Ensure fair deal for Indian farmers

Former Union agriculture minister, late Chaturanan Misra often used to say: “The real agriculture minister in India is the rain god.” Thanks good monsoon, the third advance estimates of foodgrain production is 273.38 million tonnes in 2016-17, higher than the second advance estimates in of 271.98 MT and final estimates of 251.57 MT in 2015-16. Farm growth for the full fiscal has zoomed to 4.9%, compared with a near flat 0.7% expansion in 2015-16. If the forecast of the India Meteorology Department (IMD) for this year holds true, the grain output will set a new record, boosting the growth rate. This is good news for the economy. After two years of back-to-back drought, in 2014-15 and 2015-16, we can look forward acche din (better days) in future.

Increased production does not necessary mean more income for farmers. In fact, the pattern of bumper crops and dejected farmers has become a recurring feature of Indian agriculture. Farmers in some states are regretting their abundant yields this year as the prices of agricultural commodities have crashed. Chilli farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, tomato growers in Karnataka and pulses cultivators in Maharashtra are confronted with a severe crisis that has witnessed prices fall by more than half in a matter of just weeks. Even Punjab, known as the granary of India, has turned into a hotspot for farmer suicides. The Centre last month informed the Supreme Court that over 12,000 suicides had been reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013. The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu accounted for over 87% of them.

According to the Economic Survey 2016-17, the average annual income of a rural household in 17 states is a paltry Rs 20,000, less than the annual mobile bill of some upwardly-mobile citizen in a city. This is primarily because the benefits from his labour are cornered by intermediaries in the market. Instead of the policy obsession with agricultural growth rates, the focus must shift to ensuring fair deal to the farmers. Apart from effective implementation of marketing reforms recently initiated by the Centre through the model Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act, this require more and better managed investment in agriculture. In 2014, the BJP had come to power promising profitability in agriculture by ensuring a minimum of 50% profits over the cost of production, cheaper agriculture inputs and credit, introducing latest technologies for farming and high-yielding seeds, and linking MGNREGA to agriculture. After three years in power, the government is nowhere near even partial fulfilment of those promises.

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