Narendra Modi’s overwhelming win has pushed the burning issues around agrarian distress on the back burner; but once the victory euphoria dies down, these will be pushing for recognition again.
A crash in prices of farm produce and the demand for remunerative prices, and waiver of back-breaking loans are some of the issues staring the new government in the face. The interim budget recognised the distress by hiking the allocation for agriculture from `56,000 crore to over `1.4 lakh crore, taking the outlay to a record 5.2 percent of the budget. Among the highlights of the farm budget was the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, an income support scheme that promised the transfer of `6,000 a year in three tranches. This is inadequate, as it translates to a meagre `500 per month for a farmer.
CRISIS OF PLENTY
The farm crisis today is a crisis of plenty. Repeated successful harvests and the lack of a proper market mechanism has ensured prices have collapsed. Food grain production in 2017-18, for instance, was a record 285 million tonnes compared to 275 MT and 252 MT, in the two previous years respectively. But farmers were selling 30-50 percent below the Minimum Support Price, and often below their cost of production. This led to a bottomless pit of indebtedness. In 2017, the best year in Indian agriculture, farm loans grew 20 percent, and 58 percent of our population or 600 million Indians dependent on farming struggled to make ends meet.
Before the record harvests, since 2015, India has witnessed two major droughts, and severe crop losses due to unseasonal rains. The farmer has been left without any investible surplus for the next crop. Reliable estimates put the farmers’ suicide rate at around 45 a day, a heavy toll indeed. The droughts could have been managed had there been more investment in improving the irrigation system. Despite all talk of farmers support, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, designed to provide irrigation infrastructure, has been underfunded; and even the latest interim budget has provided just `100 crore rise over last year.
India’s dairy and livestock sector is also fractured and crying for a solution. After Brazil, India is the second largest beef exporter at 1.9 million tonnes annually. The Dalwai Committee Report points out livestock has been the biggest contributor to the agricultural growth in the 2004-14 period. However, a virtual ban on the sale and trade in aging cattle has paralysed livestock renewal and shutdown what was a thriving leather export industry.
In recent months, further chaos has been triggered in western UP where farmers saddled with aging cattle, are letting them loose by dead of night. These heads have invaded thousands of fields in search of fodder, leading to widespread agitation among farmers who are catching roaming cattle and interning them in government buildings as a form of protest.
MINIMUM INCOME SCHEME
If the new government is serious about implementing its old promise of doubling farm incomes by 2022, a possible starting point is the implementation of the National Commission of Farmers, also known as the M S Swaminathan Commission, which came out with a series of reports in 2006. Debated intensely but hardly implemented, the Commission’s core proposal is to give farmers a minimum support price at 50 per cent above the cost of production, classified as C2 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP).
More immediately, the new Modi government can also take a leaf out of the Congress manifesto. The Congress’ Nyunatam Aay Yojana – or NYAY in short – promised a minimum guaranteed income of `12,000 a month to the poorest 25 crore. Projected to cost the exchequer `3.6 lakh crore, some have dismissed the scheme as too costly and unworkable. However, if the existing rural subsidy schemes in force are dovetailed into a workable, direct transfer to the minimum income scheme, farm distress can be tackled.
MGNREGA, or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, was promulgated in 2005 as a ‘Right to Work’ measure that guarantees 100 days of paid work to those suffering the vagaries of flood or drought. It was received with skepticism; but over the years all governments have adopted it, and the scheme has seen the disbursal of nearly `5 lakh crore since inception. A minimum income support plan too is therefore a good starting point for the new government.
National Commission of farmers is the need of the hour
If the new government is serious about implementing its old promise of doubling farm incomes by 2022, a possible starting point is the implementation of the National Commission of Farmers, also known as the M S Swaminathan Commission, which came out with a series of reports in 2006. Debated intensely but hardly implemented, the Commission’s core proposal is to give farmers a minimum support price at 50 per cent above the cost of production, classified as C2 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.