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Distressed small farmers

Cooperatives alone can address small farmers’ woes; strong agricultural reform needed without delay.

Distressed small farmers

How long will the country mutely witness thousands of its debt-stricken small farmers committing suicide year after year, irrespective of the political party in power at the Centre or states? With 67 per cent of India's farmland held by marginal farmers; continuous shrinkage of acreage under their control provides an alarming picture of the future of these poor farmers and India's agriculture. Unfortunately, political parties do not seem to be concerned about addressing the real issue of making agriculture scientifically sustainable without such political doles as writing-off poor farmers' bank-debts and certain farm subsidies that indirectly benefit industrial producers of power, fertilisers and pesticides more than their direct users. By its geographical size, India is the world's most populated country. A continuously non-remunerative domestic agriculture can ruin all its other economic advantages. It is another matter that financially-sick farmers across the country may someday organise themselves to revolt against the government or administration, instead of cheaply ending life by committing suicide. Also, if the crisis persists, India may have to eventually live substantially on food imports.

It is high time that both Central and state governments take a serious view of the last agricultural census to address the situation through legal and social measures. The government's own official statement puts "the average size of the (farm) holding at 1.15 hectare. And, the size of these holdings has shown a steady declining trend since 1970-71." Further, the large holdings of 10 hectares and above account for less than one per cent of the country's farmland. Few will disagree that the small and marginal farmers should have been induced and incentivised by the government to go for cooperative farming instead of playing politics on their plight. Cooperatives are meant to help such marginal farmers benefit from economies of scale.
They could lower their costs of inputs, cultivation, storage, and transport. Such cooperatives could enable farmers to improve production, service quality and reduce financial risks. Marginal farmers would not have been marginalised to become victims of lenders, private loan-shirks, middleman and market. They would have also probably kept at bay those political parties and leaders who have long been converting farmers' distress and suicides into votes during state and parliamentary elections.
Cooperative farming witnessed a grand success in China, the world's most populous country, and also in highly industrialised nations such as the UK, Germany, France, and Sweden. Advantages of cooperative farming are many. They include consolidation of small units of land; liberal use of mechanisation; adequate and timely use of inputs like fertilisers and pesticides; technical guidance to improve skills and productivity; secure fair price of products; and build brotherhood among members to help each other to pull their resources and promote common interests. The cooperative farming movement is not new to India. It marked tremendous success in Gujarat, parts of Maharashtra and a few other states contributing substantially to the production of milk and sugar among others. There is no reason why it should not be an equal success in agriculture.
Despite a rapid growth of India's services sector since the 1992 economic reform, it is still largely an agricultural economy in terms of direct and indirect jobs that the farm sector creates. Statistically, agriculture contributes about 18 per cent to India's GDP through providing employment to nearly two-third of its total population. Rural women play a vital role in agriculture, representing almost 50 per cent of farm labour. Agricultural accounts for around 15 per cent of the country's export earnings. In China, agriculture accounts for about 11 per cent of its GDP -- this is over four times larger than India's. In 2016, India's GDP was $2.5 trillion. China's GDP was $11.4 trillion. Some 330 million or over 45 per cent of China's total labour force live on farming although only about 15 per cent of China's total land mass is cultivable. Over 75 per cent of China's total cultivated land grows only food crops. Properly organised under cooperatives, India's marginal farms hold the promise of doing better than China's. The earlier they are initiated, the better it is for poor marginal farmers and agriculture.
It's important that the government ensures that groundwater, on which India's agriculture is substantially dependent, is not exploited by consumer industries making soft drinks, bottled water, alcoholic beverages, etc. The latter can use municipal water, drawn mostly from rivers, for a small fee. India's agriculture is mostly rain-fed. The proportion of net irrigated area to net area sown was 45.70 per cent at the beginning of this decade. This means that half the country's farmland relies entirely on rains for their crops. Deep tube-wells are a major source of irrigation. While the total cropped area is estimated at 193.76 million hectares, nine states account for almost 78 per cent of it. They are Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and West Bengal.
Incidentally, Maharashtra, Andhra, Telangana, UP, and Karnataka have among the most debt-trapped farmers. Maharashtra has always seen the highest number of farmer suicides every year. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, now championing the cause of poor farmers, may be aware that the state was ruled by the Congress-NCP coalition for 15 consecutive years until BJP came to power in 2014. Of the country's total net irrigated area of 64.57 million hectares, about 48 per cent is shared by small and marginal holdings. Under cooperative farming, the marginal holders can put together their resources and seek help from the government and local bodies to improve their access to irrigation. Nobody denies that agricultural cooperatives can also be subject to corruption and political exploitation. Yet, they seem to be the best option for the country's debt-ridden, suicide-prone marginal farmers.
(Views expressed are personal.)

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