By – P S M Rao
As politicians lend their ears only on the poll eve, those who are working for the cause of people too seek to bring in pressure during that time and try to articulate their demands. A similar exercise is seen in AP from the farmers’ associations and groups working for the betterment of the lives of the farming community.
Almost all the farmers’ unions in the state and some 100 NGOs working in the areas of sustainable agriculture have endorsed a manifesto for the farmers. The Centre for Sustainable Agriculture has articulated their demands in the manifesto, particularly for income support, a cash transfer scheme, to the farmers. The demands are interesting to examine closely not only in the context of the Telugu Desham taking up the proposal of Cash Transfer Scheme but also because they are relevant for the farming community all over India.
To ensure sustainable income and livelihood security, the farmers’ groups are asking for ensuring a minimum income to them through agricultural operations. Towards this end, they want the appointment, by the government, of an Income Commission as a statutory body that would examine the real incomes of the farmers every year and would come out with recommendation to ensure minimum income to support their life.
Income Commission to farmers
MS Swaminathan too is advocating for an arrangement like this. He wants the government to focus its attention in the regular budget for 2009-10 on appointing an Income Commission for farmers. Justifying his claim, Swaminathan argues that the recommendations of the 6th Central Pay Commission, which provide benefit to 4.5 million central government employees and 3.8 million pensioners, were not only accepted but were improved upon by the government. So, he suggests that the major political parties should commit themselves to establishing a Farm Income Commission which can go into the totality of the income of farmers from crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, agro-forestry and agro-processing, and suggest ways of ensuring a minimum take home income to farmers.
Reverting to the AP farmers’ demand, they want the proposed Commission should adopt a multi component approach. The components include: i) Remunerative prices should be fixed for agricultural produce. The pricing for agricultural commodities should be based on the real cost of production, that is through neutralising the effect of inflation. The minimum support price should be 50% more than the actual cost as recommended by the National Farmers’ Commission. The determination of support should be transparent and be announced before the beginning of the crop season. They also want a state-level agricultural costs and prices commission and a price stabilisation fund.
ii) Labour wage support should be provided for agricultural operations. It is ironic that the agricultural workers are unable get employment while the farmers are not able to afford agriculture workers due to increasing costs of living. The government should therefore provide input subsidy in the form of labour wages (up to 100 days in a calendar year) to the farmer to monetise the use of family labour or to pay external labour engaged on the farm in order to support both the farmers and farm labourers. The activities to be supported should include all agricultural operations, from sowing to harvesting. This can be operationalised on similar lines as NREGS, or by suitably increasing the number of days covered under NREGS and extending it to agricultural work.
iii) Steps should be taken to increase rural employment opportunities. This should be done through systematically promoting post-harvest operations and value addition enterprises at the village level; the net income of farmers can thus be directly increased. By promoting agriculture-centred small scale rural industry, the rural economy can be given a big boost, correcting the rural-urban imbalance and migration.
iv) There should be an arrangement for the social security measures like pension and insurance to the farmers and farm labourers.
Cash support to farmers
Finally, and more importantly, arrangement should be made for direct income support to farmers. Even after implementation of measures listed above, farmers are not expected to get living income. The direct cash support is, therefore, necessary. They want this support in the form of a fixed amount per family, given to all cultivators including tenant farmers. This direct cash support, together with other measures, should ensure that every agricultural family can maintain a fair living standard. This could be set at Rs 15,000 per family and revised every year by the Commission.
The farmers want support for sustainable ecological farming to ensure food security and livelihood support on a sustainable basis. Small and marginal farmers in many parts of India have achieved success through low-input sustainable methods which not only helped them but also boosted soil fertility.
Farmers want the government to promote sustainable agriculture to maximise the use of local resources. Farmers adopting organic/ecological farming should also receive financial support from the government for their own input use. They also want restrictions on agrochemicals that are banned the world over and a ban on GM crops till their bio-safety is proven beyond doubt. Also, they want support for research in organic farming, demonstrations by agricultural department on the success of organic farming and strengthening the farmers’ training centres in which the experienced farmers should be used as resource persons.
These demands of the farmers are not at all unreasonable, particularly for the direct cash transfer. This is because they are not asking for the support without working. They want to engage in farming activity and want support only to allow them to be in the profession; in other words they want a conditional cash transfer scheme.
In fact there have been repeated claims in the discourse on agriculture that farming on a small scale is not viable and as much as 50% of the farmers can be withdrawn from the occupation without affecting the total production. That means about 30 crore people are additionally depending on agriculture. Considering this to be true and, as many farmers are willing to come out of agriculture, where are the avenues of employment to them in the non-agricultural activity? If such employment is guaranteed, there is no problem, but it is impossible for the government to do so. It therefore should support the farmers and meet their reasonable demand including the cash support.
Besides this need, the bad state of agriculture in AP also calls for an urgent action to protect the farmers and farming. As many as 16 of the 32 districts identified by the central government as worst affected are in AP. As many as 1797 farmers have committed suicide in 2007 (2607 in 2006) – AP occupies the second place after Maharashtra in farmers’ suicides. Similarly, 82% of the farmers in the state are indebted and 66% to non-institutional sources, as per NSSO data. The input costs of farming have risen by 300% in the past five years and the prices of produce have not kept pace, leading the farmers into a crisis situation.
So, the cash support to 1.2 crore farmers of the state, which is estimated to cost Rs 25,000 crore or 25% of the state’s budget, is quite reasonable and warrants a serious consideration from political parties. In reality, the actual cost may be much less than this estimate because the government is going to save on the schemes of indirect support which are not found beneficial to the farmers. Even otherwise, this cost which should be treated as an essential social cost for the enormous social benefit of supporting the farmers will not be too much. Neglecting agriculture and avoiding timely measures will only lead to a catastrophic situation. After all, it was agriculture, as admitted by the UPA government, that saved India f
rom falling into a deeper economic crisis.