Making farming viable key to pull farmers out of debt trap
Just withdrawing the three central farm laws would mean returning to a status quo which in any case is not going to help the farming community struggling to somehow survive
Farmer protests show no signs of ending. For almost ten months now, farmers have been protesting at the New Delhi borders. While the protesting farmers are not giving up on their basic demand calling for the repeal of the three central laws, the Centre remains adamant saying that it is willing to accept amendments to the three laws, but complete withdrawal is out of question. As the stalemate continues, a question that is being repeatedly asked is if the three laws are not acceptable for farmers, then what kind of agricultural reforms would be required. After all, even before these laws were introduced Indian agriculture was (and is still) passing through a terrible crisis. Just withdrawing the laws would mean returning to a status quo which in any case is not going to help the farming community struggling to somehow survive.
That Indian agriculture is passing through an appalling crisis was never in doubt. But the latest report of the Situational Assessment Survey 2018-19, which looked into agricultural households and incomes in rural India only comes as an acknowledgement of the worst fears. This comprehensive study, based on an extensive survey, clearly shows that the income of an agricultural household from crop cultivation alone has been on a steady decline. In fact, an average farm household in 2018-19 earned more from wages than from crop cultivation.
This survey report should in fact tell us why farmers are braving weather extremes to stay put at New Delhi borders. After all, as I have always maintained, the compounded anger the protesting farmers carry is the result of continuous neglect and apathy they have lived with. Agriculture has been deliberately kept impoverished to keep economic reforms viable. That's how the economic design was cast. In other words, the entire burden of keeping food prices low has been borne by farmers, which means in real terms, farmers alone have been subsidising the country. These are the same farmers' whose hard work and labour results in a record harvest year after year, allowing the government to pat itself on the back, taking credit for a record production. In 2018-19, farmers produced 187.75 million tonnes (MT) of milk, 174.63 million tonnes of paddy and 102.19 million tonnes of wheat. In addition, farmers produced 320.47 million tonnes of horticultural crops, including fruits, vegetables, spices and plantation crops. But despite the bountiful harvests, farmers have remained at the bottom of the economic ladder. To keep food inflation low, and to hasten migration to the cities which are need of cheap labour, agriculture has been very conveniently sacrificed.
For macro-economists, agricultural growth helps raise the quarterly as well as the annual GDP figures. So much so that even during the lockdown, when economy contracted, agriculture remained the only saviour registering a positive growth throughout. Agriculture, in other words, had lived up to its reputation of being the mainstay of the economy. But that is where the appreciation and acknowledgement ends. Mainline economists and policy makers have remained not even remotely concerned of the continuing plight of the farming community. Despite all the subsidies and programmes that are announced from time to time, which gives a false impression of agriculture being hugely supported, the latest Producer Subsidy Equivalent estimates prepared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that in reality India had negatively taxed its farmers in the past two decades.
This brings me back to the question as to what kind of reforms does agriculture need. After all, agriculture continues to be in the throes of a serious crisis and has been crying for attention. The immediate need is to pull farmers out of the poverty trap by making farming a viable proposition. This is possible only if policy makers are willing to take some bold steps to realise the Prime Minister's vision of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas.
Since this question is asked again and again, and even at the cost of sounding repetitive let me reiterate that the three pillars of reforms that Indian agriculture desperately need are:
1) Make Minimum Support Price (MSP) a legal right for farmers. Just like Spain brought in a law in February 2020 to make trading below the cost of production illegal for agricultural, horticultural, livestock and animal husbandry, it is high time India too brings in a legal provision making trading below the MSP to be illegal, and prescribe suitable penalties for defaulters. At present, while MSP is announced for 23 crops every year, effectively it is implemented for only two crops – wheat and paddy. This provision has to be extended for all the crops for which prices are announced. It does not, however, mean that the entire farm produce has to be procured. It only means setting a benchmark price, below which farm gate prices for farmers are not allowed to fall. This has to be accompanied by a direct income support programme for marginal farmers with less than one hectare landholding.
2) Expand the network of APMC regulated mandis. At present, we have approximately 7,000 APMC mandis. Although a lot of discrepancies have emerged in the way APMCs are managed, the need is to make corrections and not to throw away the baby with the bathwater. In fact, to minimise distress sale and ruthless exploitation by trade, markets need to come closer to the farm. India therefore needs 42,000 mandis if a market has to be provided within 5km radius. Private sector should be invited to set up mandis to operate under the same APMC marketing norms. This will inculcate healthy competition.
3) Replicate the Amul dairy cooperative model for fruits, vegetables, pulses and oilseeds to begin with. Instead of inviting corporate into agriculture, strengthen the cooperatives. This will need appropriate public sector investments, and structural changes in agricultural marketing set up. And let's not forget. When consumers buy milk from dairy cooperatives, nearly 70 to 80 per cent is the share of farmer in the end consumer price. In America, where free markets operate in agriculture, only 8 per cent is farmers share in the end consumer price.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)