Agriculture in ruins

Agriculture in ruins

Neglect Of Farmers

I haven’t forgotten that night. Sitting with a group of farmers in a village in Ludhiana district in Punjab, at the height of the Green Revolution, a farmer showed me a bag of fertiliser that he brought from the market.

“Why are you showing me this bag”, I asked. “Wait”, he said, and began to open the bag. It was only when he crushed the granules with his hands that I realised why he wanted me to see the fertiliser bag. The fertiliser was spurious. The jute bag, neatly packed and branded, contained mud granules.

Several years later I was travelling in the villages of Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh to understand the reasons behind the spate of farm suicides that had first rocked the nation. This was in 1997 when 37 farmers committed suicide in this district alone. While everyone blamed the weather gods for inflicting a terrible blow to farmers, I found spurious pesticides to be the reason for the failure of the cotton crop. More than 80 per cent of pesticides sold in Warangal district that year were later found to be fake.   

Two and a half decades later, agriculture is in ruins. The story of the decline in agriculture across the country is the same. Dying crop fields, and crying farmers. With degraded soils, depleting groundwater, and chemical pesticides playing havoc with the environment, agriculture is in terrible distress. With farming becoming a losing proposition, and with the entire equation going wrong, agriculture is witnessing a mass exodus.

While academicians, economists and policy makers are ascribing several complex reasons for the decline of agriculture, the dark underbelly has somehow remained unexposed. What has actually eaten into the vitals of agriculture over the years is rampant corruption. It is like the vultures swarming around a dead animal carcase. Believe it or not, the despicable farm scenario is no less gory.

Fake and sub-standard inputs – seeds, fertiliser, pesticides and machinery is only one part of the story. With quality control in complete shambles, and with many testing laboratories known to have a fixed price tag for approving samples, farmers are always at the receiving end. No wonder, the post of plant protection officers as well as quality control is one of the most sought after in the State Departments of Agriculture.  

Massive public outlays under the National Horticulture Mission, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna, and the National Food Security Mission are in fact being used as grants. When I see the misuse of these outlays, often going into the pockets of senior farm officials, I have always wondered why the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has refrained from focusing on the flagrant misuse of resources in the name of food security.

Cosy relationship
Agricultural officials and input suppliers have always maintained a cosy relationship. Even where upright officials have blacklisted erring firms, it isn’t difficult to pull down the shutters and then float a new company. Over the years, I have seen the business growing for those who were once known to be selling sub-standard products. 

Fly-by-night operators adorn the seed industry, and despite seed laws spelling out stringent punishment for marketing fake seeds, the market is full of spurious seeds. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had recently said that a big seed company had supplied inferior maize hybrid seed, and had refused to account for the losses. Ultimately, Bihar government had to pay for the Rs 60-crore loss.

Post harvest, the travails of a farmer take a different turn. In areas where procurement centres and mandis exist (mainly in the Green Revolution belt of Punjab, Haryana, western UP and some parts of Madhya Pradesh), invariably farmers are at the mercy of the arhtiyas and the mandi agents. In rest of the country, the farmer is exploited, fleeced and ends up selling his produce in distress. It will not be wrong to say that it is a nightmare for a farmer to get a fair price for his produce and that too after putting in so much of hard labour.

Banks, money lenders and micro-credit agencies have been perpetual suckers. Several studies have pointed to the mismanagement (and corruption) in the distribution of bank credit to be the primary reason for the agrarian crisis. Usurping interest charged by micro-finance institutions, often exceeding 24 per cent and that too to be repaid at weekly intervals, as well as the dependence on private money lenders has been the bane of farming.

A recent study by Nabard shows how farmers are being duped by nationalised banks. Farmers are being charged double the interest rate for subsidised credit as announced in the annual budget last year. Against the provision of a maximum of 7 per cent interest, banks have included the contingency expenses and other costs, which in reality means the farmer has to shell out an interest of 14 per cent.  

If you think scientific research, agricultural development and policy framing is devoid of corruption you are grossly mistaken. Much of what hits the farmer is the result of wrong policies. These policies are frames keeping the interest of service providers before farmers. But then, it is a topic for another day.