The Maharashtra farmers' protest, in which tens of thousands of farmers have marched to Mumbai, is a symptom of a malaise that will not be remedied by the remunerative MSPs or loan waiver the farmers are demanding.
The Maharashtra farmers’ protest, in which tens of thousands of farmers have marched to Mumbai, is a symptom of a malaise that will not be remedied by the remunerative MSPs or loan waiver the farmers are demanding. To be sure, the farm-loan waiver demand, the unfortunate legacy of the ruling BJP having promised a waiver in the Uttar Pradesh elections early last year, will give farmer some temporary relief. But, it will create a moral hazard even as the farmer is back to square one in a bad rainfall year, or in the case of a bumper crop. A host of solutions—that have been discussed ad nauseam and now require just implementation—will help the farm sector in a more meaningful manner. The Centre has to prod the 21 states, where the BJP is in power, to undertake sweeping reforms, related to agri-marketing and irrigation. The area under irrigation in Maharashtra is a measly 18%, while the all-India average is 47%. The rain-fed areas are also the worst-affected ones in the current farm crisis in the state. Maharashtra is a long way from substantially realising its irrigation potential despite massive spends. As agri-economist Ashok Gulati points out, between FY03 and FY12, the creation of each hectare of irrigation potential utilised cost Maharashtra Rs 20 lakh, against a Gujarat doing the same for just Rs 2.71 lakh. While Maharashtra must expand irrigation cover, it must also find ways to do it more efficiently, allowing it to plough back the savings into other support for agriculture. It must also free farmers from the clutches of the mandi system. While the Centre’s e-National Agricultural Market project hasn’t really taken off, the states, including Maharashtra, are to blame as they haven’t move much on the front. Here, Maharashtra could take a cue from neighbouring Karanataka’s experiment with auctioning of produce using an electronic platform. The state may have de-listed fruit and vegetables from the APMC Act, but it is yet to allocate significant land for farmers to directly sale to big buyers. Deregulating agriculture and linking more of it to the market—as well as building key irrigation infrastructure and facilitating the easy creation of storage and logistical infrastructure—will benefit Maharashtra’s farmers more than a loan waiver or higher MSPs.