Thursday, December 22, 2011
Mere lip service to farmers will not do
(First published in The Pioneer dated December 22, 2011)
On December 15, the Rajya Sabha took up a short-duration discussion on the crucial issue of agrarian crisis – including the large number of suicides by farmers in many States – facing the country. The discussion was led by Mr Venkaiah Naidu of the BJP and Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress. There were less than 60 members present during the discussion, and just a handful of them participated in it. Many of those who spoke left soon after making their speech. If there is to be an indication of how seriously our parliamentarians take the subject of farmers’’ plight, this will serve as a good one. It is possible that many absentee Members of Parliament had ‘more pressing’ affairs to take care of. It is also quite possible that some of them were not aware that the matter was to be discussed – although this is difficult to believe since the information about such discussions is available to MPs well in advance. Whatever may have been the reason, the message that the people have got is: Left to themselves the MPs would not like to waste their valuable time discussing ‘unglamorous’ issues like agriculture.
If elected – or nominated – Members of Parliament do not discuss the misery of our farming sector that is a source of livelihood to nearly 65 per cent of the country’s population, who will? Industry has a number of organisations such as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Confederation of Indian Industry, Associated Chambers of Commerce and various others to lobby for the cause of the business community. Dalit entrepreneurs too now have a platform through the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. But the few major farmers’ organisations that exist do not, unfortunately, have the gravitas that industry lobbyists enjoy to make their voice heard and their suggestions implemented by the Government. Perhaps that is one reason why the farmers have such little leverage with the parliamentarians. Of course, trade bodies can argue that they have factored in the farming sector in their activities and that they regularly represent the cause of agriculture before the authorities. But that is at best a supplementary activity for them, and the vehemence that they demonstrate on issues that concern industry is missing when they lobby for the farmers.
During the discussion on December 15, some MPs demanded that a special session of Parliament be convened to discuss the entire gamut of the crisis that faces Indian agriculture. That’s not a bad idea, since it will serve two purposes: One, it will ensure the presence of a majority of the members in the House; and two, it will reflect the sense of the House in acknowledging that our farming sector needs urgent attention. Who knows, such a special session could even trigger the process of sweeping reforms in the agrarian sector. The point is whether the major political parties will persist with this demand and find time for this issue in the midst of their other occupations like debating the Lokpal Bill, foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail and pension funds, and such other ‘major’ concerns.
The agriculture sector is full of paradoxes that should seriously worry our policy-makers. Only three years ago, India was ranked second in the world in the production of wheat and paddy, yet 48 per cent of the farming households are today steeped in debts; farmers toil to produce a record output of nearly 600 million tonnes of food and vegetables every year, yet 90 per cent of them live below the poverty line. While millions in the country go improperly fed – according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index, India is among the world’s 29 nations with the highest level of hunger and malnourished children – more than eight lakh tonnes of wheat and rice rotted in the many godowns owned by the Food Corporation of India between 1997 and 2007. More current figures, some of them unofficial, point to a similar despairing situation. And, while the contribution of agriculture to the country’s Gross Domestic Product is at around 17 per cent – far lower than more than the 50 per cent during the first Five Year Plan but still significant – more than 1,70,000 farmers committed suicide in 2009 alone because they could not find a way out of the huge debts they were immersed in.
Parliament must go beyond merely taking note of these anomalies. Quick-fix solutions like announcing doles for families of the farmers who ended their lives or free electricity for farming activities are populist measures that do not address the deep-rooted malaise that the farming sector is reeling under. The overnight stay by high-profile politicians in the home of a destitute farmer is even more worthless – and is actually a demeaningly patronising attitude of the privileged towards a farmer who wants access to a dignified living.
The potential for reforming the agriculture and allied sector is huge. Therefore, sweeping changes cannot happen in one go. Even if there are piecemeal changes, it is welcome because it would indicate the beginning of a long-pending process. At the same time, any kind of reform of any magnitude must bear in mind the fundamental fact that farming has to be made remunerative. All the proposed changes must work in that direction. When Hindi film actor-director Manoj Kumar crooned on the screen, Meri desh ki dharti sona ugle; ugle heerey moti, he perhaps inadvertently made the basic point that seems to have escaped the attention of our policy-planners in the years that came later: Agriculture should be paying and not get reduced to a mere vocation for the villagers who have nothing better to do. If farmers begin to give up agriculture because it is getting increasingly unremunerative, the country could face a serious food crisis in the years to come. With the country’s population projected to reach close to 152 crores by 2030, the demand for food alone is expected to be 450 million tonnes. If the farmer-base shrinks rapidly, that figure will be a tall order to meet domestically.
Agriculture, thus, is a business activity that needs to be policy-driven as much as industry does. Farmers must get quality seeds and fertilisers at appropriate rates and on time; they must be properly compensated for their produce – the minimum support price that Governments offers them are generally way below the actual cost of production, and even that price is on offer for not all the 20-odd crops that are supposed to be covered by the MSP. This discourages the farmers from diversifying their cultivation and seeking a mix of food grain production and the cultivation of cash crops like vegetables and fruits. Equally important is that the farmers have access to ‘affordable’ credit as opposed to ‘easy credit’ from money-lenders, because the latter often comes with such harsh riders that the beneficiaries invariably fail to meet their obligations and end up taking their own lives as a way out of the misery.