To sow the future

How do we solve the agriculture crisis? Contrary to the current opinion, farmers need more subsidies

Published: 09th February 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th February 2018 02:30 AM   |  A+A-

Kunwar Singh is a young farmer, as young as you can get, from one of the more remote hamlets near the Aravalli hills that line Bayana tehsil, Bharatpur. Just the land he owns around his house can host an average Singapore-style condominium, plus there’s a few acres of farm. But Kunwar, like every other Gujjar boy in Bayana, has to supplement his income by moonlighting for the illegal quarrying mafia—playing mule, or bouncer, on tempos and tractors that cart the stone away, at night, to the big markets.

Why? The yield from his traditional vocation simply does not suffice; he’s so much in debt that he has little option but to risk venturing into a terrain that opens him up to regular violence with rival interests for petty contracts. Most of his village is engaged likewise—big contractors have divided up those little hills, the locals live off the dregs. It’s a harsh life. Sometimes there’s a crackdown. Is there an alternate career? Yes. Kunwar migrates to the nearest city, the one with malls, for a driver’s job—though a tractor is all he has ever driven till now—and life in a ‘Harijan basti’ near a big open drain. The contrast with his open, windy house and farm in the hills often strikes him.

By any reckoning, his former life would qualify as a rich one. Materially, a more than decent land-holding. In terms of quality, clean Aravalli air, organic bajra, buttermilk made from desi cow’s milk…those living in the nearby condos with “strange names” he can barely pronounce, whose sedans he has to drive, fantasise about that. Young Kunwar’s dreams run in the reverse direction—a stable job, enough money to lift his family out of social backwardness. But he can’t make that transition. Not unless he sells off his land, and picks up social skills a rural life has denied him access to. He may be better placed than crores of landless labour who have to perforce move seasonally, but he shares his predicament—the fragility of his micro-economy—with farmers elsewhere in India.

Kerala’s farmers, literate enough to write letters-to-the-editor, are angry that the media gave undue coverage to Davos, and not to their issues. A lot of it is the same—fragmented holdings, indebtedness, droughts no one bothers about, water-sharing woes. In Tamil Nadu, farmers live in fear of crop failure even as bank officials chase them for loan recovery. Karnataka throws up its hands—they have no time to wipe the tears of Tamil farmers, they are busy committing suicide. Ditto for Telangana, Maharashtra, Punjab. Much has been written about it for years but, in state after state, the crisis continues. Political parties merely offer band-aid around poll-time. Long-term thinking has been absent since the 1990s, when India started fantasising about its cities. Cooperative farming, pooling in land and resources? Cold storage? Research funding? Yes, all on committee reports.

A crisis is also immediate in nature. How to ameliorate farm distress in the here and now? The previous dispensation offered loan waivers—that was like ORS—and also enhanced MSPs, the only safety net in a volatile market. The present one has added to that mix a soil card, crop insurance, and practical tips—grow bamboo on the side, put solar panels in the centre, etc. It’s been decided that loan waivers provide no real solution, so they survive only as a nominal exigency, a poll-time slogan. But, at least in theory, this government has stayed the course on MSPs.

Problem is, no one is sure what exactly the theory is. The budget promised to link MSPs to actual cost incurred on a crop—and offer 1.5 times that cost. That’s what the Swaminathan committee had recommended. But no one has spelt out how to calculate the cost! And if the venerable Swaminathan has not defined it, it’s too much to ask Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, already battling fiscal pressures, to reach for the higher ideal.

There are several formulas to peg the costs that go by various technical names: A1, A2, A2+FL, B1...up to C3. Essentially, it’s a question of how narrow or wide the definition of inputs is. Does it cover only the obvious list? Cost of machinery, seeds, fertiliser, pesticide, hired labour, power, land cess, interest on capital, etc.? (That’s A1.) Do you add what often goes unquantified in economics: the value of family labour? Do you account for a more complete list of the factors of production? Like the rent the land would have earned if not put to agri-use?

In previous years, all parameters have been variously applied. So farmers are no wiser as to what’s coming their way. But if MSPs are linked to paid-up costs alone—as done during the wheat procurement last time—no real income enhancement can be expected.

But is the debate too focused on MSPs? Can barely decent remuneration alone get Indian agriculture out of the woods? What should the way forward be, with a whole century to plan for? Contrary to the current opinion, it’s subsidies. Yes, heavy subsidies for now and heavy budget outlays for farm infrastructure to sow the future.

We need to reach irrigation to parched lands—modern, rational, planet-friendly irrigation, not monstrous levels of water table depletion. Entire populations must be saved from suicide, stunted growth, malnutrition. We need to ensure quality food on the plate. We need to spread innovations, to create literate farming populations. For all that, the people of India need the government to put its money down. Most of the developed world does the same. The state simply cannot retreat, even while it allows the market to bring in ideas and vitality. And, yes, we need a well-thought-out farm sector revamp plan—not just a change in the nomenclature of the ministry. And we need it now.

Santwana Bhattacharya

Political Editor, The New Indian Express

Email: santwana@newindianexpress.com

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