Farm crisis real but can be tackled

One of the oldest civilisations, the Indus Valley civilisation, vanished because of persistent drought. This is a stark reminder to policymakers that they will have to tackle persistent drought in parts of the country failing which civilisation could disappear in a couple of centuries. Farm crisis in India is real, particularly in states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which is going to witness yet another drought this year despite good monsoon forecast for the third consecutive year in the rest of the country.

This is one side of the coin but Agriculture Secretary S K Pattanayak, a Karnataka cadre IAS officer, argues that all is not bad with Indian agriculture. It has come a long way and this year India is going to have a bumper crop with food grain production touching a record 275 million tonnes, while horticulture, including fruits and vegetables, will produce a record additional 300 million tonnes. Also, the country has had a record bumper harvest of 23.6 million tonnes in pulses, the only source of protein to the vast vegetarian population.

But the stark reality is that farming is the livelihood for half of the 1.25 billion people of India. A farmer must get a remunerative price and adequate income. Already next generation of farmers are moving away from farming and this could have a catastrophic effect on who will feed the 125 crore people, which is not a small number. Also, if the Indian economy has to clock a double-digit growth on a sustained basis, the farm sector has to grow by at least 4% annually on a continuous basis, which has not happened so far. This is necessary to ensure poverty is eradicated.

For the woes of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu farmers, Pattanayak said they should change their cropping pattern from water-guzzling crops like paddy and sugarcane and switch over to drip irrigation, which will reduce water consumption drastically. It is a crime to cultivate sugarcane in Maharashtra. Sugarcane should be cultivated in flood-prone areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and perhaps the Northeast as it could also be flood protected.

Punjab should not be cultivating basmati rice. The practice of which has brought down the water table to a dangerous level. Israel, which has a mere 300 mm of average rainfall, did not find water shortage a major problem and its farm yield is one of the highest. India gets bountiful rainfall and perhaps one of the few countries to have monsoon as a season every year.

Even in the arid zones of Rajasthan and Karnataka, the average rainfall is around 800 mm, which is more than double that of Israel. All one has to do is harness this through rainwater harvesting so that fresh water does not go unutilised into the sea. The government, therefore, is rightly giving priority to minor irrigation and desilting of all the existing tanks, besides immediately taking up 99 stalled irrigation projects. This has to be done on a war footing.

What is needed now is to make agriculture smart, which has not happened so far in India despite the Green Revolution that only ensured there are no more starvation deaths. Farmers’ income needs to be not only doubled but at least quadrupled from the present level of Rs 20,000 annually. One way could be to provide income support as in the US instead of price support by way of Minimum Support Price (MSP). Because of high MSP for certain crops like food grains, rich farmers grow these crops to take advantage of procurement as only they have a marketable surplus.

The top 10% of Indian farmers produce 60-70% of marketable surplus in food grains. The remaining 90% have only 30% of marketable surplus and hence they get very little benefit from the price support system. The resulting depression of prices for poor farmers in the market leads to distress sale of the small quantity they produce.

If income support is given instead, market forces will come into play and the farmer can produce any crop that the market demands and not only those that have price support, which leads to excess production and subsequent depression of prices. This will also ensure that crop failures do not hit farmers hard.

If farmers’ income has to rise, the dependence only on agriculture for income has to change and farmers will have to take to animal husbandry, poultry, fisheries, food processing and other agri-related rural industries and so on for augmenting income. This is because farming by its very nature is seasonal and hence there is disguised unemployment even in the best of times.

As the Swaminathan Committee has pointed out, market access to poor farmers is a major problem in India. Bumper tomato crop forces a farmer to sell it at Re 1 per kg but in the retail market, it is not available for less than Rs 20. But Re 1 does not cover even the cost of production. A farmer gets Rs 6 per coconut but in the retail market, it is not available for less than Rs 40. Who then gets the benefit? It is neither the farmer nor the consumer but the rich middlemen.

So what is the way out? An Amul like cooperative model that brought about the White Revolution has to be replicated for all crops so that farmers get a remunerative price and the food products are marketed better and exported. The wastage of fruit, vegetables and other crops running into thousands of crores can be minimised. This will facilitate setting up of common cold storage for horticulture produce in areas where they are grown.

Amul like cooperatives will also ensure crop insurance, better quality seeds, pesticides and other inputs, thereby minimising crop failures and loss of farm income.

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(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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Farm crisis real but can be tackled

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