Farm distress: Need for urgent attention

K R Sudhaman

After the welcome move to spend Rs 6.9 lakh crore on roads and carry out a mega Rs 2.11 lakh crore recapitalisation of banks, the Narendra Modi government needed to step on the peddle to tackle farm distress in the country, which is real and shattering. Father of India's green revolution M S Swaminathan is right in saying India cannot eradicate poverty without tackling the woes of farmers, who formed 50 per cent of the population.
Demonetisation had virtually crippled the farming community, which largely depended on the cash economy. That too came at a time when things were looking up for them because of good monsoon after two successive years of drought. The timing was so bad that demonetisation was done when farmers needed cash flow the most as November is the time when Kharif harvest takes place and Rabi sowing begins. The hasty rollout of GST has added to the farmers woes as it had jacked up some of their inputs costs. It is, therefore, not surprising that agriculture, which should have grown by at least 5-6 per cent taking advantage of low base due to droughts in the previous two years, managed to clock only 2.5 per cent growth in spite of a good monsoon.
Along with big ticket public investment on roads, the government should have come out with big ticket investment on irrigation projects and linking of rivers, which had remained virtually a non-starter so far. It is sad that though India had one of the largest areas under irrigation in the world, yet more than half of the over two lakh crore hectares of land were still rain-dependent. Take the case of Bihar and Jharkhand. While Bihar has floods every year, Jharkhand has drought most of the years. All one had to do is to connect all the Himalayan rivers in Bihar to the rivers in drought stricken Jharkhand. This has not happened in 70 years of Independence.
Swaminathan is right in saying that the agriculture ministry needed to be made Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Ministry. Mere change in name as has happened lately will not suffice. What he actually meant was that the ministry should undertake large scale measures to improve farmers welfare and that has not happened so far.
Another issue that the government needs to address is a stable import-export policy for farm produce. One does not understand why the government allows import of rubber, apparently succumbing to the pressures of tyre industry, when there is surplus rubber production in Kerala and North East. This further depressed the local rubber prices putting rubber growers into difficulty. The export policy too is funny. When there is surplus production in onions, it cannot be exported as the government takes time to announce lifting of the ban on onion exports. This again results in a glut leading to crash in prices.
There is need for agriculture becoming smart, taking advantage of digitisation of the systems in the country. This will help in the use of technology for improving productivity. In United States the weather forecast is utilised to work out shortfall of food grains in other countries in the subsequent year and accordingly crops are cultivated for exports, thereby getting better price in forward trading. This sort of anticipatory cultivation needs to be encouraged.
With fragmentation of land holdings in India, contract or cooperative farming can be encouraged. If all the farmers, say 100 odd farmers in a village, pool in their land and cultivate one crop and tie up with an agency for marketing, it would fetch them better return.
Encouraging multi-brand retail, cold storage chains, and food processing parks in various parts of the country will help in marketing farm produce. Seventy per cent of the goods sold in multi-brand supermarkets are food products and it is already over $500 billion industry. If it is tied to multi-brand retail outside India, it could be a one-trillion dollar industry.
In sum, the big investment push in infrastructure and recapitalisation of banks decided by the Union cabinet recently are timely providing much-needed impetus to jump-start the economy, now in a take off stage after the recent cleaning up operations and transformational tax reforms. But it would have been better if the Government had come out with a big ticket farm policy as well to ease the farm distress. Several farmers commit suicide year after year and it is sad that the government does not do enough to address their issues. If independent India does not have starvation deaths as in the past, it is because of our farmers' hard work. If they stop working, the entire nation will starve. So it is in our interest to uplift them. They are the most hardworking with the least return and yet the nation has not improved their income, which does not increase adequately even to take care of the rise in inflation. There is need for yet another Green Revolution, which should include all crops and until that is done, the country cannot become a developed nation. Merely doubling per capita farm income is not enough as the average per capita farm income in most states is just Rs 20,000 per year at present. It has to go up manifold. Even if 20-30 per cent of the recommendations made by various committees are implemented the country's agriculture would have progressed much better. (IPA)

Wednesday, 8 November, 2017