Tuesday, August 02, 2005

of building civilizations

When I was little, mom used to ask me whether I thought I could build a civilization.

If, let's say, something terrible happened to all of us, would you be able to start from scratch? What skills would you need to build a city? Who are the people you'd need?

And the answer was always - always, and in order of priority - farmers, masons, teachers, doctors (yes, teachers above doctors).

We can do without computers and the world wide web. We can do without dress designers. We can do very well without television (I already am), and nobody will die for the lack of a newspaper.

At a cinch, we can even do without electricians and tailors and domestic labour and cobblers and carpenters and writers. But they're pretty high up on my priority list, on the second layer of needs, just after the farmers, masons, teachers, doctors.

These are the tools, the foundation, the roots of civilization.
And a civilization that gives its farmers so little return on their labour that they'd rather be someone else, is a civilization in danger of wiping itself out.

Go tell the government, somebody. Ask them, when this one is gone, what will they build a new civilization on?

12 comments:

Anup said...

Agriculture is currently responsible for less than 25% of the GDP of India. With over 55% percent of population dependent upon agriculture, is it surprising that many farmers want to do something other than farming?
I don't mean to suggest that we should not pay attention to the plight of the small farmers, but I doubt that we will reverse the trend away from farming.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Agriculture is currently responsible for less than 25% of the GDP of India.

Not quite so, Anup. Read this.

Anup said...

For a snapshot of indicators see the World Bank data which indicates that Agriculture accounted for 21.2% of India's GDP in year 2004. The share of agriculture in 1994 was 30.4% which is corroborated by the article which Dilip has cited. The census data shows (see here alternatively) that 58.2% of the population can be classified as cultivators and Agricultural labour. (check out the spelling of cultivators!) Goswami and Bijapurkar are arguing that rural India is playing a bigger role than just agriculture, but they are not claiming that agriculture has any bigger share of the economy than 22%.

Suhail said...

When I was little, mom used to ask me whether I thought I could build a civilization.

What a nice teaching tool to bring up yr kids. I want to meet your mom.

Bal said...

MS Swaminathan was in our university to lecture (during one World Food prize conference), he seemed very satisfied and excited by the oppurtunity to save the lives of millions, avoiding drought and food scarcity. You echo my sentiments when I heard his lecture.

in order of priority - farmers, masons, teachers, doctors (yes, teachers above doctors).

We can do without computers and the world wide web.


I do computer science. ;-) Had I heard his lecture when I was a younger, I would have probably become an agricultural scientist.

annie said...

Anup, the problem is not about percentage contributions to GDP. the problem is that the people who create our food are unhappy, underpaid, and willing to stop doing their job. We've got to correct that. You might also be aware that this year, India's foodstock reserves have actually fallen.
Suhail, I want to meet my mom too. Yes, she's awesome.
Bal, it would be great if you were an agricultural scientist. We need those too. But then, assuming the world isn't ending, farmers also need computers. They need access to the web. They need access to information and they need to get organised and networked. How about making that happen?

Tanuj said...

dilip, so agriculture may be 31% of India's GDP. but anup's point is still valid, isn't it?

annie, just hypothesizing here - the key reason for farmers being unhappy could just be plain economics. there is only so much demand for rice and wheat and millets. maybe we just don't need any more grain from our farmers. we (the govt) could buy more than we need for some time, but probably not indefinitely. and then, maybe it's best - or critical - that we find something else for our farmers to do.

or maybe you have an alternative solution?

BrainSyke said...

Intriguing...civilizations are always under construction!

Rabin said...

Anup/Tanuj, I appreciate your respective points. But just because there is a trend in one direction, one can't give up on things can one? Especially if it involves 55% of the population.

Lets assume we do, the imbalance that would ensue would wreck the economy for a long time to come. If laws of economics are to be relied on, then the trend would change and from mere fiscal numbers and some examples in South India I believe that the trend is not irreversible. In the last two years the farming industry has indeed been on a growth trend.

Farmers are more educated these days than ever before and they are by and large able to mix their crops, use modern techniques and get the best out of the land without dimishing its nutrient value largely. What they need though is a more active support from the authorities.

Neela said...

Annie,

Nice mother. but a couple of questions:

Why should a civilization that doesn't provide well for farmers be in danger of wiping itself out? My history is seriously weak - are there precedents for this? All I can think of is rational economic arguments and Ricardo's Theory of Trade. If Portugal makes wine (relatively) cheaper, she should stick to making wine and import wheat from England. Would be interested in learning some historical precedents in favour of your argument.

Second I hope that "go tell the government, somebody" cry was just rhetorical. A rude commenter (not me, surely - insert winky smiley here) could turn round and ask you "why somebody? why not you?"

n!

Anup said...

Farmers are more educated these days than ever before and they are by and large able to mix their crops, use modern techniques and get the best out of the land without dimishing its nutrient value largely.

I agree, and this is precisely what economists would call improvements in technology or productivity. As a natural result, we will not need so many people working in agriculture.

Again, this is not to say that we should not address concerns of farmers, for there are many real once, but that with the kind of growth in economy seen in India in the past decade as well as expectations of future growth will mean that less and less of India's population will be working in agricultural sector.

No doubt, many small farmers are faced with survival issues. This is where we need to pay the most attention, but it will not prevent reduction in agricultural workforce. IMHO, there is only one way of preventing this, and that is we turn away from the current model of economic development and start to rely on smaller local communities which aim at being self sufficient. from my understanding, this was very much what Gandhian followers like Kumarappa would have advocated (I am skating on thin ice here). The implications are much smaller centers of populations, a lot less trade, a lot less migration, and presumably a lot less environmental impact, although I am not certain on the last one. Our current economic system is very much unlike this. We live in an increasingly interconnected world with megacities as population centers. I am not suggesting that the current system is better or worse than the local economy alternative, but that is a discussion for another day.

annie said...

Anup, I was not talking about having a big agricultural work-force. But the work-force exists... and I think it is important to keep it alive.
And Tanuj, there is enough of a demand for rice and millets.. It's a different story that many starve while we talk about not needing more foodgrain production.
Neela, I almost flunked my economics paper in college... But I believe in self-sufficiency for a country, where food (and water, as far as possible) is concerned. Trade is great, but no country should have to depend on international trade for basic daana-pani.
And about telling the government... I do try. I write. I blog. I scream. I talk to anyone who will listen. Pity I don't have the ear of the prime minister...

Tweets by @anniezaidi