Harvest secure income

Income security is essential for all enterprises and more particularly for agriculture which depends to a great extent on climatic condition and factors beyond the control of farmers. Government is aware of the need for income stability to help farmers’ to continue interest in farming. This is why our prime minister has been announcing that farmers’ income should be doubled within the next five years. How can this be achieved? The following areas will require coordinated attention for helping farmers increase their income in achieving a certain degree of income security.

Managing price volatility

A couple of months ago I had written about the hardship caused to the growers of natural rubber in Kerala as a result of low price.  Currently, rubber farmers are experiencing considerable price improvement. But unfortunately their hopes for higher production will depend upon monsoon behaviour. Extreme heat and drought will reduce the production of latex.

In this context, we should take two steps to achieve price stability. First, as suggested by me in a report about 10 years ago, the governments of Kerala and India, should jointly establish a price stabilisation fund. Secondly, drought tolerant and climate smart clones should be planted, while taking up new plantings. The Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII) at Kottayam has developed drought tolerant strains of natural rubber through genetic modification. Because of their GMO origin, they have not been approved for field trials. We should permit field trials since such clones can be of immense value in an era of climate change. Also, the area under natural rubber can be increased in Northeast India with such clones. Natural rubber is one of our greatest assets and through a combination of technology and public policy we should be able to achieve sustainable production and price stabilisation.

Managing price volatility in urban food security

Currently, the price of tomato, onion and other commodities used extensively in urban areas is going up. Such price volatility is a perennial problem. We should find a permanent solution than merely take adhoc steps to pacify the consumer. A feasible method is the promotion of peri-urban horticulture. Considerable areas of land are available both within cities and nearby areas and they can be used to promote a peri-urban horticulture movement involving the cultivation on rooftops and vacant land with crops like tomato, onion, chilli and other essential food plants. This will confer a double advantage — price stability on the one hand and sustainable nutrition security on the other.

A peri-urban horticulture revolution

Onion and tomato prices are going up in major cities causing considerable hardship to the poorer and middle class families. This is a recurrent phenomenon and effective steps to achieve price stability are yet to be put in place. One solution to the problem is promoting peri-urban horticulture. There is a large peri-urban area which is vacant, although real estate ventures are taking up much of these lands. What is urgently needed is a peri-urban horticulture programme where the onion, tomato, potato and other vegetables can be produced within cities. Such a decentralised production programme using vacant peri-urban land will help to prevent price volatility in towns and cities and at the same time provide some additional income to urban dwellers possessing some land. A peri-urban horticulture revolution is the pathway for avoiding violent undulations in the price of commodities like onion and tomato and ensuring their availability throughout the year.

There are reports about farm distress in Paschim Bangal caused by the collapse in the price of potato. There is an excellent potato crop but the markets are not encouraging to farmers. This again emphasises the need for assistance in crop and land use planning to farmers a month or two before sowing season. If this is not done we will see up and down in production and pricing. It is right time that our agricultural universities set up a land and crop planning centres in all their campuses all over India. In a market driven world, farmers cannot be left alone without anticipatory guidance on likely demand and prices. I hope this will be done soon by the ICAR, Ministry of Agriculture and farmer’s welfare and state departments.

To sum-up, income security to farmers will depend on farmers on four major factors

n Adequate production through productivity improvement

n Minimum support price which will give a reasonable return to the investment made by farmers

n Procurement at a remunerative price

n Public distributions are essential for food commodities will have to be based on the possibility of providing a remunerative price to farmers.

The above four factors should be attended to in a coordinated manner. The National Commission on Farmers has made recommendation with reference to production, pricing, procurement and public distribution. These four components will contribute both income and food security. At the moment, the approach of writing off loans is taken to help farmers overcome their financial difficulty. This approach though may be necessary very rarely will lead to the collapse of the credit system in the long run. It is, therefore, much better that farmers are compensated through the price and procurement pathway than through the loan write-off pathway.

Indian agriculture is in the crossroads. There are farmers’ agitations everywhere. There are also farmers’ suicides. Women farmers are yet to be helped with reference to appropriate implements and technology. Agriculture is the prime mover of the economic wellbeing of rural communities. Therefore, the present difficulties should be converted into an opportunity for strengthening our agricultural foundation.

 (The writer is an agricultural scientist who led India’s Green Revolution )

Columnist: 
M S Swaminathan