India's Agriculture Crisis

India's Agriculture Crisis

And over the years, the suicides grew in number, commensurate with the general suicide rate.  Any suicide is regrettable for a country and its people, but when we're referring to the country's food-providers - the anna-daatas --  it takes on a different hue altogether.

It's been a slow simmering, the sound of which went unheard over decades. Farmers in India, particularly marginal farmers, suffered in silence - closeness to the earth and its soil and to nature is imparts a certain strength of character that allows for enduring harsh circumstances, they say. Occasionally, however, these sons of our soil would vent their frustration by resorting to suicide.

And over the years, the suicides grew in number, commensurate with the general suicide rate.  Any suicide is regrettable for a country and its people, but when we're referring to the country's food-providers - the anna-daatas --  it takes on a different hue altogether.

Given this background, the now oft-witnessed farmers' rallies in the Capital and other parts of the country could be seen as an motivated by an awakening that was imminent. However, with political parties- led by the CPI and joined by several opposition parties --  now having taken up cudgels on behalf of the farmers, it appears to have become a movement of sorts against the Central government. Their threats to escalate matters by ideas like "fill the jails" and comparing it with the Indian freedom movement are proof that the agitation is unlikely to die down in a hurry.

The demands rally mostly around two issues:  loan waivers,  and setting MSP at 50 per cent above cost of production, as per the Swaminathan Committee report. Unfortunately, for PM Modi, he had promised these two things in his election speeches in 2014 and that is what the agitating leaders want him to make good. It doesn't help that post forming the government at the Centre, Modi realized the impossibility of implementing these two conditions.

Here's why. First, little can be done by the Central government in this regard as agriculture is a state subject and therefore, loan waivers would also need to be granted by states. Indeed, a Central loan-waiver has a precedent in the form of the scheme announced by Manmohan Singh government in 2008, but that had not helped bring long-term benefits nor stopped them for resorting to the last-refuge measure of suicides.

That waivers are a short-term measure, lead to bad credit culture and eat into development funds is being said repeatedly by analysts, the RBI and M.S. Swaminathan himself.

Hence, one must conclusively write off  the idea of loan waivers, as something to be demanded of the Central government. In April this year, though he gave the protesting Tamil Nadu farmers assistance from the NDRF funds, PM Modi had refused to meet the farmers.  The answers to the farmers' conundrum lie elsewhere. And given this fact, what these rallies will achieve is difficult to surmise.

Why higher MSP is not feasible

The issue of MSP is less than understood in terms of its efficacy in bettering farmers' lives once and for all. While all agree that the farmers do not get adequate remuneration for their labor or produce, what is not understood is that it is applicable only on 26 commodities, out of which only 2 - rice and paddy - are generally procured by the government.  Further, the Modi government had, in 2015, set up the Shanta Kumar committee to study this issue; this committee had arrived at the conclusion that only 6 per cent farmers in the country get the benefit of MSP in reality: 94 per cent do not.  

Hence, increasing MSP to include 50 per cent profit is not a panacea to all farmers' ills.

Moreover, adding to the untenability of this suggested pro-farmer measure is the other issue - the WTO, whose members have been frowning on India raising its support prices, terming them as trade-distorting. Raising MSP is, thus, not an option at all.

The kind of problems farmers deal with and why good governance is the answer Debates that are raging across the country on how to improve farmers' lives focus on solutions such as agriculture reform --  increasing crop productivity, expanding irrigation, crop insurance, warehousing, and strengthening the national agricultural market platform (e-NAM).

While it is true that all of these are important, their implementation will be a slow, time-taking process. Also, by themselves these will not automatically prove to be a magic-wand solution. The issue really is taking the benefits of all of these to the last-mile farmer, and therefore about governance.

Successive governments have, over decades, announced measure after measure for the agricultural sector, but the farmer has not been able to take advantage of them. Why? This is because the issues that the farmers face are not just variable across locations but also highly nuanced.

Agriculture consultants inform us that very often it is about states' apathy, a failing of the state agricultural department: "It is a man-made problem, it is entirely preventable." Take the example of Telangana farmers recently, who incurred heavy losses this year because of bumper crops of red chillies, soya beans and pulses that led to prices crashing. State government officials washed their hands off by deflecting the blame on the farmers and the Centre.

A senior official from the state Agriculture department was quoted in a news report as saying: "Farmers must not blindly opt for crops that gave them huge returns previously." Another report quoted the Marketing minister of Telangana offloading the responsibility on the Central government, saying that it is their responsibility to ensure minimum support price (MSP) for farmers and therefore, that they were responsible for the losses.

The reality, Agriculture experts in the state tell us, is different, and the blame lies squarely on the state's planning - the lack of it. "When they announced last year that farmers needn't grow cotton, was there sound logic here? At a loss as to what to do, farmers used their judgment and going by the previous year's prices, took to red chillies, soya beans, turmeric and pulses instead.  

Did they consult the farmers and discuss alternatives?" seethes a consultant working on the ground with farmers.  

Reportedly, the action plan prepared by the agriculture department is generally ad hoc and inadequate, and fails to account properly for existing stocks, domestic and export demand, as well as input, harvest and marketing requirements.

The farmer is pretty much on his uncertain own. And thought the minister conveniently blamed the price-ensuring on the Central government, the fact is it is misleading because the list of MSPs -- recommended by the Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP) and fixed by government -- has 26 commodities, of which chillies are not a part. So, it's a false blame-game on the part of the state government who refuse to accept responsibility.

Take another instance that doesn't exactly warranty huge reforms in agriculture, but has a huge bearing on produce. Across many Indian states, wild boars, monkeys, peacocks and other animals are a huge menace on farms, disrupting agricultural and horticultural activity and causing heavy damage to standing crops. On farmers' appeals, state governments have been taking up the issue and last year, the Ministry for Environment had issued notifications that allowed the above animals to be declared as 'vermin' - those who damage crops -- and therefore, killed.

But then, states that allowed killing had to deal with angry wildlife activists who threatened to move high courts over the decision. State departments offer no further solutions and therefore farmers have no choice but to move away from crops such as maize and groundnuts.

Some other problems that similar stories emerging across the country have been highlighting: An India Today study of the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh farmers' marketing problems revealed that farmers were forced to sell their bumper crops at throwaway prices to traders, as procurement agents of the government had rejected their ware citing lack of crop certification and poor quality, respectively, as the reasons. Of course, it was also found that farmers also preferred to sell to traders because they were scared that if the money were directly to go into their accounts, they would lose it to banks in repayment.

Reforms, a necessary but not sufficient condition

Will reforms help, in the light of these? Because of these seemingly small issues, farmers have not been able to take advantage of reforms. In this scenario, overall policy measures, though important, are not enough by themselves.

For example, take  insurance: increasing coverage of the Fasal Bima Yojana  is a necessary but not sufficient condition for it to translate into benefits for the farmer, for it has to not just cover the last mile farmer, but also be applied effectively. Experts in this area inform us that there is a lack of standardization of insurance, i.e. there is no adequate measure of crop loss - is it rotting of grain, to what extent? Currently, limited understanding of crop-loss among officials, coupled with states' understaffed revenue departments, hamper the farmers' interests and limit the benefit of the insurance cover.

Again, another big reform is the creation of eNAM - the electronic National Agricultural Market --  but here also analysts say the farmer is often clueless as to how to make use of the data.

What the farmer really needs

Uneducated, uncertain about government orders, fearful of complex procedures, even of beneficial schemes, and living in a world where temptations abound as gadgets and things. In such a scenario, and with the feeling that no one really cares, farmers take loans, get indebted and, as a RBI study recently revealed, the shame of debt becomes too much for them to bear and they resort to suicide.

States' agricultural departments are the only agencies with the correct understanding, diagnosis of the problem. But first, states need to work on their willingness and then governance in order that things change for the better; until then our farmers' plight will remain undeservedly and exceptionally pitiable.  No amount of insurance, soil health card, etc. will help by themselves.

What the Indian small farmer needs is hand-holding - to help him wade across the abyss of his fears, his lack of education and awareness, lack of skills required for knowledge transfer, the intimidating procedures, the fear of 'the system'.  A major reason for farmers not being able to effectively utilize the pro-farmer measures that successive governments have announced over the decades is lack of this component.

State agricultural departments need to spruce up their acts in ways big and small, proactive and quick-reactive. Handholding small farmers will require large numbers of people. Yet, often the problem in state departments is understaffing. Non-state actors like NGOs, who can act as enablers, help-desks and also counselors for farmers can fill this gap, but they come at a cost.

The State Agriculture Universities (SAUs) have an indispensable role to play in this. When they were set up in the 1950s, the very idea of having one in each state was to address location specific issues through research and extension. The mandate was to prepare undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students- i.e. education and research - with the ultimate objective of transferring that to the field.

As against this, actual research carried out is in very broad areas, and far from being problem-solving and solution-oriented. Making matters worse is indecisive vice chancellors, who are often aligned to their political masters. Given the farmers' condition, the Universities contribution individually and collectively becomes a big question mark.  

If reforms are to be implemented efficiently and make an impact, there has to be clear alignment of all three parties - farmers, state agriculture departments and SAUs.

The synergies would be beneficial in the present, as well as for the future of agriculture and food safety: the farmer is taken through developments, schemes, technology-based apps, other know-how, and through the various stages of farming, and the students get hands-on experience. Universities could give extra credits for these "internships", where students act as de facto conduits of welfare. Centre must play a strict monitoring role

Finally, it's time the Center took up active monitoring of the states' agriculture departments. In fact, there exists in the Central Agriculture Ministry, a department for Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare that has 21 subordinate offices "across the country for coordination with state-level agencies and implementation of Central sector schemes in their respective fields".

This department, liaising with the department for Agricultural Research and Education, must draw up an effective plan as to how best to involve University students in this effort.

NITI AAYOG had last month suggested linking of financial grants given under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, to agriculture reforms implemented by states. In addition, there could be a ranking, rating, highlighting achievements of `good states', and rewarding - and equally, naming and shaming of states - on parameters worked out with rating agencies. Successive governments have been doing a lot for the farmers; this government even changed the name of the ministry to `Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare'. Now is the time to pull out all stops to make that a reality.

(Swati is a professional writer based in Hyderabad)