The Killing Fields and Why Agriculture Cannot Wait

The Killing Fields and Why Agriculture Cannot Wait

Think about it. Ponder over these headline indicators.

Why are the Jats in Haryana agitating for a seat on the quota express? Why is the tragedy of farmer suicides a recurring saga—125 killed themselves in Maharashtra in 40 days in 2016? What is the genesis of the killing fields? Why are Marathas in Maharashtra and Patidars in Gujarat leveraging their political voice for reservations? Indeed, why is the land-owning class across India waving the flag of rebellion, demanding a slice in the quota pie for education and jobs?

The truth is that the business model of agriculture has broken down. The combination of shrinking holdings and withered returns has led to economic and, therefore, political and social marginalisation of the land-owning class. Desperate for returns, farmers borrow high-cost capital. Unsurprisingly, 52 per cent of them are in debt. In 1925, Malcolm Darling wrote in The Punjab Peasant, “The peasant is born in debt, lives in debt, dies in debt and bequeaths debt.” His words ring just as true in 2016. The surround sound system of India’s political economy is screaming “it’s agriculture, stupid”.

The implications are haunting the broader economy. The headline news of 7-plus per cent GDP growth is challenged by the granular reality of demand deflation. Corporate balance sheets are threatened by poor sales and profits. Industrial and manufacturing growth is tepid. The thesis of consumption-driven, investment-led growth is grounded. Consumption—despite the demography and proclaimed depth of domestic market—is jittery and uncertain. Every forecast is conditional with the caveat “if monsoon is normal” because God decides agri output.

It is no coincidence that every decade agriculture growth hits a trough. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, India’s agriculture grew at -0.2 per cent and 1.1 per cent— which means an average growth rate of 0.45 per cent in the last two years. Translated, half of India’s workforce, which lives off less than a sixth of the national income, had two successive years of near-null growth. Add to it the fall in global farm produce prices, falling exports and near-zero support in pricing. Yes, it is about poor rains—and by extension, the habitation of a 19th-century phantom called drought. It is also a reflection of neglect of a sector that deserves priority attention.

The laws of physics define momentum as mass multiplied by velocity. Consider the arithmetic of politics. Over 70 per cent of the populace and hence the biggest voter base lives in rural India. Shorn of technical definitions, 133 million households live on a monthly income of roughly `5,000. Consider the arithmetic of economics. Growth is the outcome of consumption that drives job creation, creates incomes and fuels investment to accelerate job creation and incomes in a virtuous cycle. Unless agriculture is made viable, the aspiration for sustainable momentum will remain an aspiration.

Agriculture is not different from any business. The farmer requires operating capital, irrigation infrastructure, inputs, insurance coverage like any industry, connectivity and access to markets and a controls-free eco-system. Fact is, over half the farmers lack access to formal credit and live with usurious rates—there is much lament about farm loan waivers, but corporate loans are written off with impunity. Irrigation is essentially at the mercy of the rain gods, availability of inputs is sketchy, access to markets is poor, and India’s largest private sector boasts of the most arbitrary price and controls regime.

India is at the crossroads again. The good news is that the pieces to design a viable eco-system are available. The Aadhar-based Jan Dhan accounts afford expansion of access—for credit, insurance and direct delivery of subsidies, and capital cost subvention. The idea of soil health tests and migration to drip irrigation systems can be on mission mode—just as it has been done in rural electrification.

The system of free power is really a regime of no power. This has led to disastrous fall in water levels as farmers are mining for water. Technology and innovation allow for flexible structures—for instance, for shifting farmers to metered power regime subsidised by a pre-paid recharge coupon  system. The online national agri-produce market—Amul II, I have argued for—is taking shape, but needs a deadline. Food inflation is largely about pulses and vegetables’ output—it calls for the Centre to push states to create special zones.

If there can be PPP for roads, airports and power, why not for agriculture? India needs to confront the ghosts and institute a template for contract farming with a regulator to ensure supply-demand predictability for farmers and consumers. In Gujarat, the birthplace of Amul, farmers came together to form companies; the promise of this structure can be leveraged to deliver collective bargaining power to farmers. Climate  change is a reality. Ergo, India needs a new crop plan—end cane and paddy cropping in rain shadow areas and incentivise crop location to geographies with scientific rationale. Above all, the revival must be a holistic not politically expedient piecemeal plan.

At the dawn of Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru famously observed “everything can wait but not agriculture”. It was not to be. India waited for two decades typecast as a ‘ship-to-mouth’ economy before C Subramaniam designed and delivered the Green Revolution. Successive governments paid lip-service to the need for a second Green Revolution, but agriculture has been rendered an orphan. There is no disputing the inter-dependence—the need to make agriculture viable for a deep and robust economy. Regretfully, there has been little innovation, and policy discourse reeks of political charity.

This attitude must change. Think about it.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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