Liberate India's farmers
A range of government bodies can be blamed for shackling rural India where the autonomy of farmers has been lost to mindless money-mongers
Recently, I visited Kurichi, a village near Pattukkottai in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, along with Professor Hari K Nagarajan of IIM, Ahmedabad, to interact with the farmers and gain an insight into their knowledge of efficient water management for farm practices. We have chosen this village for the interaction due to its proximity to a very big lake stretching across 400 acres. It feeds water to four villages for their respective farming activities through 13 smaller water tanks. To manage water from Kurichi Lake, they have a management committee with a head from the main village and members from 13 small tanks.
After an intimate interaction with farmers and committee members, we found, to our dismay, that our country's farmers have not only lost their independence and pride but also their self-respect as they are now under the control of the Public Works Department (PWD), Agriculture Department and several other ancillary outfits of the government. As a result, they have been reduced to becoming beneficiaries of government schemes by surrendering their knowledge, creative ability, innovative capacity. For all their inputs, they are forced to rely on the government and, for their produce, they have to rely on the middlemen and the state. Input prices are determined by the fertiliser and pesticides company while prices of farm products are determined by the government and the various middlemen floating through rural India. Farm practices too are dictated by the Agriculture Department and water management is being regulated and supervised by PWD. They cultivate rice as advocated by the Agriculture Department and, alongside, they grow coconut and vegetables as per their own choice. But in respect to their paddy, they are under the mercy of the procurement centre of the government, that too with some amount of bribe. For their coconut, it is only the traders who fix the price. Coconut of the southern region is special and it has its own significance in terms of its quality. Farmers have no clue about the marketing of their products and they are not free from institutional entanglements. They are in the clutches of the government and the middlemen for the success of all their farm activities.
In understanding this plight, one can easily come to the conclusion that our farmers have been enslaved. Their knowledge, creativity and entrepreneurial capacity have been buried deep, almost out of sight. A few women farmers have observed that many small farmers have been reduced to meagre workers in MGNREGA without which their livelihood will be at stake. The women are members of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and are compelled to borrow money for their family expenses with no alternate source in sight during off-seasons. They have unequivocally reiterated that, in the rural areas, one will see green (paddy field and coconut plantation) but the economy is red as the service of the farmers and farm labourers is being exploited by the middlemen and affluent traders from urban areas. Thus, we come to the conclusion that there is no economy in the rural areas though one will find livelihood. Capitalising on the produce of farmers, urban residents are growing their economy that benefits only traders and middlemen. A household survey of the families connected with the villagers in economic transactions will highlight the truth about who makes wealth out of the struggle of farmers and farm labourers. A few key points emerged from their interaction. First, farm practices have to be liberated from the yoke of government departments. The institutional mechanisms of farmers such as cooperative and water bodies have to be liberated from state dictums. From production to marketing, they should be made independent, have access to manage their institutions and allowed to innovate their own practices. The government must ideally liberate our country's farmers from unnecessary institutional shackles – enable them to innovate and face challenges. They have to be allowed to market their products under their own brand with a price fixed by them. A menu of technologies has to be supplied to the farmers for them to fulfil their farming operations and also successfully market their own products. Only by doing this can the welfare of farmers and farm labourers be achieved. Farm loan waiver is not a panacea for all the ills afflicting farmers and, in fact, the entire rural economy of India.
While we were interacting with the farmers, we inferred that the norms about water management are being dictated by PWD adhering to the directions of the department they use and share water with. Water tanks are being supervised only by the department of the government. PWD is a multi-crore business, as the department receives huge money for desilting, deepening, bunding and repairing the inlet and outlet channels. At one point of time a few years ago, a sanction was accorded for one-and-a-half crore rupees to desilt the lake and attend to a few repairing works. But despite the resistance of the water management committee, PWD prepared the bill and released it. In this way, audaciously, farmers are routinely fooled by officials. They could not raise their concern in the Gram Sabha meeting as the agenda was prepared elsewhere. Further, there is no development plan for the village as mandated by the Government of India following the recommendation of the Central Finance Commission. In this cloud of hegemony, the wings of the institutions that serve the rural people have been quickly clipped off. Unless revolutionary measures are taken up, as was argued by J C Kumarappa for the village movement farming, farmers and farm labourers cannot be saved from total catastrophe.
(The author is Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. The views expressed are strictly personal)