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Winter is coming for Rural India

The winter in a drought year is very intolerant. Many in rural India could leave the country in a casket. But it seems as if India only cares about its intellectual environment, and people leaving on planes. In the past week, Telangana had declared drought in 231 mandals (sub-districts) spread across 10 districts. After Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh, Telangana became the ninth state in India to declare a drought. Such a scenario highlights a growing agrarian crisis that could likely cause a fall in the production of oil seed, cotton, and pulses that are all rain-fed crops. A deficient northeast monsoon and lack of soil moisture have affected the sowing of wheat and pulses in the Rabi season. The July-September monsoon accounts for about 80 percent of India’s total rainfall and affects both summer and winter sowing. Moreover, about 2/3rd cultivated land in India is dependent on monsoons. Data published by the Centre last week showed that sowing for the Rabi crop is lagging by more than 18 percent. In the event of a failed winter crop, a majority of India’s farmers could witness its fourth consecutive year of crop failure. In a country, where 60 percent of the Indian workforce is dependent on agriculture, the possibility of a negative growth rate in agriculture is indeed scary. For the record, in 2014-15, the agricultural growth rate stood at a dismal 0.2 percent.  

 The rising number of farmer suicides paints a sordid picture of the distress caused by crop failures. According to a Right to Information query, Maharashtra alone saw 2,234 farmer suicides between January and September. Meanwhile, in Telangana, according to various NGOs working on the ground, 1,712 farmers have committed suicide from July 2014 till date. The subsequent fall in rural demand, an indicator of prosperity in India’s villages, has been evident in declining sales of tractors and motorcycles. In the first half of the current financial year, tractor sales fell by 20 percent. Moreover, motorcycle sales have seen a 4 percent decline year-on-year in the current financial year until October 1. The fall in rural demand is confirmed by a slump in rural wages, as per recent data published by the union labour ministry. Quite evidently, the Centre must provide immediate monetary assistance to farmers through increased expenditure on central policy initiatives like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. 

 The states under farm distress have sought financial assistance from the Centre. But the amount released by the Centre to these distressed States has not been enough. Chhattisgarh, for example, had asked for Rs 6,093 crore earlier this month, but only received Rs 1,387 crore. Karnataka, meanwhile, sought Rs 3,831 crore, but only received Rs 1,540 crore from the Centre. Suffice to say, financial assistance from the Centre barely covers the cost of production for the average farmer. Karnataka, for example, reported a crop loss of Rs 15,636 crore. However, the state received only a tenth of the amount to distribute as immediate relief. Earlier this year, the Modi government had announced increased compensation for crop damage. He had hailed the hike in compensation for crop damage from natural disasters by 50 percent as a landmark decision. Moreover, the Centre relaxed the norms for claiming compensation. Under the new figures, compensation for rain-fed crops stands at Rs 6,800 per hectare. According to Ashok Gulati, a reputed expert in Indian agriculture, the revised amount, “is a joke and way below what is required to protect farmers from the vagaries of nature”. Gulati goes on to further say that either government should provide adequate crop insurance or increase the crop area under irrigation through greater public investment. “Almost 80 percent of the public expenditure going to agriculture is in the form of input subsidies (fertilisers, power, and irrigation) and only 20 percent as investment in agriculture. And that is where the bane of Indian agriculture lies. If we could gather the courage to bite the bullet, and turn it around to have 80 percent public expenditure going to agriculture as investment and only 20 percent as targeted subsidies to farmers directly, Indian agriculture will be easily growing at a much higher rate of growth than the targeted 4 percent. And there will ample food with stable prices, at home as well as for exports,” Gulati said in an earlier column. One can safely conclude that the Centre, like its predecessor, continues to move agonisingly slow on increasing either crop insurance or expanding the area under irrigation.
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