In Retrospect

For scraping a living

As Indian farmers continue to struggle for dignified square meals, along the age-old policy logjam, there is a huge unexplored space for innovation — to be guided by extensive research and facilitated by reliable market

For scraping a living

As a country, the agriculturally dominant India is debating around the issue of providing substantial income to a very large section of its population that feeds the entire nation — its very own farmers. It is a matter of national shame that this debate is not a year or two old. For Independent India, the debate is 74-years old and, for simply India, it's centuries old.

Under the garb of this debate lie the corpses of lakhs of farmers who had ended their lives out of distress over the past few decades — the decades in which India claims to have thrived on the foundations of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG) of the overall economy. Today, on being asked to trust the same private sector, when farmers are expressing their apprehension, they face the counter-allegations of 'demonizing the corporates' who have brought glory and clusters of facilities and amenities to the country and the farmers. What is shockingly forgotten in this counter-allegation is that these farmers have extracted food from the belly of the Earth to feed the nation, even the corporates.

As farmers' protest continues unabated for over a year now in the national capital, some eyebrows are raised as to how can farmers sustain the protest for such a long period of time? How can farmers engage in politics to get their voices heard? Who is backing them? Though followed by question marks, the above sentences are assertion — assertion of the fact that India is convinced that its farmers cannot rise over subsistence lev-els, that its farmers cannot come out of their income and debt trap to stage political protests. To a great extent, these assertions are shamefully true.

The income debacle of Indian farmers is based on grossly misunderstood notions around the sector and largely superficial debate — with little concrete action — towards augmenting the farmers' income. Though it is impossible to provide a straightforward quick-fix solution to the deep-rooted problem, we would retrospect upon some of the very fundamental aspects that have the potential to significantly kickstart the income enhancing process.

Identifying the resources

Income generation involves the utilization of available resources to create tangible outcomes of some monetary value. Quite clearly, to augment the income of a particular group, the first step has to be towards the identification of the available resources with the group, and also the resource gaps that need to be filled. Once the resources are assembled, the next step has to be effective management of the same resources so as to come out with the best possible outcomes. Then those outcomes should be channelized towards ensuring monetary benefits.

Now, this might seem a bit technical, but that's what is the need of the hour — the need to look through the lens of pure economics, at the in-come-related problems faced by the farmers. But this economics has to have a correlation with the daily life of the farmers and should operate parallel to the ploughs that pierce the farmers' fields.

Starting simply with the most basic resource that a farmer may have, his land, we may locate a good portion of the problem. The catch here is that the majority of farmers have small and fragmented landholdings. But the worst part is that 55 per cent of the farmers in India are landless. It is indeed a challenge to augment the incomes of farmers who don't even have the most basic resource that a farmer ought to be entitled to.

Issues related to land reforms are lingering for over a long time — without effective solutions. The solution could come through innovation — which may be in a form of policy initiative, unique technology or identification of traditional practices like collective farming that have been in a dormant state.

Without going much into the diversification of economic activities of a farmer, we would highlight the second-most important mainstay of a majority of farmers — milk-providing cattle. Apparently simplistic, the cattle are in itself an 'economic institution' for farmer families. It can be equated to an asset investment that provides liquidity to the farmer on a daily basis, apart from ensuring nutritional needs (calcium, protein and iron) of children and other family members and providing for the fuel demands of the household.

At the basic level, it again requires some fundamental innovative intervention like promoting low-cost, but rich in nutrients, fodder for the farmers, and procurement of milk and milk products by the government agencies at a standard price. Giving more emphasis on managing very basic re-sources comes with the advantage that automatically, the majority of the farming population will be covered. To sum up the entire thing, a body of economic and management approach has to be adopted towards the availability of very basic resources of the farmers, while keeping the soul of reforms purely welfarist.

Agricultural research

The innovation that is being referred to may come through two routes — it may either come through scaling up of some unique traditional or contemporary practices in some pockets of agricultural communities, or it may come through well-guided and -oriented research by the concerned agencies. Dedicated research agencies should also recognize and promote traditional wisdom.

Research around agriculture in India is in a very dismal state. Though in the Budget 2021-22, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had been allocated Rs 5,322 crore which was considerably higher than the revised estimate of 2020-21, most part of it goes in salaries and pensions. The Standing Committee on Agriculture (2019) noted that almost 75 per cent of the allocation to the Department of Agricultural Research and Education is incurred on items such as salaries and pensions, and only 25 per cent is available for research activities. The Committee on Doubling Farmers' Income (2017) — headed by Ashok Galwai — had recommended the expenditure on agricultural research should be at least one per cent. It currently stands between 0.3 per cent to 0.4 per cent, as against Brazil's 1.8 per cent, China's 0.6 per cent and Mexico's 1.05 per cent.

So, agricultural research is a major gateway that could lead to improving the ailing condition of farmers in the country. The scale of effort, in-vestment and time dedicated to the agriculture sector by the farmers is no doubt profound. To ensure the successful operation of such a large-scale economic sector, quality research is a prerequisite.

Incorporation of innovation

The magnitude of reforms required in the agriculture sector can be gauged from the fact that the Committee on Doubling Farmers' Income — chaired by Ashok Galwai in 2016 — had recommended 619 policy recommendations for doubling farmers' income by the year 2022! While the effi-cacy of the recommendations cannot be doubted in an outright manner, their implementation within a short span of time is quite unrealistic. The government's intent and promptness towards ending the age-old policy logjam in the agriculture sector is indeed appreciable, but the unrealistic goals will lead to more chaos than a solution.

To deal with a structural problem as complex as subsistence in the agriculture sector, the planning has to be long-term and foolproof. And the in-tended pace will have to come through parallel incorporation of innovative ideas from wherever they come — NGOs working on the ground level, research findings of subject experts or, more importantly, the 'little inventions' of marginal farmers in course of their struggle for subsistence. Innovation is the key and it has to come at multiple levels.

For example, to deal with the issue of fragmented landholdings, collective farming can be opted. The modalities of such a practice may differ across regions and will have to be devised accordingly by the policymakers. The Standing Committee Report on Doubling Farmers' Income, in its topline recommendation, suggested the proliferation of VPOs and FPOs in this regard.

If innovation is the guiding principle, the best solutions will come from the worst problems. As water sources are fast depleting, it has gone on to acquire an even more central role in defining the prospects of the farmers. This is an area where innovation has a great potential to bring change.

To address yet another problem of power for irrigation, innovative technologies like solar trees can be scaled up to provide meaningful solutions. These are mere examples. There may be numerous innovative ideas waiting for their turn to bring in transformation.

Reforms and farmers' income

Agricultural reforms in the country will have to be directed towards augmenting the farmers' income. The buzz around the current efforts to double farmers' income is unfortunately narrowed around MSPs, providing incremental monetary support and corporatization of markets.

Minimum Support Price is indeed a crucial factor towards managing the surpluses of a farmer, but the debate around the centrality of MSP automatically excludes a very large section of the farming community for whom the challenge comes in face of subsistence and not the management of surplus. While some economists are divided on the issue of the continuance of MSP, others strongly favour it. But the point that is sought to be made here is that MSP should not grab the major portion of debate when it comes to augmenting farmers' income.

Now coming to providing monetary support to the farmers in instalments over a year under the PM KISAN scheme, it can have some positive impact if the farmers are provided with some liquidity at the time they need (sowing, harvesting etc.). Given the size of the amount and uncertainty over its provision, it would be wrong to term the scheme as a reform measure.

PRS legislative research noted in its analysis: The share of landless agricultural labourers in total agricultural workers has increased over the years from 28 per cent in 1951 to 55 per cent in 2011. The Standing Committee (2020) noted that tenant farmers, who are a significant part of landless farmers in many states, do not receive the income support benefits.

Further, the Standing Committee Report on Agriculture, 2020, found certain impediments in the implementation process of the scheme. These include (i) non-availability of proper land records, (ii) slow identification of beneficiaries and delay in the uploading of data by states, (iii) issues with the matching of demographic data between the PM-KISAN database and Aadhaar data, (iv) incorrect bank accounts, and (v) poor internet connectivity in rural areas.

The major bone of contention between the farmers protesting at the borders of Delhi, and the Central government, is the corporatization of Agricultural markets. Now there is a catch here. On one hand, the entrepreneurial aspect of agriculture is emphasized and, on the other, there are fears of usurpation of agricultural profits by the crony capitalists. Unfortunately, we don't have clear answers to this dichotomy. The issue of trust deficit between the farmers' and the government has a key role in aggravating the friction.

It won't be completely wrong to say that the discourse around enhancing farmers' income is wrongly placed in the country. Very little tangible action has been taken to blow a dent in the structural fallacies of the Indian agriculture system. Enough dream castles are built in the air without investing much thought in laying out the foundation, and the reasons are not hard to conceive. Some basic structural issues that have been lingering well over a decade, without finding concrete solutions include — agriculture credit reforms, agri-market reforms, diversification of crops over the year and across geographies.


Towards augmenting the farmers' income, there are two key aspects — reforms and innovation. One of the reasons behind the dismal state of income scenario of farmers is the underutilization of the resources at their disposal — be it land labour or capital. And the reason behind this underutilization is the lack of economic perspective and market-based approach. The government should strive towards ensuring the welfare of the farmers through this market-based holistic approach but prior to that, winning the trust of farmers becomes very crucial. An honest approach to-wards the reforms from the part of the government, coupled with an inclination towards recognizing and scaling basic innovation, could help set in motion a perpetual process of augmenting farmers' income — and not a one-stroke solution within a deadline. It has not to be counted on the political fingers, but to be seen and felt in the lives of farmers.

Views expressed are personal

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