An optimistic Indian future depends on a strong rural economy

Despite accelerating economic growth in India over the last thirty years, India’s structural transformation remains stunted, said economist Hans Binswanger-Mkhize at a May 10 FSE symposium on global food policy and food security. Unlike China, urban migration and labor absorption have been slower than expected, especially in the typically labor-intensive manufacturing sector. Formal sector jobs are few and declining as a share of employment, and agricultural employment (and growth) remains low.

The rural non-farm sector has been left to pick up the slack, and has emerged as the largest source of new jobs in the Indian economy. This will likely remain so over the next few decades given that two-thirds of India’s growing population is projected to live in rural areas. Add to the equation the need to increase crop yields by 50 percent under changing climate conditions and it becomes apparent that improving rural incomes and supporting agricultural growth is essential to decreasing poverty and unemployment in India now and in the future.

“The importance of India's rural non-farm sector shows us that structural transformation does not follow a recipe,” said commentator Marianne Banziger, a senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

While non-farm jobs offer significantly higher wages than farm labor, most jobs are informal and/or insecure (i.e., no health benefits, unemployment insurance or pensions). These jobs go mostly to men 18-26 years old who have some education, while the illiterate and women struggle to transition into this sector. Retail trade and transport, construction, and services (internet and phone booths, maintenance and repair of motor vehicles, and hotels and restaurants) are growing especially fast, partly due to urban-rural spillovers, but manufacturing is still only 20 percent of non-farm jobs.

“For rural households, non-farm employment is not distress employment, but a profitable diversification strategy,” said Binswanger-Mkhize. “At the same time, it has selectively absorbed young males into wage employment, decreased the number of farmers, and increasingly concentrated women in agriculture, contributing to a progressive feminization of agriculture.” 

As a result, farms on average have declined in both land and household size, and have moved toward the production of higher-valued goods and a modern model of part-time farming. This transformation concerned Banziger.

“Will the urban and land-less poor be held hostage by part-time farmers?” she asked.

Banziger projects in the next 20 years food and energy price inflation will likely exceed the income growth of the urban poor. Food price increases will push net consumers, who spend a third of their income on food staples, back into poverty.

“For food prices to remain constant, farmers yield gains will have to increase by 50 percent on essentially the same land area, with less water, nutrients, energy, labor and as climate changes,” said Banziger. "The more we delay investments, the steeper the challenge.”

Fortunately, small farmers are now better equipped to respond to these challenges, but are still limited by scale. Precision irrigation and fertilization technology coupled with remote sensing and cell phone technology enable better yield predictions that affect nutrient application. Better farm-level nutrient management increases farmer income and nutrient use efficiency.

For an optimistic Indian future to be realized government policy must support ways in which households increase their incomes, said Binswanger-Mkhize. A positive outcome for rural areas depends on continued urban spillovers, and on better agriculture and rural development policies, institutions, and programs.

Productivity growth needs to be sustained at very high levels. This requires more responsive, accountable, and better-financed research systems, more diversification of agriculture, and larger, better financed, and more accountable agricultural extension system. India currently employs one-seventh the number of extension workers as China.

"Rapid policy and institutional change will be required to overcome poor performance of many government programs," said Binswanger-Mkhize. "Current subsidies to fertilizer, electricity, water, and support to crop prices are already large, but are an inefficient means to transfer income to farmers."

Direct payments may be a more efficient way of supporting income growth. This is beginning to happen with fertilizers, but should be extended to electricity and food subsidies, said Binswanger-Mkhize.

“Maybe the people who have been disadvantaged in the past are the core for future change. With appropriate support, smallholder farmers can become the engines for agricultural productivity growth and transform India's growing economy,” concluded Banziger.