|The State has abdicated on its role as nurturer, mentor and guide to India’s farmers|
On April 2, an open tribunal in Sangrur district, Punjab, decided to file a PIL demanding justice for the hundreds of farmer suicide victims’ families, and action against the state government. Much before that, on January 30, the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti filed a petition in the Nagpur High Court asking it to ensure that the fundamental rights to life and livelihood of the Vidarbha cotton farmers are respected.
Several states, where the suicides continue unabated, are in the dock for neglecting agriculture, bypassing the average farmer, and letting the rural economy wither away. And they have no immediate solution to this economic problem which has now turned into a social malady. According to agriculture ministry estimates, close to 9,000 farmers, mostly cotton growers, have killed themselves in Maharashtra, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. In Sangrur, Punjab, and Vidarbha, Maharashtra, a few villages are even up for sale, though no one’s interested. The once-prosperous farmers want buyers, under whom they can work to repay their debts.
This story of indebted, impoverished farmers is one often told, but needs to be repeated. Post-green revolution, Indian agriculture was hit by two factors in the ’90s: declining yields and production of traditional crops along with unplanned diversification into cash crops, and a breakdown in the government support system nurtured through plan investment. At the same time, the farmers were exposed to the shocks of liberalisation and globalisation; their inputs were getting costlier, but produce prices were falling, leading to falling incomes and a growing consumption burden.
More affected were farmers who were planting or diversifying into cash crops like cotton (or spices and coffee in Kerala and horticulture in Punjab) for higher returns. They took a much higher risk because the prices of these crops were more volatile and globally linked. For many, the gamble didn’t pay off. Over time, they accumulated enough debt to get trapped in a vicious cycle of no return. None of these were very poor or subsistence farmers (who grow food which even if they can’t sell, they can at least eat and survive); on the contrary, they had land or cattle which could be secured for debt. So when the debt covered all of their assets, they despaired.
Says Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen: "Clearly, even across regions, the most common problem is the essentially high level of debt relative to incomes. Between the last two NSS surveys, both debt to GDP and debt to consumption ratios for farmers have simply doubled. Also, the highest suicides are in the regions with the highest debt. Most of them are also in cotton in the case of Maharashtra, Andhra and even Karnataka, while in Kerala, it’s spices like black pepper. These are cash crops which suffer from highly volatile prices and need superior market and technical knowledge. When the unaware farmer diversifies into a cash crop lured by high prices in a particular year, it’s like entering the stockmarket when the prices are unrealistic; you can face a crash the next year."
Many farmers did face a crash. Or they faced recurrent droughts. Or inferior seeds and ineffective pesticides. Most of the time they battled with ignorance and fate. According to a field study being conducted by A. Janaiah of the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (NCAP), Pusa, 4.9 million farmers in Andhra, or 83 per cent of the community, are in debt mostly due to unplanned commercialisation.
The sharp drop in bank credit to this sector in the ’90s meant only 27 per cent of cultivators get such credit.NCAP acting director Ramesh Chand also says that the problem of spurious pesticides and seeds was acute in states like AP, with the field-level agents who also acted as an intermediary for the ignorant farmer being the culprit in many cases. In Punjab, it was the unplanned and unprepared shift to horticulture (growing lucrative vegetables like tomatoes, brinjal or lady’s fingers) along with high spending in marriages (dowries) and usurious moneylenders (often charging 36 per cent) that pushed farmers to desperation. Ironically, he says, many of these suicides have happened in traditional green belt areas, pointing to a serious crisis in Indian agriculture.
But is the government, central or state, bothered by the farmers’ plight? The M.S. Swaminathan-headed National Commission on Farmers has submitted four reports so far, the latest specifically on a national farmers policy, but agriculture minister Sharad Pawar told national TV that he did not have the time to read those huge reports. While the NCF does pack in a plethora of suggestions the government would understandably balk at, the general direction of its reports is on the right track.
In the main, the NCF calls for a high level of state and local administration involvement on an ongoing basis in the agriculture economy, and extension of technological and knowledge empowerment to the grassroots. The first green revolution precisely depended on this: farmer training centres, technology assistance to them, and their interaction with crop research and seed development centres. The Indian agricultural research system is the largest in the world. It has successfully produced over 3,500 varieties of crops. We are the world’s largest milk producer and rank second in foodgrain, fruit and vegetable production.
The NCF also calls for greater recourse to contract farming, which it feels can be a solution for smaller farmers by eliminating intermediaries and ensuring price and crop support. In fact, the Maharashtra cotton purchase policy was the first contract farming scheme; much of the roots of the Vidarbha crisis can be traced to its collapse.
P. Chengal Reddy, general secretary of the Hyderabad-based Consortium of Indian Farmers Association, agrees: "We want the democratisation of all agricultural institutions and the decision-making power to devolve to the panchayats. There is enough of Delhi tanashahi." Sen feels the immediate option is some kind of confidence-building measures by the CMs, as has happened in Andhra Pradesh where CM Rajasekhara Reddy has tried to visit many of the affected villages, as well as a partial debt write-off, and "definitely not some more frenzied relending, however cheap".
There is also the need for income stabilisation and r&d extension and price support in the case of risky diversification. "What is happening now is the substitution of non-plan revenue expenditure in agriculture in cash-strapped states by central plan funds for many support programmes. That’s a mistake," says Sen. The meagre central plan investment is going in drip irrigation and horticulture missions, which is clearly not enough.Left to the government, the long-term solutions to the malady m
ay remain forever in the future till farmers, like Indian industry, restructure themselves with no government support. But that would still be a shame.