Time to usher in “Acche din…” for the Indian farmers.
Indian agriculture is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis. It is a crisis primarily of sustainability and economic viability. The spate of farmer suicide and the willingness of farmers to quit agriculture if given a choice is a stark reminder of the grim crisis. What should be the agriculture agenda for the new government? I am being asked this question time and again. Here is my 11-point agenda:
1) Providing a guaranteed assured monthly income to farmers. According to the Arjun Sengupta Committee report the average monthly income of a farm family is Rs 2,115. This includes Rs 900 from non-farm activities. About 60 per cent farmers are dependent on MNREGA activities to survive, and an estimated 55 per cent farmers go to bed hungry. But these farmers produce economic wealth for the country in the form of agricultural, horticultural and dairy produce. It is high time they are adequately compensated for generating that massive economic wealth in the form of food. My suggestion is that the new government should set up a National Farmers Income Commission which should have the mandate to compute the monthly income of a farm family depending upon his production and the geographical location of the farm.
2) The time for price policy is now over. Every time the Minimum Support Price (MSP) is raised questions are asked about its impact on food inflation. Moreover, the Bali Ministeral of WTO has questioned India’s subsidies that it provides to farmers by way of MSP. It is therefore an appropriate time to move from Price policy to Income policy. The income that a farmer earn should be de-linked from the price that his crops fetch in the market. That is why I have been asking for a guaranteed monthly income for for farmers. Let us not forget, if inflation is rising it is also rising for the farmers. While the Govt employees get DA instalments every 6 months to compensate for inflation, and get a pay commission every few year, farmers get only MSP and that too is un-remunerative. In an interesting study from Kerala, it was computed that if paddy price rise was to match the salary rise of govt officials, paddy price in 2005 should have been Rs 2669/qntl. It’s Rs 1,310 today. In other words what paddy farmers are getting in 2014 as paddy price is 50 per cent of what they should have earned 9 years ago.
The burden of providing cheap food therefore to 1.25 billion people should not be only on the shoulders of farmers. The society too must share the burden.
3) There is an immediate need to strengthen the network of mandis (market yards) across the country whisch provides farmers with a platform to sell their produce. Leaving it to markets will result in distress sale. To illustrate, let me take the example of rice farmers in Punjab and Bihar. In Punjab, which has a huge network of mandis linked with roads, farmers bring the produce to these mandis. Last harvest, Punjab farmers got an MSP of Rs 1,310 per quintal for paddy. In Bihar, where APMC Act does not operate, farmers resorted to distress sale with prices not exceeding Rs 900 per quintal. The Commission for Costs and Prices (CACP) is now pressurising Punjab Govt to dismantle themandis and let markets operate. Which means, Punjab farmers will soon go the Bihar way.
4) For a country which was able to build up an excellent marketing network for one of the most perishable commodities — milk — I see no reason why a similar approach cannot be adopted in providing a viable marketing network for fruits and vegetables. If the National Dairy Development Programme could ensure that milk is procured from each and every village, and then through a cooperative chain it is finally delivered to the consumers in the cities, I see no reason why India cannot carve out a marketing chain for fruits, vegetables and other farm commodities.
5) Cooperate farming need to be encouraged. Appropriate laws must be framed to make cooperatives more independent and effective. Drawing from the experience of the Amul cooperative in dairy farming, a similar system needs to be adopted for vegetables/fruit farming. I know of small cooperatives of organic farmers which have done wonders. Why can’t it be replicated to rest of the crops?
6) Aim at making villages self-reliant in agriculture and food security. Feeding the population has to be linked with farming. Chhatisgarh has given an excellent model of self-reliance in agriculture and food security. It has shifted the focus to local production, local procurement and local distribution. This is exactly what needs to be done throughout the country for which the National Food Security Act needs an amendment. Instead of providing 5 kg of wheat/rice/millets every month, the focus should be on making the villages take care of their own food security needs. This will help reduce the huge subsidy bill on food security that is required every year and thereby reduce fiscal deficit. Such a programme will also help in removing hunger in the long term.
7) Green Revolution areas of the country are facing a crisis in sustainability. With soil fertility devastated, water table plummeting and environment contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertiliser, the resulting impact on the entire food chain and human health is being increasingly felt. The new Government should launch a nation-wide campaign to shift farming to non-pesticides management techniques. In Andhra Pradesh, no chemical pesticides are used in 35 lakh acres. Farmers have even stopped using chemical fertiliser in some 20 lakh hectares. Production has gone up, pesticides pollution has come down, insects attack has also come down, and more importantly farm incomes have gone up by 45 per cent because of reduced health expenses. There has been no farm suicides in these areas. The same system now needs to be extrapolated to the entire country with local modifiations/adaptation.
8) Agriculture, dairy and forestry should be integrated. Agricultural growth should not only be measured in terms of increase in foodgrain production but should be seen in the context of the village eco-system as a whole. This will also shift the focus to low external input sustainable agriculture (LEISA) practices. At the same time such an approach will limit the ecological footprint.
9) Importing food is importing unemployment. Recently, apple growers in Himachal Pradesh have been protesting against the low import tariffs for imported apples as a result of which the local produce goes abegging. There are no buyers for Himachal apples, and the prices have plummeted . Similarly for other crops. The Govt must raise the import duties on agriculture, horticulture and dairy products and refuse to buckle under the pressures being exerted through the Free Trade Agreements. It should not accept the European Union’s demand for opening up for dairy products and fruits/vegetables by reducing the import duties. Studies have now shown that indiscriminate signing of FTAs and bilateral agreements has been disadvantageous to the country. Time to revisit the trade treaties and protect domestic agriculture thereby millions of livelihoods.
10) Climate change is certainly going to affect agriculture. But instead of looking at strategies only aimed at lessening the impact on agriculture and making farmers cope with the changing weather patterns, the focus should also be to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Considering that agriculture share in greenhouse gas emissions is about 25 per cent, the thrust must shift to reducing the application of chemical fertiliser/pesticides in farming. Following the AP model of non-pesticides management being the right approach, the cropping pattern too needs a revision. In the dryland regions of the country, for instance, at present hybrid crops which required almost twice the amount of water than normal crop varieties, are grown. Common sense tells us that in rainfed regions, which occupy 65 per cent of the cultivable area, crops requiring less water should be grown. But it is just the opposite in reality thereby accentuating the water crisis at times of rainfall delay.
I see no reason why Rajasthan, a semi-arid region, should be cultivating water guzzling sugarcane, cotton and rice crops. Similarly I see no reason why Bundelkhand should be cultivating mentha crops, which requires 1.25 lakh litres of water to produce 1 kg of mentha oil. Why can’t the cropping pattern in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh shift to pulses, oilseeds (like mustard) and millets? Why can’t the Goovt provide special incentives by way of a higher price for these crops so that farmers can willingly shift to more sustainable cropping patterns?
11) Lack of storage for foodgrains is appalling. It was in 1979 that under the Save Food Campaign, the Govt had promised to set up grain silos at 50 places in the country. This should be the top agenda for the new government. Not even a single grain should be allowed to go waste. #