By-Maninder Kaur Dwivedi
The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays the freight both ways,” this was John F Kennedy describing farmers decades ago, but these words ring true of Indian farmer’s plight today. The recent attention to agrarian distress and stated intentions of addressing it are important for our economic and social well-being. There is no silver bullet; the eureka moment lies in comprehensive short-, medium- and long-term reforms. In the short-term, the government schemes and interventions need to move beyond the files and empirically show impact. For instance, wheat and rice are the only two crops effectively purchased at MSP. Yet in states purchasing through aadtiyas (middle men), it is anybody’s guess what percentage of MSP actually reaches the farmer. The aadtiya is a time-old tradition, with political clout and invariably the informal moneylender—exploitative in every way. Loans from aadtiyas do not get relief by debt waivers. Direct purchases from farmers should be prioritised, made simpler and aadtiya commissions reduced to discourage the system, with clear time-lines for ending it.
All schemes are well-meaning. The implementation needs rigorous validation to check if benefits have accrued to farmers. For example, eNAM was modelled with farmers’ interest as focus. Yet there are reports of post facto data entry of manual transactions, just to show it works, while defeating the objective. Fixing the reasons or vested interests and building awareness in the community are measures that can show impact in the short-term. These are contingent to constant review of implementation.
To ensure fair price of local produce, import duties—on oils, pulses, fruits—should be decided in consultation with agriculture department, keeping farmers’ interest as the touchstone.
In the medium-term, diversification of crops more suited to the agro-climatic region, integrated farming and setting up of product-specific supply chains are required. An example of diversification is the kharif paddy to maize in Punjab. The water table is critical in most of the state and paddy is a water-guzzler. The stubble contributes to pollution as it is burnt for sowing of winter crop. Traditional maize requires minimal water and leaves no unwanted stubble, which doubles up as a fodder. If the state is permitted to manufacture ethanol from maize, this shift will happen on its own, addressing most problems in one go.
Perhaps the reason for not giving permission is that central procurement of rice for supply in PDS may reduce. So it has to be accompanied with a well-crafted procurement arrangement in the fertile Gangetic planes of UP and Bihar. These states are more suited for paddy cultivation, but due to lacunae in procurement, farmers do not get their due. Similarly, Assam (a rice-deficit state for PDS) grows almost as much paddy as Chhattisgarh, which is rice-surplus. Chhattisgarh in the last decade created robust farmer-friendly procurement mechanisms, which catalysed enhanced production. Ideally, states with similar productivity can replicate the processes, but there is need for political will.
Agriculture at grass roots needs support for ancillary income sources, like livestock rearing, pisciculture, bee keeping, horticulture—integrated farm models suited to local conditions. This can be supported by the government through professional agriculture extension services (which need revitalisation) and setting up of farmers’ cooperatives. Ancillary activities are interrelated for the farmer, but extension services operate in silos of the departments of agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and fisheries. The government will have to make extension services cover the villages and farmers as one organic whole. It is through integration of outreach that agriculture can be remunerative.
Private sector has a role in setting up product-specific supply chains, which states need to facilitate. For instance, India produces 30% of the world’s bananas and exports less than 0.4%. For competitive rates to farmers, ideally states should be inviting the Walmarts of the world to set up supply chains.
In the long-term, agricultural universities need funding and autonomy for rejuvenation. They all fall under the domain of state governments and are subject to the vagaries of resource crunch. However, the next generation of farmers will need to be skilled in scientific methods, supported by relevant R&D. Hence, assured central funding, in a phased manner so that it can be absorbed gainfully, with time for building systems, is required.
Another long-term intervention would be land reforms where holdings are fragmented to the point of being economically unviable. States would need to be persuaded for consolidation, pooling of land holdings or allowing contract farming in the interim. The focus on the farmer is the beginning of the eureka moment; breaking it into actions and steps will save the day. If the farmer remains poor, so will the whole country.