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Labour scarcity a constraint for Indian farm sector: expert

Sep 16, 2014

“The issue of agricultural labor shortage very closely affects poverty alleviation and basic food security,” ICRISAT DG.

New Delhi: In India, boosting the productivity of an agricultural sector that has long relied on low-wage, surplus labor in the world’s second most populous country, requires sustainable and inclusive labor-saving technologies and farm mechanization.

With significant movement of rural labor from farm to non-farm activities, labor scarcity has emerged as one of the burning constraints to agricultural production in India. The complexity of this issue was tackled today by over 60 labor experts, policy makers, and scientists and researchers from national institutes and universities across the country attending the National Symposium on “Dynamics of Rural Labor Markets: Implications for Agricultural Growth and Rural Transformation” held at the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), New Delhi.

“The issue of agricultural labor shortage very closely affects poverty alleviation and basic food security of 600 million smallholder farmers in India. They are the most hit by labor scarcity, having no means to afford high wages of farm workers to carry out labor intensive production,” said Dr William Dar, Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), in a message delivered on his behalf by Dr CLL Gowda, Deputy Director General for Research.

“Along with our partner agricultural research institutes and universities in India, our research programs have generated many life-changing innovations for small-scale farmers, such as sustainable and inclusive technologies that are less labor intensive.”

According to Dr Dar, ICRISAT for instance, has identified machine harvestable and herbicide tolerant chickpea breeding lines, currently being tested in various chickpea growing locations in India by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), state universities, and other partners. Upon release and wider adoption and diffusion of these cultivars, chickpea farmers will have increased labor productivity and profitability.

“India’s labor market is beset with four major challenges – tightening of agricultural labor supply; attracting and retaining talented youth in agriculture; sustainable employment for rural labor force; and increasing labor productivity,” highlighted Dr Cynthia Bantilan, Research Program Director, Markets, Institutions and Policies, ICRISAT.

The issues on labor dynamics acquire greater importance in the national policy arena, with non-farm income emerging as one of the important sources of income for rural workers as a whole, a trend ushered in by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). However, this social safety net program shifting many Indian workers out of agriculture and in other sectors such as manufacturing and services while ensuring equal wage for male and female workers, has threatened to affect India’s food security due to farm labor shortage.

But according to Dr Bantilan, this scarcity in farm labor actually creates a potentially vast opportunity in making farming a more profitable business and in encouraging the youth and women back to farming. This is by empowering them with new technology and improved practices that are less labor intensive and reduce costs.

Recommendations drawn during the symposium for improved labor productivity in response to labor scarcity include: development of labor saving technologies and machine harvestable crops; inclusive farm mechanization program especially for women and youth; creation of large-scale employment opportunities for the rural poor; integration of farm and non-farm activities in rural areas; training on agricultural machineries and modern farming techniques; ICT tools to facilitate information flow and seasonal labor migration; and ensuring that NREGA allows for employment creation during slack season critical in mitigating farm labor scarcity and enhancing livelihoods of the poor.

Professor YK Alagh, Chancellor of the Central University of Gujarat and Former Union Minister, Government of India served as Chief Guest during the symposium. The event was jointly organized by ICRISAT, the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (NCAP); the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), New Delhi; and the Institute for Human Development (IHD). It was attended by, among others: Professor Abhijit Sen, Former Member of Planning Commission, Government of India; Dr TS Papola, Honorary Professor, Institute for Studies in Industrial Development (ISID); Dr Alakh N Sharma, Director, IHD; Dr. Ramesh Chand, Director, NCAP; Prof DN Reddy, ICSSR National Fellow; Dr. Santosh K. Mehrotra, Director General, National Institute of Labour Economics; and Prof Indira Hirway, Director and Professor, CFDA, Ahmedabad

A Policy Dialogue on “Dynamics of Rural Labour Markets: Towards a Strategy for Inclusive Rural Development” will be held on 16 September 2014following the symposium.

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