E-dialogue Session 3: Regional Perspectives – South Asia

Sudha Narayanan, associate professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development, India

India is a country of smallholders with 1,6 million operational holdings in 2015. This has multiple reasons:

  • No land consolidation
  • From 2000 to 2015 the number of farms <1 ha grew from 60 to 68 %
  • Fragmentation is supported by culture and policies
  • High risk of economic fall-back after selling the land due to limited career options outside of farming

This has especially implications for women and youth:

  • Women often do not claim land out of cultural reason.
  • Male migrate into urban areas, resulting in a feminisation of farming.
  • Women and youth have limited access to resources and markets.
    • Hence, both often need to do low-quality labour.

There must be a system change to combat the following challenges:

  • The high heterogeneity of farmers and regions demands tailored policies.
  • The current food system offers no promotion of nutrition.
  • Only the farmers who have access to markets benefit from it the others do not.
  • Water availability must be secured, and irrigation must be done
  • Households are still net food buyers – 85 % of the consumed food is bought.

In India, the individual states play an important role and must support rural development.

  • The state must invest in natural resources in marginal areas to cover e.g. a lack of irrigation
  • Institutions and market must support farmers with very limited resources creating value to make a decent living.
  • The risk of farming must be reduced through on-farm and income differentiation.

Mamata Pradhan, Research collaborator, IFPRI

She is listed as the main point that small-scale farming is here to stay due to the land fragmentation based on India’s population growth and limited industrialisation. On the other hand, there is a consolidation of firms happening at the top. Linking these two will determine the nutritional requirement of the households both in the rural and urban areas.

Diets are changing and the demand for high-value crops is rising. This is an opportunity for small scale farmers, as they are more independent in choosing their crops and have high labour availability.

Anyway, multiple challenges need to be overcome to allow value creation of smallholders:

  • Farming perishable crops are bound to high risks. This risk must be reduced through insurances and policy protection mechanisms.
  • Linking farmers and enterprises is difficult as farmer fragment and enterprises consolidate.
  • Smallholders need non-farm activities for own nutrition and income-only then can they produce what is optimal; access market; mitigate risk-will get them enabled going forward.
  • Farmer producer organisations must be formed to allow small-scale farmers to exploit not just the economies of scale and scope but should also invest in non-price attributes like product differentiation, grading, certification, quality etc. At first creation of value and then the distribution of value will lead to better access, price discovery etc
  • An inclusive social protection programme must be put in place that includes small-scale farmers. Otherwise, they will face hunger and malnutrition in the future.

Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Senior Fellow at the Centre of Policy and Research and Associate Professor at Ashoka University, India

Small-scale farmers have limited access to markets in India. But also vice versa, the Indian market do not reach smallholders. This affects both the outputs and inputs of the smallholders.

  • Therefore, government projects need to focus more on small-scale farmers and not only medium- to large-scale farmers.
  • The timing and communication of trades must be improved, and potential small-scale suppliers identified to be inclusive
  • Small-scale farmers must be supported, leaving and joining agriculture again, to improve their individual situation, without institutional barriers.

Anyway, all change must be planned carefully to not amplify the exclusion of small-scale farmers as the farmers, the consumption, and the markets co-evolved.

Ranjitha Puskur, gender and livelihood research at IRRI

Ranjitha Puskur focussed her talk about women and very poor. She stated that COVID will make their situation worse and that there will be 129 poor women on 100 poor men in South Asia by 2030.

Women face different challenges in the agricultural sector of South Asia.

  • They are the majority of farmers but are not recognised as so as they do not earn the land they are farming.
  • Women and the poor will hang in while the men will migrate into the cities, resulting in the feminisation of agriculture.
  • Female lead farms are 11 % less productive because of lacking access to resources, the gender gap, and missing managerial experiences.
  • Social norms like unpaid work, child poverty, child marriage, and the wage gap restrict women in India.
  • Digital technology is a great opportunity, but women have limited access to it.

Anyway, it is not just gender that determines an individual’s opportunities but also their sexuality, economic background, and location.

Strategies for improving their situations:

  • There must be an expansion of female land rights.
  • Social protection programmes targeting women must be put in place.
  • Farmers organisation must be formed to link women to markets and increase the agency and confidence of women.
  • Extension services need to focus on reaching women.

All changes must be done carefully. Just transplanting models from one region to another does not work due to high social and constitutional diversity in India. There is no silver bullet.

Jeevika Weerahewa, Professor at the University of Peradeniya

She puts the attention to home gardens:

  • Home gardens have usually land sizes <0.25 ha and are planted around their house.
  • The practice is predominant in the humid tropics.
  • Gardening is only a part-time work of the farmer.
  • The small land size results in no economy of scale.
  • The gardeners are not connected to global value chains.

They have different functions for the farmers and society:

  • The gardens provide diverse food and nutrition to the household and neighbours.
  • In some garden cash crops like spices are grown as an additional income source.
  • They provide the region with different ecosystem services through their high biodiversity.
  • Producing their food increases the resilience of the household, as shown during the pandemic.

As they provide households with many benefits, it is questioned if the government should support home gardening. However, incentives could always push commercialisation and thereby eradicate many of their advantages. Trade-offs must be carefully assessed.

Aditi Mukherji, Research Group Lead at International Water Management Institute, Nepal

She focussed on natural water as a natural resource and the impact of climate change.

  • South Asia is the most water insecure region on the world because of poor policies and the effects of climate change.
  • Irrigation has a critical role for intensification. Many smallholders are water-limited and own private wells to counter this.
  • In India, water supply is subsidised and thus, free of charge. This results in over-exploitation.
  • In the future, the increasingly negative impact of climate change will increase the issue. Combined with the continuous overexploitation, it is expected to have 20 to 30 % productivity loss by 2030 due to water scarcity.

Currently, different cropping strategies are adopted by farmers to tackle this issue:

  • Farmers alternate their cropping patterns as well as sowing and harvest times to safe water.
  • They adopt more resource-efficient cultivars.
  • Improved irrigation techniques like drip-irrigation are applied.
  • Farmers try to maintain a generally high level of soil moisture.

These strategies, however, are not enough. A structural transformation is needed to face the issues climate change will bring in the future. This must include farm consolidation, proper subsidisation, and social safety nets.

Avinash Kishore, Researcher at IFPRI

Farm labours who own no land are often forgotten despite being a larger group than the small-scale farmer themselves.

  • Machine subsidies could impair their situation. Hence, industrialisation should happen naturally and slowly.
  • Other industries than farming in rural areas cannot absorb low educated workers. This is especially an issue for women.


First discussion point: In East Asia is a trend of land consolidation which is an opportunity for the labour market. In South Asia, such a transformation is not expected. How can policies tackle this? What is the potential of home gardens to ensure social protection? Are there social protection mechanisms for the landless?

Sudha Narayanan:

Policies must allow farmers to have multiple off-farm options as income source besides agriculture. Off-farm activities need to enable investment in farm activities and vice versa.

Mekhala Krishnamurthy:

A regional approach of policies is vital to capture the high diversity. Some groups indicate that there are single solutions, for example, through technologies, but this does not capture the complexity of the system.

Production marketing exchange, processing, distribution, and consumption are all linked. To include farmers, India needs real, local markets and farmers organisations.

Second discussion point: What is the role of social safety nets?

Mamata Pradhan:

Protection nets are especially needed for women who grow risky cash crops to buy stable food. This risk demands off-farm income through diversification and social protection nets. This brings up different challenges:

  • Access to social protection is still dependent on factors like social status (institutional design problems like social stratification, governance issue etc that leads to differential access). This must change.
  • In the future, market standards on food safety, quality and health attributes will rise due to the pandemic and smallholders will require more support to match these standards COVID has shown that the food system should be re-designed in providing for food quality, safety etc. Any farmer who is tuned into that can deliver in future.

Jeevika Weerahewa:

Home gardeners are not necessarily poor. The very poor, who depend on the garden as a food source, however, must be trained and achieve input support.

Avinash Kishore:

Social protection for the landless workers exists but the support strongly depends on the state and is based on the state’s policies and capacities.

It must be noted that social safety mechanisms are not a substitute for income, decent jobs, poor health systems or poor education systems.

Second discussion point: It is impossible to transplant concepts or ideas from one place to another simply. What are the opportunities for interventions to improve the livelihood of women?

Ranjitha Puskur:

Women often do very dangerous and hard work like transplanting rice due to missing alternative opportunities.

One opportunity is the creation of functional farmer collectives that work context-specific and learn from other regions where possible.

Third discussion point: Water is over-exploited and climate change will reduce the amount of available water. How do we enable food production in the future?

Aditi Mukheriji:

Simply charging for water is not enough. Agricultural policies are outdated since they originate from the green revolution. Food prices are kept below the free market price and hence create a need for natural resource subsidies.

Wrap-up and key messages

Sudha Narayana:

Natural resource constraints should be more of a priority. The government should link the issue to other programmes to fix the problem, e.g. make use employment guarantee program to tackle water conservation.

Mamata Pradhan:

Smallholders are integral and must be integrated into the system. Get the markets right-both access and the smallholders must be made market-ready.

Shocks in the system must be avoided. Instead, policy changes must be transparent to reduce risks for the farmers. Remember, small-scale farmers have low risk-bearing capacity. Avoid creating policy risks.

Mekhala Krishnamurthy:

We need to pay attention to real markets not to undermine and overdetermine small farmers.

  • Undermine – not giving the required support
  • Overdetermine – take away flexibility to realise their aspirations

Lastly, we need to have the perspective of small-scale farmers in mind when assessing the value of food commodities.

Ranjitha Puskur:

Often the research does not look at the needs of smallholders and only one of ten of focus on the outcome for different genders. We need problem identification investments!

Jeevika Weerahewa:

Many stakeholder groups are involved in agriculture. If policies target one group, all others are affected too. Hence, policies must be introduced carefully.

Aditi Mukherji:

Indian agriculture is monsoon dependent. Agriculture must be climate proven and water availability will play a critical role.