Turf wars & marginal farmer
West Bengal has taken pioneering steps in making the agriculture department sensitive to the needs of small growers.
According to the Rules of Business, the Coffee Board, Choir Board and the Tea Board are with the Ministry of Commerce, while the Coconut Board is with the Ministry of Agriculture. The two ministries are often engaged in a turf war, not only about these commodities but on a range of issues from Minimum Export Prices, tariff and non-tariff barriers and trade facilitation.
A few years ago, a concerted effort was made by the Ministry of Commerce to take the Coconut Board also under their wings – and it was only when the Horticulture Division in the Union Agriculture Ministry mobilised state governments against this move that the proposal was shelved as many Chief Ministers wrote to the then Prime Minister that this move would be against the small and marginal farmers who are more used to interacting with the department of agriculture. This was the time when your columnist tried to understand the logic of why certain sections were with the Ministry of Commerce and the rest with Agriculture. One learnt that crops grown by farmers were with Agriculture and all plantation crops (rubber, coffee, and tea) were with the Commerce Ministry as these were being managed by corporate houses.
These Rules of Business were made when the focus of Krishi Bhawan (Agriculture Ministry) was primarily on ensuring food security in the country – and all efforts were made in this direction. It was required as well, and in any case, tea, coffee and rubber were produced by corporate houses in large plantations – and the problems in this sector were mainly related to labour welfare, trade, and exports. Of course, jute and tobacco were grown by farmers, but as these were not really food security related crops, it was best left to the Commerce Ministry which believed that dealing with the large corporate houses/trading establishments was their domain competence.
However, over the last few decades so many changes have taken place in the way commodities are being produced and marketed. Take the case of tea – for your columnist has personal knowledge about this industry. Three decades ago, the bulk of tea production in the country, (and more so in West Bengal) was in the plantation sector. But not any longer. Today nearly 50 per cent of the tea grown in West Bengal comes from the lands of the marginal and small farmer who find that by working on the field himself, combined with labour from within the family resources, the economics of tea production works out quite favourably. While we were still in the districts (in the nineties) efforts were made to dissuade the farmers from taking up tea production in the erstwhile rice growing fields, but the economics was overwhelmingly in favour of tea production to be sold to what is called "Bought-leaf factories" where tea is processed. What was earlier a composite, end – to the production system in a tea garden, has now been broken into different components, and the results are quite positive, even though there have been no real extension services or inputs from the agriculture department. Of course, the cynic may say that if the farmers have done so well without any external support, where is the need for the government to poke its nose in every sphere of activity that the farmer takes up.
The answer is that while the small and marginal grower of tea, (and for that matter, coffee) has done well without government assistance, some support would have helped her to focus on quality improvement – making it the best in class globally, and assistance which was due to them on the basis of their small land holding would help them transform their production. Thus , if the marginal and small tea growers in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur got support for establishing micro-irrigation (drip/sprinklers) on their tea growing fields, they would not only save on precious water (which many of them have to buy), but also on fertilisers and labour. These farmers should also have their Soil Health cards so that the inputs into their fields is based on the kind of soil.
West Bengal has indeed taken the first steps in making the Agriculture department sensitive to the needs of these small growers who found that they really had no 'voice' within the government system. The task was entrusted to the West Bengal watershed management society, which has the overall responsibility for extending the reach and spread of micro-irrigation. The department has also tried to establish a platform for the small growers, BLF owners, input suppliers, and university and extension specialists to work together. However, the Tea Board is not very comfortable with dealing with farmer groups as the orientation is different.
While visiting the Arakku Valley in Vishakapatanam these thoughts again came to the fore, and your columnist felt that there is need to revisit the structure of the commodity boards, and wherever the small and marginal farmers are the primary producers, the responsibility should be given to the Agriculture Departments – both at the level of the Union and the state governments. In any case, when it comes to exports, there is Agriculture and Processed Foods Development Agency which can take care of these aspects. Let us give a voice to the marginal and small producer. Let their commodity boards be democratised.
(The author is Director General, ATI & Additional Chief Secretary, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed are strictly personal)