost can the employment guarantee programme be allowed to play havoc with farming operations.
In any case, MGNREGA is supposed to provide assured employment during lean months and I see no logic in continuing with its activities when agricultural operations are at its peak. This is a time when rural labour is gainfully employed. There’s no reason why the rural development ministry should wean away farm workers at a time when they get assured employment. The basic objective of the scheme is to supplement job creation rather than to displace workers from agriculture and employ them instead in some mundane activities like digging ponds.
MGNREGA has completed five years. And it is in this period that the crisis in agriculture has also worsened. In lot many ways, I find the terrible crisis directly proportionate to the absence of farm labour in the rural areas. With labour moving to non-farm activities, and with reports of massive corruption that prevails in the way the rural employment guarantee scheme is being operated, it is a known fact that workers now get paid for not doing anything. They get reduced wages but often do not have to work, just sign. Travelling across the country, I find workers sitting idle when farm operations are at its peak.
Acute paucity of farm workers is also among the reasons why more and more farmers are quitting agriculture. Let us not forget that over 60 percent of those who seek guaranteed employment are marginal farmers owning small tracts of land. Pawar is therefore absolutely right when he demands freezing MGNREGA during peak periods of farm operations. Not paying heed to the crying need will ultimately kill agriculture.
Now if you are wondering as to who gains by keeping rural workers away from agriculture, it is the agribusiness industry. Shortage of farm labour has already led to the creation of a National Mission on Farm Mechanisation. More mechanisation is being suggested as the way to overcome the crisis in farm labour. In the absence of manual weeding, it is time to promote herbicides as the solution. It is therefore a windfall for farm implement manufacturers as well as suppliers of pesticides, including herbicides. The more the sale of chemical inputs and farm machines, the more will be the addition to GDP. No wonder, the Planning Commission is not in favour of letting farm workers remain on the farm.
Devinder Sharma is Food policy analyst