Elections in five states, which kicked off on November 12, have provided a fresh opportunity for Narendra Modi to attack his bugbear, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi claimed in his stump speeches that India’s farmers would never have faced the difficulties they do, nor been burdened by debt, had Vallabhbhai Patel been nominated to head the government instead of Nehru. Since Sardar Patel never articulated an agricultural policy, the source of Modi’s certainty is obscure. The prime minister also picked on the dressing style of his predecessor. “Those who went around wearing a rose had knowledge of gardens, but no understanding of farming or of the sweat of the farmer,” he said about the man who, at the foundation ceremony of the Bhakra dam that today irrigates 10 million acres of farmland in three states, spoke of it as a temple of modern India. Modi and his party members, of course, would rather build actual shrines than metaphorical ones, with a special preference for temples built on demolished mosques.

Faced with rising protests from farmers, some of whom have marched to Delhi to express their anger, Modi has tried to shift the blame for today’s rural distress on an original sin committed 70 years ago, which supposedly created a cascade of bad outcomes. But voters, except the most ideologically committed, are rarely concerned with distant history. They vote primarily with their pocketbooks, and right now enough wallets are depleted for Modi’s reign to be under threat at next year’s general election. To offer something beyond excuses, he boasts of his government buying crops at a 50% premium to costs, a key recommendation of the Swaminathan Commission instituted by the previous government. However, his administration’s calculation of the premium is disputed and the implementation of a promise the Bharatiya Janata Party made before the 2014 election might be coming too late in the game.

Too many farmers

A number of complex issues related to agricultural productivity require careful attention by experts. One factor, however, stands out above all others, and is not given adequate play by any side in the political debate. We simply have far too many farmers. Cultivators and agricultural labourers constitute over 50% of India’s workforce and contribute only about 15% to the nation’s gross domestic product. The share of agriculture in GDP has fallen steadily since Independence and, here’s the crux of the issue, it will keep falling as India grows richer. Affluence brings changes in the relative importance of sectors, invariably to the detriment of agriculture. I can think of no nation for which this has not been true, and India is merely following the same path.

Since agriculture’s contribution to the economy has dropped at a much faster rate than the percentage of cultivators in the Indian workforce, the relative position of farmers has worsened. And because agriculture’s share of any economy always falls as a nation gets richer, the only way farmers can hope to achieve levels of affluence comparable to their fellow citizens is for their numbers to diminish dramatically.

This chart shows that agricultural employment took up a progressively smaller share of total employment globally between 1991 and 2017. Scrolling down the tables, one notices that, not only do the poorest nations have the most farmers, but the worst performing countries in the past quarter century, countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, and many nations in sub-Saharan Africa, experienced the smallest change in the percentage of farm workers. In other words, increasing prosperity is very closely correlated to falling agricultural employment. Obviously this does not mean that forcing farmers out of jobs is going to help an economy. Rather, nations that create the most opportunities for alternative employment see the greatest drop in their agricultural workforce and also the healthiest economic growth, which means not just fast growth but growth that isn’t lopsided.

Although this fact is irrefutable, and so obvious that a schoolchild could understand it, it plays but a tiny role in our political discourse. In 2014, China announced an urbanisation plan aimed at shifting 250 million people from rural areas to cities by 2026. This meant building new cities, expanding existing ones, and equipping both with amenities like public transport, sewers, sewage treatment plants, roads, schools, hospitals, airports, everything that makes urban life secure and comfortable. India, on the other hand, has no such plan. In January, the government announced a committee to draw up an urban policy framework, which was supposed to give its recommendations by the end of March. Nothing more has been heard about it since.

Sacred farmland

With existing cities packed beyond capacity, the only way for them to accommodate more people, or for new cities to grow, is through a conversion of parts of rural India into urban formations. Forests must be preserved for environmental reasons, and deserts are generally unsuitable for habitation, leaving farmland the only feasible option for urban expansion. Yet, one of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission was that no agricultural land be diverted for non-agricultural purposes. Neither the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance nor the BJP considered accepting the suggestion and rigorously implementing it, or India’s economic growth would have come to a jarring halt.

Sadly, the mystical belief in the sacrality of farmland cuts across the political spectrum and prevents any sensible urbanisation policy from being put in place. The development that is taking place is haphazard. Cities are growing without planning, with no proper infrastructure, with the collusion of land mafias. This sort of growth only strengthens the hands of those opposed to the takeover of farms, who use the corruption and exploitation involved in new industrial and housing projects to demonise the very idea of a change in use of agricultural land.

The absence of a working plan to shift large sections of the population away from agriculture is at the root not just of protests by farmers, but of a jobs crunch that has spurred members of intermediate castes in different states to press for reservations. India might blunder through the present crisis as it has many before it. Its genius for doing so inspired the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to call it a functioning anarchy. But there’s always the danger that one day the anarchy will stop blundering through, turn dysfunctional. We would be well served by a leader who, instead of obsessing about what happened in decades past, gives serious thought to what should happen in the decades to come.