No Magic Wand to Solve India’s Farming Sector Woes
It’s difficult to say when and how the current stand-off between the farmers coming mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh would end. If the government side wins, and the farmers’ agitation fizzles out leading to the intended reforms being implemented, will it mean deliverance for the 15 crore farmers of India from the curse of eternal poverty? The pragmatic observer’s answer will be a ‘No’. The government spokespersons who tom-tom the three bills as path-breaking are aware of the fact that the proposed reforms can, at best, dent the problem, not banish it. On the other hand, if the farmers manage to force the government to withdraw the bills, will happiness and prosperity descend on the farmers? The answer is a resounding ‘No’. So, for the farmers it’s a lose-lose situation. The total withdrawal of the bills will bring some temporary reprieve to the farmers who fear the worst if the bills are implemented.
Bringing cheer to the 15 crore farming community is an unimaginably complex and gigantic task that would need sustained and forceful effort by the government. There has to be will power and determination to bring about the changes that could take up to a decade to see fruition. Therefore, pragmatists on both sides of the fence have to sit back and ponder the best road map which is doable and has the farmers on board. Consultation is the key. Engaging in petty polemics makes the trust gap worse.
The farming sector in India is too diverse to mend itself to a certain set of policy changes effected centrally from Delhi. The farmers of Assam grow, harvest, and sell their crops in a very different way compared to their counterpart in Gujarat. The Kerala farmers face much different problems compared to those of Uttarakhand. When the climate, soil conditions, access to irrigation, crops grown, degree of mechanization, and access to Mandis vary so much from state to state, enforcing uniform reforms centrally is somewhat absurd. This is the reason why Agriculture comes under State List in the Constitution. No doubt, the Centre too has jurisdiction over Agriculture, but its ambit is much narrower than that of the States. Only by stretching its powers unrealistically can it exercise the authority to bring bills of such far-reaching importance.
That the agriculture sector has been languishing for decades is undeniable. Pushing the peasantry to the edge of penury has been a collective moral sin for the whole populace. Only sweeping reforms assiduously pursued over a long period can lead to the rejuvenation of the moribund farming sector. The government policy makers, who drafted the three bills admit, though privately, that the bills are just the beginning of a long journey. On the face of it, the bills look well-intentioned. The question that begs an answer is why the bills kick up such a huge chorus of passionate protest from the farmers?
In a nutshell, it’s the absence of consultation with stake holders, and the unwillingness of the Modi government to take the States on board that sowed the seeds of suspicion. The intent of the three bills appears benign. Many eminent economists vouch for it. So, why are the farmers restive? The answer is obvious. They suspect that the BJP government is hammering these reforms to allow one or two of Modi’s close industrialist friends to make inroads into this vital sector of economy. Such an imputation might be totally baseless, but the farmers and the general public assume that this indeed is the case. The government has done little to dispel such a misconception. Instead, they have unleashed a torrent of abuse and muck against the protesters. The fall-out of such ill-conceived propaganda has been quite dramatic, and the protesters have dug their heels further in the protest sites making it a fight-to-the-finish campaign. The mistrust against certain industrial houses has soared culminating in boycott of goods and services sold by them.
Returning to substantive issues, one must not lose sight of the fact that the returns from agriculture is dwindling progressively, and a large percentage of farmers want to abandon farming altogether, because it’s no more lucrative. Able-bodied youngsters of farmers’ families don’t look forward to farming as a profession. The rising number of farmer suicides adds some sharp edge to such disenchantment with farming. The market mechanism is so skewed that the farmers suffer in both scenarios – low harvest diminishes their earning, where as bumper harvest does the same when the market prices crash due to heavy arrival of crops in the mandis. The price of inputs rise continuously, and the hapless farmer has no recourse to any relief. Government intervention has been decreasing year after year. The result – acute distress of the farmers.
Let’s examine the role of the government as the savior of the last resort. In the last few years, the government has progressively tried to shrink its role as the protector of the farming class. The implementation of the MSP has been lackluster, as governments find it hard to provide cash for large scale purchase of crops. Out of the 23 crops covered under MSP, only wheat and paddy are bought by the government, and that too at low quantities. With this option closed, farmers often resort to distress sale of their produce incurring heavy loss in the process. Thus, agriculture has become an unprofitable profession, year after year. For an agrarian economy, a negative perception like this plays havoc among those who toil in the fields to grow food. Continuing distress triggers migration of rural folks to urban centers, burdening their slender infrastructure.
The angry farmers who have laid siege to Delhi may be from Punjab, Haryana and UP, but it would be naïve to assume that farmers from other parts of the country are content enough to dissociate themselves from the protests. The truth is every farmer in this country is angry, frustrated and hopeless. Being at the end of their tether, they have lost the will to make the arduous journey to Delhi to stand by their agitating friends. However, not too long ago, India saw mass farmer protests in different parts of the country. Tamil Nadu farmers camped in Delhi and resorted to many bizarre acts to draw the government’s attention to their plight. Maharashtra saw a long march of scores of tribals to Mumbai. The visuals of their trudge shook the country’s soul. The Mandasar firing in MP killed five farmers. Farmer suicides have become so commonplace that they hardly find any mention in the media. The dejection and despair of the farmers can’t be missed by any conscientious citizen. The farmers have become so inured to generations of poverty that they have accepted it as their cursed fate. Only a small fraction of wealthy farmers in Punjab, Haryana and UP are prospering today because their land holdings are very large. The rest languish being pushed to the fringes of society. This situation needs to be redressed.
Ensuring a reform that guarantees ‘reasonable’ return to the farmers is the basic need. Swaminathan Committee gave very helpful guidelines to arrive at what can be called a ‘fair return’ on agriculture. But, our farmers are tiny units spread along the length and breadth of the country. Giving them access to a market where they can sell their produce at pre-determined guaranteed prices is a very formidable challenge. It needs humongous finance, logistical expertise, and mammoth political will.
The government says that if all the 23 crops covered under MSP are procured by the government, it would need a whopping Rs.17 lakh crores. Most of these will be sold to consumrs soon enabling the government to recover almost Rs.15 lakh crores. The net outgo from the treasury will come down to Rs. 2 lakh crores annually. The government will not find it hard mobilize this amount to conduct this mass procurement programme. The benefits to the farmers will be enormous. Sadly, this is not happening.
Shying away from this task, or outsourcing it to a private capital driven market economy is a very fraught policy. With APMS mandis gradually leaving the stage, private players can, at will, manipulate the market and squeeze the farmers really hard. Such exploitation might ruin the farming community to the point of death. This fear haunts the agitating farmers relentlessly.
The task of ensuring a fair return to the farmers growing diverse crops in different geographies is, no doubt, a gigantic task. This is why, this task has to be shared by the States, and the Center can only be an enabler, not the driver. The three contentious bills being entirely conceived by the center with no State participation have this lacuna, and hence, the center draws so much flak, and the States rejoice at the Center’s discomfiture. .
Quite tragically, the ruling party at the center has sought to counter the rising anger of the agitating farmers through key-board warriors who, through their social media taunts, offend the farmers and make them more embittered. Even the public statements of cabinet ministers have become increasingly pugnacious in the last few days. The farmers need sympathy, not sneer as they help to put food on our table and make our country a food-surplus one. It is worth remembering that India was a food deficit country. The shortfall in production was 10 million tons annually. The farmers led by those from Punjab and Haryana have converted this 1o million ton deficit to 97 million ton surplus. The political leadership needs to keep it in mind.