70 years since Independence, ‘India shining’ on the farmer’s pyre

Joselyn-Joseph2Written by Joselyn Joseph

The man who helps to put food on our table is being robbed of his own morsel

While it is convenient to push the blame on vagaries of the weather for the agrarian crisis, not all of it is of nature’s doing.

With the onset of the green revolution, the Indian farmer has been lured into cultivating ‘unnatural’ crops. The variety of produce, method of cultivation, primary production materials are all pre-determined - ranging from which fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, and eventually GM seeds to use, making farmers vulnerable to bankruptcy. The rising costs of these inputs mean loans – from moneylenders and other informal sources.

The outrageous loan situation for farmers could perhaps best be explained with an analogy presented by eminent journalist, P. Sainath. When businessmen from Aurangabad in the backward Marathwada region of Maharashtra bought 150 Mercedes Benz luxury cars worth Rs. 65 crore at one go in October 2015, the top public sector bank, State Bank of India, offered the buyers loans of over Rs. 40 crore at an interest rate of just 7 per cent. (Most of them as we know are well going to work their way around the loan which will be written off by the government against a Non-Performing Asset.)

But if you try to get a tractor using a loan from the very same State Bank of India, the interest rate charged is nearly the double. For a loan of 4 lakh rupees, the rate of interest is 12.5%, while for a loan of Rs. 5 lakh it's 13.25% and for a loan of Rs. 6 lakh it is 14%.

As for the government coming up with the idea of cash waiver for farmers, it only applies to formal loans, whereas a large part of the smaller farmers have debt to informal moneylenders who are generally the landlords in most villages. They charge usurious interest rates, which go as high as 40-50%, and in only lenient cases can be 30%.

Prior to the elections, the Prime Minister had promised Minimum Support Price (MSP) with 50% profit above cost of cultivation – a promise he did not keep. (MSP is the minimum price that the Government of India assures the farmers for their produce in case of a steep fall in market prices. The price is announced at the beginning of the sowing season based on the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices - CACP).

In the last three years, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has allowed 46,658 tonnes of foodgrains to rot in 1,889 warehouses across the country while 143.74 tonnes were reported stolen. Together, as some media reports stated, this could have fed nearly 8 lakh people from priority families under the National Food Security Act for an entire year.

The FCI does not procure grains many a times from farmers citing limited godown storage capacity. The State and Central Government too lack the willpower and efficient administrative machinery to distribute food grains while they are still edible to beneficiaries of the Public Distribution System (PDS), which is the very least they can do to address malnutrition. (India has the highest share of stunted children in the world under the age of 0-5, beating sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent report by WaterAid).

The farmer meanwhile is forced to resort to distress sale at prices 20-25% below the MSP, which in most cases doesn’t help him recover even the cost of cultivation.

India shining

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, the national average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of the Indian farm household is Rs. 503 and while that too is pretty close to the below poverty figure of Rs. 425, there are many households existing on a monthly per capita expenditure of Rs. 225 which translates into Rs. 8 a day. I do not even want to conjecture what kind of a life that leaves them to.

Their way of life, and very lives, are threatened by crashing prices for their crops and the volatility of the global market. The seed and other input industry has been left open to a handful of powerful traders and corporations to control and loot, unbeknownst to the farmers.

Apart from this, a long list of problems like dipping water table, decline in soil fertility due to use of fertilizers and chemicals, pests’ resistance to chemicals, is killing agriculture in India along with the agriculturist.

The magnitude of agriculture mismanagement was manifested in Marathwada region of Maharashtra in the month of April 2016, after two years of consecutive drought emptied the dams and failed four successive crops, resulting in the death of 65 farmers in Marathwada in the first three weeks of April alone. It took a Collector to impose section 144 in Latur to prevent “wars” over water tankers to wake up policy makers and citizens alike.

Things will get worse if existing policy-induced non-remunerative agriculture is not made to change. Developing a myriad of smartphone applications for the farmers as the government is doing right now (sure, a BPL farmer will have a smartphone and internet access) shows we are adversarial if not apathetic to farmers’ aspirations.

Corrective action shouldn’t overlook the lopsided cropping pattern in Maharashtra with its heavy focus on sugarcane. More than half of the state’s irrigation water goes to a crop, which accounts for just 6% of the irrigated area.

According to some estimates, sugarcane needs "180 acre inches of water" or 18 million litres per acre which could meet the domestic water needs of 3,000 rural households for a month.

Is it sheer coincidence then that almost every sugar factory is owned by a politician? In recent years, dozens of sugar mills and breweries have sprung up in drought-hit Latur and Marathwada, respectively, which are thriving under political patronage.

Secondly, instead of spending on subsidies (they never reach the farmers anyway), we should invest in rural infrastructure such as electrification and building canals—electrification will help set up rural-based small-scale industries, while the latter can make water supply weather independent.

Thirdly, when we expect the system to direct attention to issues in food storage, the concern is really to build a safety net for farmers. Storage for his yield is important, but reliable storage capacity for small farmers could fundamentally affect their incomes by allowing them to reserve crops instead of selling right after harvest at throwaway prices. A special mention here to the IFMR Trust’s agricultural commodity pilot in Gujarat providing collateral finance to farmers for storage of goods in accredited warehouses, which left them with above average returns after they had paid back their loans.

Another important area to focus on is upgrading to drift reduction and precision agriculture technologies. Here, farmers go out into the fields spraying their plants, carrying backpacks or buckets full of pesticides with skull and crossbones pictograms, getting literally drenched in chemicals which also often end up in the groundwater and wells (Deaths from pesticide poisoning are a common occurrence in India).  Meanwhile in the US, farmers operate regulated and mechanized pesticide application equipments with safety gears.

In terms of trends, besides the usual suspects of Kerala and Maharashtra, states like Telengana, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Assam have also been witnessing a rise in farmer suicides. Thus, examining state-specific factors contributing to suicide, with each company or NGO adopting specific districts, and the government coordinating at the state level is as crucial as extending fresh bank credits, crop insurance and compensatory support price to target immediate needs of the impoverished farmers. Tapping into Israel’s drip irrigation expertise to get maximum yield with minimum use of water hasn’t helped much in these states because of the annual rain-dependent system here as against Israel’s substantial groundwater supply.

Cotton-For-My-Shroud_d

Our current food system has evolved over many decades, and it is unlikely to undergo a rapid shift in the short term.

Maybe, however, we can start viewing our small and marginal farmer (SAMF) differently.

The farmer and his toil should be treated with the same respect and appreciation that we usually accord for example our cricketers, religious functionaries and film stars.

India has put a satellite into orbit around Mars, most recently launching a record 20 satellites in a single mission, but while we still bask in the glory of global accolades, let’s also look at agriculture, the only sector that continues to remain out of our success stories.

Let’s not fail another farmer.

*All opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of CMS VATAVARAN or any organization I am affiliated with

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