1. Column: Dismayed farmers, defunct policies

Column: Dismayed farmers, defunct policies

Access to the best technologies and markets is the basic right of farmers

By: | Published: August 31, 2015 12:19 AM

The cumulative rain deficit in the current monsoon season stood at minus 12% of long period average (LPA) for the country, as on August 27. If rain deficit continues at this level even by the end of September, India Meteorological Department (IMD)’s forecast would be coming true. And technically, like last year, it would also be a drought, whether the government declares it or not. Interestingly, it would be the fourth such event, with back to back drought, in the last 115 years. This should wake up our policy-makers and the concerned bureaucracy, who seem to have gone complacent after good rains in June.

Farmers are not only distressed but dismayed as they had great hopes from the new government and its promised policies, including the promise of 50% profit over costs. They can’t be faulted for this. Facts speak on their own: during the last three years, average agricultural-GDP growth rate is just 1.7%, and if this year also goes like that, it would be the worst performance of agriculture in the four years of the 12th Plan, which has a target of 4% growth in agriculture.

It is not just the weather effect that farmers are suffering from, it is the great fall in commodity prices as well—from cotton to corn, from soyabean to wheat, and from sugar to potatoes, all are down, resulting in wiping out profits of farmers, whatever little they had, across the board. Most of them are in negative margins now. And where they could make some money through exports, as in onions and pulses, the government comes down heavily with export restrictions and controls, even when their imports are permitted at zero import duty.

The government machinery goes hyper in taming onion prices, but may one ask where were they when potatoes were being sold at less than R2/kg by farmers in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal? This smells of typical urban consumer bias in the policy. These are rusty and defunct policy tools of the mid-1960s, which the government is trying to use in managing a market economy of today. They will not work. On the contrary, the government risks its image being painted as anti-farmer. Changing the nomenclature of the ministry of agriculture to include farmers’ welfare, or slogans of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”, will not help when the kisans are really pareshaan (distressed).

No one knows this risk better than the Prime Minister himself. He always took pride, and rightly so, in showcasing his Gujarat agriculture model, where agri-GDP grew on an average at 9.7% during the period 2001-02 to 2013-14.

That was a miracle, which many other states wanted to emulate, and Madhya Pradesh did it too. For agrarian miracles, three things are critical: seeds, water and markets. The Gujarat agrarian miracle was led by Bt cotton, supported by increased irrigation cover, and access to Chinese markets. The seeds came from Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd, and through their 45-odd licensees. Think if there were either export controls on cotton, or the new Bt seeds were missing, would king cotton have blossomed in India? The answer would be a clear “No”. The new Bt technology was a catalyst of change and so was the access to foreign markets, which made cotton a remunerative crop. The production jumped from 16 million bales in 2002-03 to 38 million bales expected this year, making India the second largest exporter with export earnings of more than R20,000 crore each year.

What is happening now in cotton policy domain is an interesting story. One fine morning, the chief minister of a state wakes up and orders that the seed prices of Bt cotton be reduced in the interest of farmers. It has infectious impact on other states, who also issue similar orders. And then it catches on to licensees who refuse to honour their contracts with parent seed company with respect to royalty and trait fees etc. It becomes a legal mess. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invites the global companies to come and “Make in India”. But if their contracts can’t be honoured, who will bring new technologies to India? And from where will the new revolution come without frontline technologies?

The message is clear: If we want to do good to our agriculture and see our farmers prosperous, we have to invest heavily in modern technologies, not only biotech but also in precision agriculture, invest in irrigation and better water management, and give unhindered access to markets, both domestic and foreign, by abolishing all controls on exports or movement across India or across time. And that’s the job of the Centre. It can’t be left to the states alone.

Green Revolution was not brought by the states, it was a strategy of the Centre, and so was the White Revolution (milk).

Generating best technologies (seeds) at home or accessing the same from outside is the duty of the Centre. It has to lead and guide the states. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is the apex agency to ensure generation of best technologies, and they have done wonders in Pusa basmati. But cotton wonder seeds (Bt) came through the Mahyco-Monsanto route. ICAR’s annual budget (planned and non-planned) is less than $1 billion for the whole country for all sorts of research on all commodities, while Monsanto alone, just one company, last year spent about $1.7 billion on research. This sends a clear message—future technologies in agriculture, be they in biotech, precision agriculture or drought resistant, are going to come more and more from multinational companies.

Any country that has to access these frontline technologies must come up with credible legal institutional framework (rules of the game) and work with these mega investors and innovators to buy or co-generate these technologies for the benefit of millions of farmers. It can’t be left on the whims and fancies, or discretion (which implies rent-seeking), of one or the other chief minister, or the licensees that refuse to honour the legal contracts. If the Centre keeps sleeping on this, and does not show the lead, forget about new technologies, we may go back to the age of shortages of the mid-1960s. Of course, we don’t want that. In that case, could ICAR and the ministry of agriculture or NITI or PMO show some courage and light in this direction? Farmers look up to policy-makers with hope for their prosperity. It would be most unfortunate if farmers have to come to streets for their basic rights to access best technologies and markets.

The author is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER

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