The coronavirus crisis lockdown has made one thing very clear that food is the single most important thing that human beings need.
Life can go on without internet connections or mobile phones but not without food. While the economy was totally shutdown the only people who were allowed to freely move about were people dealing in food items. Lot of other category of daily earners started selling vegetables to ensure some income for themselves in this period.
Community kitchens and food distribution activities were allowed by administrations even if safeguards like wearing masks and maintaining physical distances were thrown to the wind.
India, where half the population is malnourished and is at the rock bottom in the list of nations around the world on this count, has a situation where more people could die of starvation than from covid-19 due to the lockdown crisis.
From poor to rich everybody was busy making food available to people facing shortage. Never have such massive level relief operations been carried out nationally. And never have people from diverse backgrounds felt so equal. Long time demands like universalisation of Public Distribution System and nationalisation of health services seem like a possibility now.
An unusual phenomenon, which even caught the government unawares, was that of migrant workers walking back to their homes, sometimes more than thousand kilometres away.
People wanted to be where they belong. The only thing that bound them to the cities to live in sub-human conditions, that is, livelihood, was snapped away in a day, enlarging the looming uncertainty over them.
Given the above two facts let us look at a moot question – What would happen if by a set of policy changes agriculture was to be made the most remunerative activity of economy? The justification is simple. If agriculture is the most important activity for human survival why not accord it the highest value?
In any case more than half the Indian population is engaged in the agricultural sector.
Once such a proposed policy change is introduced, the economy and society will witness major transformations. Most importantly farmers’ suicides will end.
Second malnourishment situation would improve immensely.
On a precautionary note while making farming the most remunerative activity among all vocations, it should be kept in mind that the policy is graded and does not have blanket application, otherwise it will end up favouring only big land owners. The policy should be such that income is inversely proportional to the land size owned by the farmer in such a manner that roughly equal incomes are ensured for farmers. The landless labourers working on other people’s fields should also have an income not less than the income of the land owner.
An alternative is that all wages be provided through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act where the word ‘guarantee’ should be interpreted to mean minimum 100 days as provided under the law and not maxiumum as the bureaucracy interprets it.
Another alternative is that all land should be pooled and people should collectively labour and the produce equitably divided among famlies according to the family size. Through this, we can also reduce the burden on extremely small patches of land for production as well as use agricultural technology efficiently. Land use reforms are therefore very crucial for greater and quality production. The cost of input would be borne by the Gram Panchyat in this case.
Any hike in food prices because of increased incomes of farmers and labourers should not worry us as Public Distribution System will continue to provide food security to people not able to afford the market price.
A policy change privileging agriculture will be followed by migration from urban to rural areas, boosting the Indian economy. Further, the quality of life will increase resulting in the process of ‘rurbanization’. Since most of the jobs in India are in the agricultural sector, the boost will act as a pull factor, as opposed to low remuneration, which has always acted as a push factor. The problems of higher rates of migrations from villages towards cities resulting in urban slums with poor standard of living can be tackled to a certain level.
Effective implementation will reduce the wage disparity currently prevailing in the country. While incomes are being decided Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia’s proposal of the difference between the incomes of poorest and the richest being restricted to ten times should be the guiding principle. Similar to the concept of minimum wage there should be a ceiling on maximum income to ensure this less than ten times difference. All income above this ceiling should go into a national pool which should be used for common good.
The uniform development in both rural and urban areas would also further the very idea of democracy as rural population will not feel discriminated against. Decentralization of development will be accompanied by that of democratic power as more educated people, the articulate class, will start living in villages. Gram Sabha, the only universal democratic forum, should be the most empowered body with most important decision taken there and less important decisions left to higher level governments, in accordance with the objective behind Part IX and Eleventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
When people will stop vying for coveted high salaried jobs in service sector, the cut throat competition and use of unfair means in education will come to an end. Education will then take its ideal form as a process of learning. Taking off the pressure of competitive examinations and coaching institutions would lead to more-at-peace-with-themselves human beings. The focus will shift from learning by rote to more practical learning needed for survival.
While some would argue that this would push India backwards in the race of development, it is important to note that the primary occupation in India has always been that of agriculture. Our standards of development, therefore, should not be motivated by the western ideas of development, but should be derived from a more sustainable and adapted version to the needs of our country and its people.
However, mere making the agricultural activity the most remunerative vocation is not enough. It has to be accompanied by other policy changes creating a synergy between the primary, and the secondary, with emphasis on cottage industry, and tertiary sectors guaranteeing equal social status to all. People in service sector should be ones willing to serve the society with no or little remuneration enough merely for survival. It is clear that career bureaucrats or professionals cannot solve our problems. Humanitarianism is to be the guiding principle and not some artificial parameters of performance. This would vastly improve the quality of governance.
By Varsha Sharma and Sandeep Pandey
Varsha Sharma is a 4th year LLB student at National Law University, Delhi and Sandeep Pandey is a visiting faculty there for this semester.