Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day but teach him how to fish, he will eat for the rest of his life," this adage aptly describes the plight of farmers and the chabbi to end their hardships. Yet, our netas refuse to follow this dictum merrily banding loan waivers at election time, epitomising the country’s ennui to its farmers.
Undeniably, the death of six farmers in police firing in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur, the recent violent agrarian agitation in Maharashtra’s Nasik and Solapur coupled with Punjab’s eight farmers’ organisations protests has the party worried specially at a time when it is aggressively trying to woo the community.
The cause célèbre: complete loan waiver and increase in the minimum support price. Chief Minister Chouhan’s response: sitting on a fast even as insiders blame him for inaction, despite increasing agriculture growth to 20 per cent!
In Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis was forced at gun point to dish out loan waivers of Rs 35,000 crore to farmers. This year alone Vidharbha and Marathwada recorded over 740 deaths. Paradoxically, both the loan waivers given by Fadnavis and the Yogi government in UP have opened a Pandora’s Box for other BJP-ruled States.
Another piquant problem is of plenty whereby a bumper crop has led to procurement prices plunging, pushing farmers deeper into the depths of despair. In BJP-ruled Jharkhand, farmers are selling paddy produce at low prices to private parties and buying seeds for the kharif crop at higher prices from non-government agencies.
In Bengal, paddy and potato prices have crashed, ditto tur, moong, arhar dals in Karnataka, Bihar, UP, sunflower in Haryana and red chilli in Telangana. While onion growers in MP demand better prices for their produce, Rajasthan and Maharashtra farmers are dumping tomatoes on the road.
This has resulted in the Reserve Bank ominously warning that the crisis could spread further in various States. Worse, the Centre’s price mechanism covers only 14 of the 51 major crops which include staple food like wheat, rice and cereals but not vegetables which are perishable and growing them entails risk.
Shockingly, the Agricultural Ministry estimates that 273 million tonnes fruit and vegetables produced this year will not result in gains for farmers or consumers but only middlemen as the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee laws bar farmers from selling directly in local markets.
Consequently, with 70% population dependent directly or indirectly on agriculture, farmer suicides account for 11.2% of suicides while its contribution to GDP has fallen from 18% in 2013-14 to less than 14% in 2016-17. Primarily because of expensive credit, high debt burdens, low produce prices, government policies, monsoon failure and family problems.
Add to this, poor productivity, falling water levels, distorted market, middlemen who increase cost but don’t add value, laws that stifle private investment, poor infrastructure, difficulty in farming semi-arid regions, poor agricultural income, absence of alternative income opportunities and a downturn in the urban economy which forces non-farmers into farming.
Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region stands testimony to over 5,650 farmers suicides due to indebtedness (87%) and deterioration in economic status (74%). Appallingly, five out of 29 States (Andhra, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala) account for 10,486 (76%) deaths.
Experts blame the government’s lack of response and relief packages which are not only ineffective, misdirected and flawed but focused on credit and loan, rather than income, productivity and farmer prosperity, resulting in their crippling high-indebtedness totaling over 51.9% across the country. Andhra has the highest indebted agricultural households at 92.9%, Telangana accounts for 89.1%, Tamil Nadu 82.5%, Kerala and Karnataka at 77.7% and 77.3% respectively. Shockingly, Rajasthan is next with 61.8% and Punjab at 53.2%.
Scandalously, the government twiddles its thumbs while unscrupulous money-lenders offer loans at high interest rates while the income generating potential of farmer’s land remains low and subject to weather conditions.
Governments and political parties have continuously been failing to realise that short-term quick-fix measures like debt waivers just postpone the problem of finding a lasting solution to farmer distress, which means creating reliable income sources, higher crop yields per hectare, irrigation and infrastructure security.
Astonishingly, only 35% of the total produce can be stored and 40% worth Rs 96,000 crore is wasted annually. There is dire need for better storage facilities and steps needed to rid middlemen. Alongside, farmers need to be educated on crop diversification, creating and maintaining reliable irrigation and agriculture infrastructure.
Sadly, over the years there has been a sharp decline in public investment in agriculture. In 2000-01 investment was down to just over Rs 4,000 crore from about Rs 4,500 crore in 1993-94. There is insufficient money to even maintain the existing infrastructure, let alone expand it. Look at the absurdity. The Centre earmarks thousands of crores subsidy for fertilisers, but a pittance for other basic agriculture inputs.
Clearly, it is high time the government comes up with pro-active solutions encompassing the entire agriculture structure, wherein dependency of agriculture on nature should be reduced. This calls for effective water management during good monsoons.
Also, the main aim should be to prevent crop failure due to lack of water. An example: In Andhra’s Nellore district despite availability of ample water for a second crop, the State government decided against permitting it due to proposed repairs of reservoirs. Sic. It was only after several agitations by farmers' that the administration relented.
Two, water management could be made more effective through inter- State co-operation on water resources, where surplus water from perennial rivers can be diverted to regions facing drought. Alas, a proposal since the 50’s of inter-linking rivers has been put in the thanda baksa!
Three, institutional finance must be made available to every farmer to prevent debt traps of money lenders. This entails removing lengthy formalities and procedures for obtaining loans, replacing them with simple solutions and monitoring that the funds are used purposefully.
Four, economical and technological cultivation methods guidance on would save farmers money. They should be helped to shift to crops which are easy and cheap to cultivate in adverse conditions. Land pooling by small farmers would make farming economically viable along with alternative income sources developed with the government taking responsibility for training them to acquire new skills.
Additionally, relief facilities alone are not enough as seen in Andhra where farmers commit suicides simply to avail relief packages benefits for their families. Instead, it should be given as a benefit to farmer to enable him to sustain his livelihood and build on it.
Temporary measures like monetary relief are no solution, instead efforts should be made to improve the entire farming structure whereby relief is not given simply on a drought-to-drought basis, rather they need to be taught to overcome difficulties through skills development.
All in all, agriculture should be approached professionally and not as a traditional occupation. The Government has to comprehend that farmers' suicides are not minor issues happening in remote parts of a few States but a reflection of the true state of our economy. Even as Prime Minister extols the virtues of ‘Make in India,’ he needs to understand if Asli Bharat has to shine, the country’s backbone – our farmers – must be empowered. Jai Kisan!