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Small-holder farmers are vital for India’s agriculture and rural economy. Small-holder farmers - defined as those marginal and sub-marginal farm households that own or/and cultivate less than 2.0 hectare of land - constitute about 78 per cent of the country’s farmers (at Agricultural Census 1990-91). These small-holders owned only 33 per cent of the total cultivated land; their contribution to national grain production was nonetheless 41 per cent. Their contribution to household food security and poverty alleviation is thus dis-proportionately high - and is increasing. Moreover, as the national population increases, so does the number of small-holdings.

The 1990s witnessed high GDP growth rate. Nonetheless, there has been no accompanying decrease in the (high) proportion of the national workforce that depends upon agriculture for its livelihood. Neither the cities, nor the large-scale commercialized agriculture, have provided employment to the many small-scale farmers and rural poor. National (and state) policies for agriculture and for rural development to lessen poverty and hunger must accommodate this (internationally) atypical circumstance.

Small-holder families constitute more than half of the national population. It is thus disappointing that notwithstanding their substantial and increasing contribution to the national food supply and to agricultural GDP, these small-holder families nonetheless constitute more than half of the nation’s totals of hungry and poor. Policies and programmes to lessen poverty and food insecurity, and to enhance equity and sustainability of incomes and livelihoods, should thus seek to achieve an agriculture-led broad-based economic development - and to do so by according highest priority to small-scale agriculture.

The questions are here posed: is the continuance of Indian hunger and poverty a consequence of the smallness of the preponderant majority of the nation’s farms?... or may the productivity of those small farms be so increased as to allow the small-holder families - and the nation with them - to escape from hunger and poverty? We shall reason in support of the second (hopeful) option. But the hope will be realized only when the small-holders are empowered to access the crucial production resources. These resources are several: land, water, energy, and credit; appropriate technologies, and opportunities to develop the skills and to access the information wherewith to use them; functional and fair markets for products and inputs; health care and sanitation; and education and reproductive and social services. Given the national and international policies that facilitate access to such resources, there would be confident expectation that small-scale agriculture could and would achieve higher production and income and that the livelihoods of small-holder families and communities would be enhanced.

How can the requisite empowerment be accomplished, and the small-holders enabled to accept the challenges and opportunities of bio-technology, of informatics, and of globalization? What socio-economic policies shall facilitate the empowerment? The latter sections of this paper respond to these questions. Earlier sections report the preparatory analyses - of small-holder operations and contributions to household and to national food security - wherewith to frame that response.

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