//Ten per cent growth amid the dance of death

Ten per cent growth amid the dance of death

To revive Indian agriculture from the abyss of low growth and mass suicides, farmers desperately need an income commission as a social security net

Devinder Sharma ,  Hard News Media

Forty years after the dawn of the green revolution, Indian agriculture is once again at crossroads. With agriculture becoming unremunerative over the years, and with input-output ratio faltering, growth in agriculture has decelerated. When forests are destroyed, soil fertility is diminished or water table plummets to dangerously low levels, the rural poor often have no option but to migrate to towns and cities in search of jobs. Such inequitable development is leading to serious social disintegration.

For a country that emerged from the throes of a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, to be subsequently able to build up food-grain reserves, sustainable agriculture was the unmistaken path to equitable growth, development and national food security. The green revolution technology, which ushered in ‘food self-sufficiency’, however, came with enormous environmental costs. Monoculture, mechanical ploughing, soil erosion, the extension of crops into forests and the use and abuse of chemicals have contributed to the second-generation environmental impacts that the intensively farmed lands of the country are still grappling with.

The green revolution has not only gone sour, it has collapsed. The unexplained number of massive and relentless farmer suicides is testimony to the entire equation going wrong. However, the fundamental issue of destruction of sustainable livelihoods is not being addressed at all.

Village after village across the country are turning into a cesspool of deprivation and mounting indebtedness arising from the blind adoption of intensive farming systems that the government promoted. You don’t come across villages that are not facing a real crisis in sustainability—yields declining drastically, soil gasping for breath, and farmers being pushed out of agriculture. No wonder, villages are being put on sale in many parts of the country.

It isn’t the spate of farmer suicides, on an upswing and still counting, that makes Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admit the magnitude of the agrarian crisis that prevails. The unforeseen slump in agriculture growth rate—slipping between one and two per cent—in turn, has decisively affected the industrial growth rate, which restricted quantum jumps in the national economy. This is what concerns the prime minister.

In what appears to be a desperate move to prop up agricultural growth, the prime minister has, time and again, called for reversing the declining trend in investment in agriculture. Among the measures mentioned are stepping up credit flow to farmers, strengthening future trading and contract farming, creating a ‘single market’ for agricultural produce and providing the latest technology to farmers. Strikingly similar to the faulty Vision 2020 that the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, had unsuccessfully applied (he was consequently routed out in the last elections), the prime minister’s approach is also aimed at compounding the existing crisis in farming.  

There is urgent need to draw a national framework under which location-specific alterations and adaptations need to be tried. What is needed is a fresh approach that takes ground realities into consideration before embarking upon any policy imperatives. Unfortunately, the prime minister is fostering on the nation a faulty farm strategy that has failed in the US and Europe, resulting in the eviction of farmers over the years. In the US, only seven lakh farmers now remain on the farm. In Europe, every minute one farmer quits agriculture.    

The strategy for reviving agriculture in India has to be different. Citing the reasons of ‘price rise’ and ‘globalisation and liberalisation’, the Left-backed UPA government has spelled out terms of references for the sixth pay commission. Nearly 42 lakh central government employees and two crore state government employees will receive a salary bonanza that will cost the state exchequer more than Rs 1,00,000 crore a year. However, for the 11 crore farming families, all that is being promised is more credit—doubling farm credit in the next three years.

What remains unexplained is that why is the farmer expected to live on credit while the rest of the society is blessed with a fixed monthly income?

No wonder, the suicide dance continues. More than 1,200 farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra have committed suicide (till November 30, 2006) after the prime minister’s Rs 3,750-crore relief package was announced on July 1, 2006. In other parts, the rural landscape remains equally depressing—mounting rural indebtedness, unmanageable glut at the time of harvest and swelling rural to urban migration. With agriculture turning into a highly losing proposition, more than 40 per cent of the farming population has expressed the desire to quit and migrate to urban centres.

Look at the latest report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). The average income of a farm household in 2003 stood at a paltry Rs 2,115. Compare it with the monthly salary of a peon in government service—an average monthly packet is at least five times more than what a farmer gets. While government employees look forward to a fixed monthly income packet every month and get the benefit of annual increment as adjustment for general price rise, the farmer is left high and dry, at the mercy of the moneylender or the banker.

To make it still worse, farm income all over the world has remained static between 1980 and 2003. Adjusting for inflation, a recent UNCTAD report states that the prices of all major commodities showed a declining trend. The report stated that between 1997 and 2001, the combined price index for all commodities fell by 53 per cent in real terms, thereby “commodities lost more than half their purchasing power in terms of manufactured goods”. In India, the impact has been much more severe. Recurring farmer suicides are a reflection of that.

For nearly 60 per cent of the population, as much as 85 per cent of its earnings comes from crop cultivation and wages earned by family members from employment generation programmes. What is more startling is that over the years, the farm earnings of marginal and poor farmers have dropped to less than that of a daily wage labourer in many parts of the country.

Farmers in Uttar Pradesh have the lowest income—Rs 1,630 per month. Farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Orissa are only a trifle better. The highest farm income was recorded in Jammu & Kashmir—Rs 5,500 a month, followed closely by Punjab and Kerala. Subsequent studies by the union ministry of agriculture point to declining farm incomes in the past five years. Ironically, the sharp decline in farm incomes is happening at a time when urban areas are witnessing an upswing.

Farm income over the years has eroded. Let us accept that, like everyone else, farmers, too, need an adequate monthly take-home package that takes care of their family needs and leaves them with a little surplus to sow the next crop. While government clerks (for that matter, government employees) continue to get the benefit of unwarranted pay hikes, annual increments, medical allowances, paid holidays and financial loans at the drop of a hat, the farmer remains out of bound for all these bounties.

Surviving against all odds, and despite the low earnings, farmers have worked hard to ensure national food self-sufficiency. A healthy and vibrant farm sector will only benefit the national economy. Probably the only way to ensure the economic viability of the farm sector is to
either enlarge the scope of the sixth pay commission to include farmers or to set up a separate pay commission for the farmers. Based on minimum land-holdings, and de-coupled from production, there is immediate need to ensure farmers get an assured income.

Like the minimum support price, which was applicable in reality to a few crops, the National Farmers Commission should be entrusted the task to work out a minimum farm income for the farmers. Irrespective of productivity, and depending upon the agro-climatic conditions in which a farm is situated, a formula that entails a ‘minimum take-home’ income for a farmer has to be worked out. Based on that, the government should ensure each farmer gets a monthly remunerative income.

For a country that has been listed by the World Bank as the 12th richest nation in the world, with its GDP touching Rs 35,34,915 crore in 2005, this is the least that needs to be attempted to provide the ailing farm sector a reprieve. For a country that boasts of $160 billion of foreign reserves, wiping out every tear on the farm should be top priority. There is no other way to pull agriculture out from the tragic abyss of the prevailing crisis.

An agricultural scientist, Devinder Sharma is an author and policy analyst specialising in global food and agriculture