Tackle the root cause
The agrarian crisis, now affecting small and marginal farmers in several states, arises largely from the unfavourable cost-risk and return structure of farming. The chronic problems of low productivity and market volatility are, however, being addressed mainly through loan waivers. While this might give some short-term relief to farmers, it will not help to ensure the long-term economic viability of agriculture. The answers lie in enhancing the productivity of small farms and ensuring adequate public procurement at remunerative prices. It is time that the recommendations contained in the reports of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), particularly the chapter on farmers of the 21st century, are implemented.
For example, the NCF recommended methods for giving the power of scale to small producers at both the production and post-harvest stages of farming. It also recommended a procurement price of cost plus 50 per cent. These recommendations were formulated after discussions with farmers in all parts of the country. Therefore, there is widespread demand among farmers that they be implemented without further delay. Long-term solutions are important to ensure that farming remains in our country as an occupation of choice among the majority of the rural population. If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will go right. To ensure that agriculture goes right, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare should really place farmers’ wellbeing at the centre of all programmes and policies.
Farmers of Maharashra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other states are protesting because they may not be able to get full benefit from the kharif season due to lack of access to credit and consequently essential inputs like seeds, fertiliser, water, etc. Demonetisation affected farmers mostly because of the difficulties in operating a cash economy, which is characteristic of small-scale agriculture. Also, demonetisation coincided with the kharif harvest and subsequently rabi sowing. Current protests seem to be a result of the accumulation of a number of problems faced by farmers, including the impact of monsoon and the market over several years.
The immediate priorities relate to pricing, procurement and public distribution. Even crops like pulses and chilly have not been able to find a remunerative market. Farmers are throwing many of their products on the road because of the adverse economics of farming. As already mentioned, the NCF had recommended a purchase price of C2+ 50 per cent because most farms are small in size and the marketable surplus is low. On the other hand, the risks are high due to both drought and other natural calamities and the absence of adequate public procurement. Although announcements have been made that the NCF report will be implemented, successive governments are yet to do so.
Unfortunately loan waiver seems to be the preferred solution to the serious chronic problems confronting the farm sector. While farm loan waivers can provide temporary relief, they do not help to solve the chronic problems associated with the cost, risk and return structure of farming, and could potentially come in the way of adequate allocation to agricultural development. Subsidies are being given to pump water and to apply mineral fertilisers. What the farmers urgently need are services like assured electricity supply, improved post-harvest technology, farm implements and assured and remunerative marketing. If these are provided, all farmers will benefit and subsidies, which normally benefit only the larger farmers, can be avoided. What is needed is political will to save farmers from economic collapse.
Methods of increasing the income for small farmers include higher productivity, multiple cropping, value addition to the biomass, and crop-livestock integration. In rainfed areas, water security is central to productivity, and this primarily depends upon rain water harvesting and the efficient use of the available water through techniques like drip irrigation, and the appropriate choice of farming systems. Groundwater augmentation and management is an important method of ensuring adequate and timely availability of water for crops. Fortunately, the concept of ‘more crop per drop’ is being promoted by government. Sea water constitutes 97 per cent of the global water resource and therefore sea water farming is being promoted through crop-fish integration.
The NCF recommended a major non-farm initiative, on the model of the rural township programme of China. This would involve agriculture-based enterprises such as mushroom cultivation, use of bio-pesticides and bio-fertilisers, apiculture, inland and coastal aquaculture, and the biological software essential for sustainable agriculture, which is goal #2 of the sustainable development goals. This along with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme can provide social protection to the landless farmers. Special efforts are also needed to promote market-driven skills for rural women, who contribute about 50 per cent of the agricultural work, through the involvement of agricultural universities and the private sector.
Some steps have been taken to implement certain specific technical recommendations of the NCF like adding the term farmer’s welfare to the Ministry of Agriculture, distribution of soil health cards, improvement of insurance facilities, and larger investment in irrigation. The economic recommendations on pricing and procurement however wait consideration and action.
The present agrarian crisis is due to not a single factor but due to the multiplication of problems of farmers largely in the area of production, processing, marketing and pricing. Whenever farmers produce more, as for example, pulses this year, the prices drop and the farmers suffer because there is not much procurement at the minimum support price (MSP) announced by the Government. Therefore a major lesson of the agrarian crisis today is that we should look at the problems of farming in an integrated manner, rather than in isolation. I hope the present agrarian crisis will lead to some fundamental changes in the way in which we approach farmers and deal with their problems.
The Ministry of Agriculture needs to place farmer’s welfare at the centre of all its activities. This needs to be addressed very soon, otherwise the younger generation will lose interest in farming, and if they lose interest, then farming in our country will go down. We should not go back to the 1960s when we had to depend on imported food for feeding our public distribution system. There is no scope for complacency. Eternal vigilance is the price for stable agriculture. Every calamity is an opportunity. The present calamity of farmer’s suicides and agrarian crisis I hope will provide an opportunity for us to think hard, to reflect carefully on what has gone wrong, and apply the solutions recommended by the NCF.
M S Swaminathan