Agrarian crisis: Small farmers at receiving end

Many of the fertile land plots are slowly getting converted into commercial residential plots. The booming real estate market and low-income of farmers has threatened the country’s self-sufficiency programme

The agriculture sector in Nepal has barely progressed in the last decade. As always, plans and policies are limited to papers only. The successive governments, it seems, are oblivious to the agriculture distress that country could face in near future.

Despite being an agriculture-based economy, Nepal is still struggling to cater to the need of the entire country.

Agriculture accounts for more than 30 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and is the means of livelihood for more than 60 per cent of the population.

Nepal’s import of food grains, particularly rice, increased by a whopping 30 per cent in the fiscal year 2014-15. Also, the import of cereals shot up the same year. Cereal products include beaten rice, buck wheat, millet, barley wheat and corn. On the other hand, large number of families are moving out of farming profession, thanks to the state’s apathy towards agriculture and small farmers. Given the scenario, the spectre of food insecurity is looming large.

The fundamental issue, which has often been raised in much of agricultural literature, is about the domination of marginal and small land holdings. As we all know, Nepal’s agriculture is characterised by preponderance of marginal and small holdings.

Around 74.2 per cent of agricultural holdings are below one hectare. In fact, the Asian Pacific Commission on Agricultural Statistics (APCAS) 2010 says 91.7 per cent of the agricultural holdings are less than two hectares, accounting for 68.7 per cent of the total operated area.

The average size of holding is only 0.8 hectare. Hence marginal and small farmers are the protagonists in Nepal’s agricultural scenario. In fact, due to the heredity tradition of equal division of land among the inheritors, the number of land parcels is increasing with a decreasing trend in the size of land parcels in Nepal.

The preponderance of small and fragmented holdings may cause serious obstacles for mechanisation of agriculture by reducing the desire of the farmers to invest

in capital goods.

Weather dependent farming is another major and well-known issue that constantly exposes farm households to uncertainty. Weak and delayed monsoon lowers the output significantly, which ultimately hinders the farm income. Majority of farmlands lack proper irrigation mechanism due to which farmers have to rely on monsoon. Sometimes heavy monsoon costs the farmers their land and directs them to crisis.

Similarly, uncertainty in the price of their output is another major setback for them. Hence a good monsoon doesn’t necessarily mean higher income for farmers as their products’ prices are always determined by the traders even though there exists the minimum support price mechanism set up by the government.

So their income level is at the mercy of a handful of traders in their locality. This adds misery to the farm households who are already going through crisis. Existence of multiple players in the supply chain also makes it difficult for farmers.

Generally, farmers do not even get half of the price paid by the final consumer. This has discouraged youths from taking up farming as their profession, which has fuelled out-migration. Steep

rising trends in migration result in dearth of farm labour in villages, which ultimately leads to higher labour wages.

Remittance gives an additional income to farmers and can potentially reduce the financial constraints of farm households and smooth out the cultivation activities. However, the impact of remittance on decision of farm households relating to improving the agricultural practices has a negative spillover effect. Remittance has enabled small farmers to move from farm activities to non-farm activities.

The agriculture extension service which is supposed to have higher penetration level is surprisingly invisible in many villages. Small farmers are not aware about junior technical (JTA) officers in their villages.

Preliminary observation of a few villages in the Tarai districts reveals that JTA officers rarely visit their assigned area. And even if s/he visits, the visit is often restricted to large farmer households. Furthermore, JTA officers are not updated about tackling different problems in crops and new techniques of cultivation.

The domination of large farm households, it seems, is yet another reason the small farmers rarely get subsidized seeds and other inputs from the district agriculture offices. Majority of the local agricultural officers seems to maintain contacts with only larger farmers.

Finally, many of the fertile land plots are slowly getting converted into commercial residential plots. The booming real estate market and low-income of farmers has threatened the country’s self-sufficiency programme.

Failure to act on time could result in severe agricultural distress and serious cracks in our food security programme. Therefore, the concerned authorities need to come up with clear cut programmes and policies to tackle the issues related to farming in Nepal.

Or else, the ongoing trends are set to serve as recipe for agriculture crisis, which could give rise to food insecurity.

Sharma is a research scholar at South Asian University, New Delhi