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As the world recovers from the pandemic, and many across the country are trying to find their feet with gainful employment, a study released early this year by CMIE reveals that agriculture absorbed an additional 11 million workers over the last 3 years. The study also indicates a loss of 15 million jobs in the rest of the economy. Mahesh Vyas the CEO of CMIE, refers to it as “an involuntary reverse migration from ‘Factories to farms’”.

Since the 1990s, India has largely witnessed an outmigration from rural areas to urban areas, leaving behind agriculture for more lucrative  jobs, both skilled and unskilled, in cities. With frequent changes in farming policies, the vagaries of the monsoon, water insecurity and lack of financial support, agriculture has suffered, and people are migrating out of villages in search of better jobs. But the pandemic has reversed this situation as thousands of migrant labourers were forced to return home, and to farming, to survive. Although agriculture incomes are significantly lower than the urban jobs, it has become a reliable means to survival. The total number of people employed in agriculture in the financial year 2021 was nearly 152 million and this accounted for almost 40 % of the nation’s workforce.  The CMIE report indicates a jump from 42.5% to 45.6 % in agriculture compared with total employment figures during 2018-2020.

This increasing shift towards agriculture sends a big message to decision-makers. While it clearly indicates that it is a response that is guided by distress and also frustrations dealing with unreliable urban jobs, it demonstrates the capacity of the agriculture sector to absorb and create a potential for survival. This further highlights the ambiguous nature of the manufacturing and the informal sector that largely operates on market demand, and which now is still far from complete recovery. A key take-away from this would be to strengthen, secure and imagine possibilities of bolstering a thriving agro-pastoral and cottage industry based sector well connected to high consumption urban centres, so that there is much higher viability to agricultural incomes.

Agriculture-based livelihoods are largely self-sustained and depend on natural resources such as water, land, grazing pastures, non-timber forest produce, etc. The skills needed for such livelihoods are endemic across the country with particular specialisation across regions of the country over centuries.  Farming is a tradition handed down from one generation to the next. Improvement in weather prediction and various agro-centric technologies have certainly aided farming practices. Yet, the fundamental skills in agriculture are essentially developed through lived experiences, observations and working with the farming family in every aspect of growing crops, processing them and ultimately in trading them. No school, college or university currently provides such comprehensive training.

The country’s commitment at COP 26 to shift 50% of its energy production to non-conventional sources and ensure 500 GW of energy comes from renewable sources by 2050, needs to be seen in this context.  This is because such massive production in renewable energy is exerting substantial pressure on land and several other supportive natural resources. Land, for instance, is crucial in the development of utility scale renewable energy (RE) projects, especially because they operate at massive scales which makes them economically viable. But this model have extremely adverse impacts on farming and pastoral livelihoods, causing extensive displacement and dislocation, and also reduce the natural capacities of the region.

It is also important to consider the massive investment made in irrigation across the country, particularly over recent decades, and in response to lobbying and political capital built by bringing water to farms.  This has transitioned massive farming regions from rainfed agriculture to one relying on river irrigation and also extraction of groundwater.  So much investment has been made in this sector, that governments are committed to completing them – several projects are far from completion. But with the advent and massive support for RE projects, the narrative has begun to change. These rainfed and irrigated lands are being identified as ‘dry land’, ‘drought prone’, ‘waste land’, ‘non-productive land’ and so on, all to ensure such lands can be made available for the land guzzling utility scale RE projects, especially solar and wind.  In areas where there are tributaries and rivers flowing, massive investment is also being made in hydro projects, projecting them as renewable despite their well-documented histories of calamitous impacts on local economies, ecologies and societies.

Although solar and wind have existed in the country since the early 2000s, recent efforts to scale them up to the ambitious targets that Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed in COP 26 of the Climate Conference in Glasgow last year, has compelled state governments, which control land related laws and policies, to make amendments to existing revenue and land reform laws in order to allow private sector to get easy access to large tracts of farmland. In addition, the emphasis is on building a mode of single window clearances through Special Purpose Vehicles, so investments can flow in and investors are not troubled in commissioning such projects.

Land ownership enables farmers to not merely sustain from it, and hopefully make some profit, but to also use it as collateral to procure loans. This infusion of capital helps them improve their agricultural outputs, and also in attending to various family needs – marriages, health, education, emergencies, etc.  The prevailing model of promoting mega energy projects that are land intensive is creating an anomalous situation wherein farmers in certain regions of interest to energy developers are being surrounded by powerful real estate developers, and also state led instruments, to compel them to lease and even sell their land.  While the experience of this is still rather sporadic, given the fact that only about 100 GW of RE energy has been capitalised, the fact that at least five times more energy production is the target by 2030 will mean farmers will be under severe pressure to part with their lands.  This is going to be especially problematic for small and marginal farmers, who form a majority of the farming community, and will effectively rob them of their sustenance base and economical collateral.    The experience of larger farm holdings which lease their land is somewhat different as they gain enormously financially.  However, polices that benefit large farmers are also being employed to target small farmers to part with their lands.

Not everyone who parts with their land through lease or sale for the RE projects has the skills necessary to productively use the lease rent or capital gained to invest intelligently, or even to secure gainful employment. In fact, most farmers who lose their land to RE are found to not even have the necessary skills required in the RE sector, as they demand specialised training.  In fact, some basic reading and writing skills are also required if one is to be employed in RE: as it involves working with high-voltage electricity, where safety is also a prime concern.

According to sources in the RE industry, it is only a small workforce of 2500-3000 people who were originally trained who are going state to state installing utility scale solar and wind energy projects.  During installation, a small number of locals are hired for very basic work as in masonry or other miscellaneous works. But once the plant is installed and ready for commissions, only operation and maintenance work is necessary and available, which the local are not eligible for due to low literacy and skill levels. As the workforce required for an operating RE plant reduces to a bare minimum, consisting only of a few technicians, a plant manager, security guards, an office admin and housekeeping staff, the jobs that are occasionally only available for locals is on contract for cutting grass and weeding. Even the cleaning of solar panels which was available before is being drastically reduced as automated cleaning of solar panels is becoming normative. Such parks operate with little or no labour.

However, going by various policies and projections, the RE sector is pitchforked as capable of generating 1 million jobs by 2030. For instance, an ILO report estimated a total of 300,000 jobs by 2022 to implement the 175 GW target. However, a recent report by CEEW shows that the wind and solar energy sectors employ a total workforce of about 111,400, and with an installed capacity of 100 GW. Of this, 85,900 are employed by utility scale and rooftop solar projects and 25,500 are employed by the wind energy sector accounting for 77% and 23 % respectively. The report also highlights the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the sector and that only 6400 jobs were added in 2021, compared with 12,400 jobs in 2019.

In the Pavagada Solar Park in Tumkur district of Karnataka spread over 13,000 acres and with an installed capacity of 2050 MW, a total of 4000 jobs were created to install and operate the 2000 MW facility. But as of June 2022, this utility scale park – the biggest in India – employs only about 1500-2000 people for operations of which, 600 are security guards, according to sources in the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited (KSPDCL). The Rewa utility scale solar power plant in Madhya Pradesh (750 MW) currently employs only 500. The experience clearly is that most jobs are short term for business development, design, construction and commissioning. The long-term jobs are only for operations and maintenance and monitoring.

This clearly indicates that a large workforce is required only during installation and the requirement drastically tapers down to merely maintenance and service staff. A single trained worker is often responsible for multiple tasks at these facilities and most companies practice resource optimization to cut costs and maximise profits. Clearly therefore, the sector does not guarantee full-time employment, even for all who are trained, and they are compelled to live by relying on other skills or finding other means to supplement their incomes.  Additionally, as much of the employment is based on temporary contracts or is informal, basic employment benefits of paid-leave, health care and life insurance are not available to workers. Besides, there is no assurance against risk, or compensation in the case of injuries and death in certain high-risk operations. Adding to all of these vulnerabilities, a major weakness is the absence of workers’ unions in this sector to ensure fair pay and just labour practices are practised.

Youth across the country are grappling with a variety of challenges to secure viable and meaningful livelihoods to support themselves and their families. They are trying hard to recover from the aftermath of the pandemic’s economic and social impacts. Besides, the impacts of climate change are being experienced by increasingly altering agricultural patterns, forcing changes in practices and with increased vulnerabilities to floods, rise in sea levels, droughts, heat island effects and more. All of this is already taking its toll on public health with attendant adverse economic impacts.

Vocational training programmes that build newer skills that assure gainful employment can be life transforming to many. But, skill training courses offered under the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) under its ‘Suryamitra’, Varunmitra’ and ‘Vayumitra’ schemes, are largely urban-centric and demand online applications, procedures which most rural youth are unable to utilise. The courses also mandate applicants must have either a 10th or 12th pass, sometimes an ITI certificate or a diploma in engineering. Such requirements make these courses inaccessible to a large proportion of rural youth, most of whom are school dropouts.

It must also be noted that many with training from Industrial Training Institute are already without jobs, or are forced to be employed in sectors that are unconnected to their training, according to a  report. Further with advances in science and technology, and many industries relying on Artificial Intelligence and thus transforming their machinery to digital oversight, most of these training programmes are redundant. Even the Skill India program has seen little delivery on its  promise of securing jobs to its trainees. These tensions were recently witnessed with massive and violent backlash to the Agnipath scheme.

New manufacturing projects related to RE are being sanctioned in some states. Some of the trained workers could potentially be absorbed here. But, manufacturing photovoltaics require massive amounts of water, besides minerals. Water shortages plague our cities, towns and villages and sharing of this water with the growing demands of the RE manufacturing industry is a major and developing concern. Such uncertainties of the success of this manufacturing sector will naturally have a bearing on job opportunities it can produce.

India is not the first to face such difficult and complex decisions. Two decades ago,  Germany, for instance, had hoped that there would be an increase in the number of jobs in the RE sector. But after a peak in 2011 it started shrinking and almost halved from about 300,000 in 2011 to about 150,000 in 2018 (production and installation), and this accounts also for jobs in operation and maintenance which increased during the period. The hiring and layoffs were largely affected by regulatory changes of the country – thus the sector has difficulty ensuring stable jobs. This caution India needs to account for and demands systematic planning in order that stable employment is possible in this sector.

While a shift to RE is desirable, provided that the manner in which it is produced is truly green energy, it is not necessarily as clean as it is claimed given its massive impact on rural and pastoral economises, its irreversible degradation of land and water resources, and also its adverse impacts on biodiversity and wildlife.   If a transition to RE is to be made, it must factor in its ecological and social consequences and ensure that the drastic impacts embedded in fossil fuel and nuclear based energy development are not endemic to the RE sector as well.

Agriculture, forest dependent livelihoods, fisheries, animal rearing and craft based local livelihoods have sustained civilizations for centuries all over the planet. The prevailing economic emphasis of moving away from them will have a direct and irreversible impact on food security. Manufacturing, construction, energy, transport and recycling are sectors that are dynamic and need constant upgradation of skills. It is therefore imperative to evolve policies supportive of skill development that are viable in a dynamic economy, and provide intersectoral and interdisciplinary opportunities.  And in all this, it is extremely critical that local community needs and gender parity will not suffer.

Good research-based approaches to skill building are the need of the hour in order to identify the right approaches in building a broad spectrum of jobs. Anticipating Skill Needs for Green Jobs is a study that offers practical guidance on building employment opportunities  and developing short term job oriented skill courses.  From the experiences of the pandemic it has been learned that it is certainly more beneficial for society overall to provide a range of skill training – from farm-based activities to non-farm skills – and speaking to the  needs of the region, even at the very local  levels. It is such an approach of care that will help youth in making wise choices to secure their futures, in ensuring economic security of their households and to look to the future with dignity and confidence.

The original article published in Counter Currents can be accessed here.

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