Just lip service for farmers in the budget

Nearly 50 per cent of the country’s farmers are in debt. The PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna amount has been stuck at Rs 6000 per annum since 2016. Yet....
Farmers protesting against the three farm laws in 2020-21. (File Photo | PTI)
Farmers protesting against the three farm laws in 2020-21. (File Photo | PTI)

Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the government has gained GYAN and identified India's farmers as a core constituency that needs to be empowered along with "garibs (the poor), nari and youth".

Indeed, the country's farmers, who saved the economy and the Indian people during the tumultuous days of 'once-in-a-century pandemic' as stated by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her interim budget speech, continue to be weighed down by the yoke of unfulfilled aspirations that they have been carrying for years.

In 2018-19, their average household income was Rs 10,218/- per month as projected by the 77th round of the National Sample Survey (NSSO). Yet, the interim budget offered no sops to them.

Rewind to 2020-21. In a rare show of solidarity, the farmers had gotten together and stood up for themselves when they laid siege around New Delhi to protest the three new farm laws that they said were pro-corporates and would hurt their interests.

Despite losing nearly 700 of their members, their year-long sustained determination through rain, hail and in the chilly winter nights saw them through and the government withdrew the laws ahead of Assembly elections in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Farmers protesting against the three farm laws in 2020-21. (File Photo | PTI)
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Though empty handed, the 'annadatas' returned home with sacks full of hope -- for payment of guaranteed minimum support price for the 23 notified farm produce, for doubling their farm income; for input costs not exceeding output costs; for remunerative prices; for help in shedding indebtedness and for meeting the head of government…

Before calling off their protest in 2021, the farmers had pressed for guaranteed payment of a minimum support price for their farm produce which would be remunerative and give them a certain profit to get by in life. A committee was set up to ensure this but what came out of the exercise remained in files.

Two years before, in the 2019 interim budget, just before the then Lok Sabha elections, the Centre had declared an income support scheme titled the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna that provided Rs 6000 per annum to farmers from a back date in 2018. The scheme was brought out in haste to counter the main opposition party's electoral lure of loan waiver to farmers.

In this year's vote-on-account interim budget, with another general elections barely a couple of months away, and inflation hitting farm input costs, there was then an expectation of a hike finally in the PM-Kisan amount. But that was not to be.

Remember that the government had assured farmers in 2016 that they would take steps to double farmers' income by 2022, which was then projected at an average of about Rs 6000 per household per month based on the NSSO's 70th round of survey. Perhaps the aim was too ambitious, the time too short, the funds inadequate, private investment bleak and the task Herculean. It did not happen.

Farmers protesting against the three farm laws in 2020-21. (File Photo | PTI)
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Meanwhile, input cost of diesel, electricity, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, labour etc. have shot up manifold leaving most farmers reeling. Rising inflation, as in most sectors, has hit farmers the hardest. Added to this, the erratic monsoon this season and the growing aftermath of climate change that impacted production is slowing rural demand. Yet farmers continue to provide food security to the nation and enabled the government to assure distribution of free foodgrains to 81 crore people for the next five years.

Some rays of hope

Various administrations have focussed on supplementing farm incomes by encouraging them venturing into the commodities, dairy and fisheries sectors.

Announcing the government’s intent in the interim budget, Nirmala Sitharaman said a strategy will be formulated to reduce the country’s dependence on imports of vegetable oil to meet domestic demand and to boost domestic production of edible oils such as mustard, groundnut, sesame, soybean and sunflower. This will include research to develop high-yielding varieties, modern techniques, market linkages, procurement, value addition and crop insurance.

The country imports nearly 60 per cent of its edible oil requirement annually to meet domestic demand. According to official data, the country imported vegetable oil valued at Rs 96228.13 crore between April 2023 and December 2023. The Solvent Extractors’ Association said the country imported 167.1 lakh tonnes of edible oil between November 2022 and October 2023 as against 144.1 lakh tonne imported during the previous oil year (November-October).

Certainly, this has been an area of concern for authorities and the extremely high prices of edible oils as well as pulses are major contributors to inflation from the food basket.

Promising a comprehensive programme for supporting dairy farmers, the Finance Minister said steps will be taken to boost food processing and to promote private and public investment in post-harvest activities. Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojna in fisheries sector will be stepped up to enhance aquaculture productivity, she assured.

No help for organic farmers

There was a time when organic farming and 'zero budget' farming (unscientific though experts said it was) were buzz words. But a time when there is a growing focus on organic and natural farming, the interim budget failed to outline any incentives for organic farmers who leave their traditional crop fields vacant for initial two to three years to make the soil fertile and free from chemicals.

At the same time, organic farmers with their multi-cropping system, face frequent invasion of their fields by wild animals such as Nilgai (Indian antelope) and boars. This is a big problem that needs to addressed with serious intent and workable solutions. The budget could have allocated money for this too.

This when 50% of our farmers are in debt

In a country where 85 per cent of farmers are small and medium and 50 per cent of people are engaged in agriculture and allied activities, the sector requires urgent and indulgent attention with pots of money set aside. The farmers must be taken into confidence and the traditional wisdom for meeting climate change challenges needs to be utilised to ensure these households earn sustained profitable income.

It is quite known that nearly 50 per cent of the country’s farmers are in debt with average unpaid loans hovering between Rs. 10000 - to Rs 50000/- depending upon their landholding. The country cannot afford to let their “annadatas”, who are expected to feed not only India but the world, to remain in debt with low self-esteem.

Farmers protesting against the three farm laws in 2020-21. (File Photo | PTI)
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(Gargi Parsai is a senior journalist based in New Delhi).

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