Paltry returns

This book examines the economic and environmental sustainability of small farms in India. It is edited by Madhura Swaminathan, an eminent agricultural economist, and Sandipan Baksi, a young research scholar, and features contributions by 19 other scholars. The sequencing of chapters and their content ensures that the book emerges as a coherent whole rather than a disjointed set of contributions, often a feature of edited books. The data it uses has been collected through a socio-economic census of 17 villages located in different agro-ecological zones in nine large states of India. The survey is a part of the ongoing "Project on Agrarian Relations in India" undertaken by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies.

The book deviates from the hitherto used official definition of a 'small farmer' as one with less than two hectares of land, irrigated or unirrigated. Instead, it is assumed that any farmer with less than the equivalent of two hectares of irrigated land is small, with three acres of unirrigated land taken as the equivalent of one acre of irrigated land.

The study results show that the previously hypothesized inverse relationship between farm size and crop yield is not valid. Yet it finds that incomes net of resource costs per hectare from small farms are distinctly lower than those from large farms: small farmers often have to spend money on hiring machines and paying for irrigation water. These incomes, even when augmented by the use of labour outside agriculture, are so low that small farmers can barely afford the necessities of life. The study also challenges the romantic notion of small farms as ecologically sustainable units as their use of fertilizers is found to be far from optimal.

These findings give rise to the policy recommendations in the last chapter of the book: more public investment in irrigation; catalysis of collective ownership of farm machinery by small farmers, and targeting of formal credit and farm extension services to these farmers who are often handicapped by low levels of wealth and education. While some of the suggestions could have emerged by using common sense, the usefulness of this book lies in providing a solid empirical basis for these recommendations.

It might be tempting to draw certain other policy recommendations from the study, such as the implementation of agricultural consolidation. Frankly, such implementation might be fraught with danger: while large farmers are not characterized by any advantage with regard to yield, it is quite obvious that the lower labour intensity of such mechanized farms would push agricultural labour into the non-agricultural sector, which at the present is suffering from a lack of jobs.

This book marks an important landmark in the debate on agrarian relations in India. It must, however, be mentioned that census surveys of 17 Indian villages can only form the basis of a hypothesis, not its sure verification. Yet it is heartening to note that the survey underlying this study is still in progress with data being collected on more villages and hitherto uncovered states. So we can look forward to more research output on the same subject.

The rigorous and academic approach of the editors and the authors is praiseworthy. This is a subject that might interest a broad audience. A more accessible and non-academic version of this work might do wonders in informing both the layman and the policymaker.

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