Excessive Mechanization Accentuating Rural Livelihood Crisis

Bharat Dogra

There is a serious livelihood crisis in our villages. Following the advent of a pandemic and the lockdowns which followed this became more acute. In this context questions need to be raised whether the increasing mechanization of farm work, food processing work and artisan work in rural areas is steadily reducing work opportunities for weaker sections at a time when policies are needed for increasing livelihoods.

Earlier the time when landless farm workers were most in demand was the harvesting time. This was the time when landless workers also had some bargaining strength and could get some good terms. In several places they were paid in the form of food grain and their houses also got filled with stocks which would last for a few months. This gave some assured food security.

However, with the advent of combine harvesters this livelihood was largely lost. While initially combine harvesters were confined to only a few parts of the country like Punjab later these became available, generally on rent, in many parts of the country. The earnings that used to go to the poorest, often landless  farm workers started going to combine harvester owners and manufacturers.

Now another labor-intensive work of  rice transplanting has also started losing out to mechanization as machines are increasingly being used for this work also. Recent reports from Punjab inform about farmers investing around Rs. 13 lakh (1.3 million) or so for buying a rice transplanting machine, using it for transplantation in their own fields and then also renting it to others to recover their investment. The agriculture department has also been giving a subsidy of around 40 per cent on purchase of rice  transplanter machines  and DSR ( direct seeding of rice) machines. This has helped to give a big push to the mechanization drive. Nearly 4400 such machines are already reported to be covering several lakh hectares in Punjab, the number  having increased in a big way this year compared to the previous year.

The pandemic led to the departure of a large number of migrant workers from Punjab and while some of them returned in time for paddy planting a big part of the work earlier done by them has been taken over by machines. Now that so many farmers have invested in these machines in future years also they are likely to use these machines rather than hire migrant workers. If the trend catches on these machines may also be given on rent in other states. Hence the pattern which led to the spread of combine harvesters in many parts of the country may be repeated in the context of these machines as well.
In this context it is important to raise questions whether the spread of technology which takes away the livelihoods of landless farm workers in a big way is justified. Land reforms which could have given land to landless farm households made very little progress and were then more or less given up, discarded. Most governments do not even talk about this now. So the main option for these poorest households in farm work has been to earn at the time of harvesting and rice transplanting when the demand for their labor has traditionally been very high. But if these works are increasingly taken up by machines, then what is left for landless rural households in farm related work, which is the leading work in villages.

One viewpoint states that this drift towards mechanization cannot be stopped as it reduces costs of farmers. However the cost advantage has been often over-estimated. When combine harvester has been used, generally the fodder component of the crop has been lost to a large extent. Crop parts remain in the field, and when farmers burn this later this leads to very serious pollution problems. All this should be added to the costs of mechanized harvesting.

Others say that mechanization saves time. This may well be true for farmers who own machines but for those who have to await their turn for hiring machine, the time advantage is not always there. They forego the option of hiring immediately available labor while waiting for hiring machines which may be delayed.

In any case indiscriminate mechanization which gobbles up livelihoods of weaker sections in villages is not advisable in conditions of rural India. Technology choices should be made keeping in view the needs of a country or region , and for most parts of India such indiscriminate mechanization is not desirable. The craze for expensive machines, which are also status-symbols, is sometimes counter-productive even for farmers who become indebted for buying very expensive machines. Often some expensive machines become viable for them only because of big subsidies given by the government, and it needs to be seriously questioned whether the government should subsidize, to the extent of as much as 40 per cent, mechanization which takes away work of the poorer sections.

In the case of earth work taken up in rural areas heavy machines are taking away the work earlier done manually by a large number of workers. In some cases of very heavy and difficult or risky work, such machines are actually needed but where the work can easily be done manually these should not be used.

Large-scale grain and oil milling units have pushed out small scale, labor-intensive units from many rural areas. In the case of artisan work, powerlooms have pushed out handlooms and many other kinds of artisan work has also been pushed out similarly. The work of potters scattered in many, many villages has suffered greatly in recent times. Hence many highly skilled persons, whose skills have great value, also find themselves out of work, or struggling for survival.

Such processes should not be taken as inevitable and government  policy should intervene to try to save skills and protect livelihoods. Government subsidies should not be directed towards supporting livelihood gobbling mechanization but instead should be directed towards protection of livelihoods and skills. In this context there are compelling reasons for reappraisal of several policies and misdirected subsidies.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.    

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Jul 28, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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