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Ailing farmers' call

The government urgently needs to tackle farm distress; infrastructure push and bank recapitalisation alone will not suffice.

Ailing farmers call

After announcing the welcome move of spending Rs 6.9 lakh crore on roads and carrying out a mega Rs 2.11 lakh crore recapitalisation of banks, the Narendra Modi government needs to step on the peddle to tackle the looming farm distress in the country, which is ostensibly real and potentially shattering. The Father of India's green revolution, M S Swaminathan, is right in saying that India cannot eradicate poverty without tackling the woes of its farmers, who form at least 50 per cent of the population.

The demonetisation exercise had virtually crippled the farming community, which largely depended upon the cash economy. That too came at a time when things were looking up for the farmers because of a good monsoon after two successive years of drought and failed crops. The timing was abysmal as demonetisation came into effect when farmers needed the cash flow to be the most accessible, as November is the time when the Kharif harvest takes place and the Rabi sowing gradually begins. The hasty rollout of GST has added to the farmers' woes by jacking up some of their inputs costs. It is, therefore, not surprising that agriculture, which should have grown by at least 5-6 per cent, taking advantage of the low-base due to droughts in the previous two years, managed to clock only 2.5 per cent growth, in spite of a good monsoon.
Along with the big ticket public investment on roads, the government should have come out with a big ticket investment on irrigation projects and linking of rivers, which has remained, virtually a non-starter, so far. It is sad that though India has one of the largest areas under irrigation in the world, still, more than half of the over two lakh crore hectares of land continue to be rain-dependent. Take the case of Bihar and Jharkhand. While Bihar has floods every year, Jharkhand is plagued by droughts, most of the years. All one has to do is connect all the Himalayan rivers in Bihar to the rivers in the drought-stricken land of Jharkhand. This has not happened in the 70-years of Independence.
Solutions are already available and now technology too, is abundantly available, but the political will appears to be missing; despite the fact that a large chunk of the country's members of parliament are farmers. Doles like no farm income tax or periodical farm loan waiver do not address the issue; this is far more deep-rooted and needs a concerted and comprehensive solution. Unfortunately, the Indian political class looks at only short-term political gains and not the long-term and permanent solution to the problems of agriculture, as it does not help them win elections, every five years. Swaminathan had nicely summed up in his report: the government has to do two things basically, ensure that farmers get the remunerative price, that is, cost plus 50 per cent for their produce, and secondly, the creation of a proper marketing system, which has not happened, so far. Minimum Support Price, a price stabilisation mechanism, though a good tool, has so far largely benefited only the rich farmers, as only they have a marketable surplus.
Swaminathan was right in saying that the agriculture ministry needed to be made the Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Ministry. The mere change in name, as has happened lately, will not suffice. What he actually meant was that the ministry should undertake large-scale measures to improve farmers welfare and that has not happened so far.
Animal husbandry and livestock are equally important as they go hand-in-hand with farming. Livestock is a kind of insurance to farmers. The cows which cease to be milch cows were sold and the farmers would derive some money from it. Now, because of the activism of the Gaurakshaks, they are no longer able to sell their aged animals. Thus, they have not only lost the money that they used to get as a sort of insurance, but they also have to spend more money on the upkeep of the useless animal, which has to be fed till it dies. This eats into the already poor finances of the impoverished farmer. This is one of the factors deteriorating farmers' income and further adding to their misery.
Another issue that the government needs to address is the establishment of a stable import-export policy for farm produce. One does not understand why the government allows the import of rubber, apparently succumbing to the pressures imposed by the tyre industry, when there is surplus rubber production in Kerala and the North-East. This further depresses the local rubber prices, pushing rubber growers into further difficulty. The export policy too is funny. When there is surplus production in onions, it cannot be exported as the government takes time to announce exemption of the ban on onion exports. This again, results in a glut, subsequently leading to a crash in prices.
There is an urgent need for agriculture to become smart, by taking advantage of the digitisation systems in the country. This will propel the use of technology for improving productivity on farmlands. In the United States, the weather forecast is utilised to work out the shortfall of food grains in other countries, in the subsequent year, and accordingly, crops are cultivated for exports, thereby getting a better price in forward trading. This sort of anticipatory cultivation needs to be encouraged in India too.
With fragmentation of land holdings in India, contract or cooperative farming can be encouraged. If all the farmers, say 100 odd farmers in a village, pool in their land and cultivate one crop and tie up with an agency for marketing, it would fetch them better returns. Encouraging multi-brand retail, cold storage chains, and food processing parks in various parts of the country will also assist in marketing farm produce. 70 per cent of the goods sold in multi-brand supermarkets are food products and it is already valued to be an over $500 billion industry. If it is tied to multi-brand retail outside India, it could be a one-trillion dollar industry.
In sum, the big investment push in infrastructure and recapitalisation of banks decided by the Union Cabinet, recently, are timely, providing a much-needed impetus to jump-start the economy, now in a take-off stage after the recent cleaning up operations and transformational tax reforms. But, it would have been better if the Government had come out with a big ticket farm policy, as well, to ease the farmers' distress. Several farmers commit suicide, year after year, and it is sad that no government has been able to do enough to address their issues.
If independent India does not have starvation deaths, as in the past, it is because of our farmers' hard work. If they stop working, the entire nation will starve. It is thus in our interest, to uplift them. They are the most hardworking, with the least returns and yet the nation has not improved their income, which does not increase proportionately to tackle the rise in inflation. There is a need for yet another Green Revolution, which should include all crops and until that is done, the country cannot become a developed nation. Merely doubling of the per capita farm income is not enough as the average per capita farm income in most states is just Rs 20,000 per year, at present. It has to go up by manifolds. Even if 20-30 per cent of the recommendations made by various committees are implemented, the country's agricultural sector would have progressed much better.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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