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One year of Mandsaur Agitation: How the Govt can Solve the Agrarian Crisis

As official figures suggest — Central Statistics Office has predicted farm sector growth to slow down to 2.1% for the current financial year — this anger is unlikely to subside in the coming days.

News18.com

Updated:June 6, 2018, 1:04 PM IST
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One year of Mandsaur Agitation: How the Govt can Solve the Agrarian Crisis
New Delhi: Activists of Bharatiya Kisan Union holding a Mahapanchayat to protest against the killing of farmers in Mandsaur police firing, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh (PTI6_15_2017_000099B)
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The last few years have been, in many ways, the years of the angry farmer. From protests in more than a dozen states, including Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, to voting patterns in Gujarat, the anger of the agrarian community has intensified across the country.

So severe and visible was the distress in the agriculture sector — source of livelihood for 60% Indians — that it became a rallying point in almost every state election fought last year.

As official figures suggest — Central Statistics Office has predicted farm sector growth to slow down to 2.1% for the current financial year — this anger is unlikely to subside in the coming days.

News18 spoke to a number of people in the sector — former government consultants, think tank chiefs, international experts, lawmakers, farmer leaders and union leaders, and farmers — to understand the crisis unfolding in the farm sector and seek their suggestions.

These are the five broad subjects they talked about.

Loan Waivers

There are two clear schools of thought on the issue. While one set of experts thinks loan waivers are ineffective and populist measures that only cripple farmers further, the other school claims they are a departure point for farm sector reforms. Under the burden of mounting loans, farmer suicides will only increase is the argument.

“I am absolutely against loan waivers. There should be no further announcement on this. What we do through loan waivers is take away the dignity of the farmer, who works to earn his bread just like you and I do. Loan waiver policy should not be encouraged under any circumstance,” says RB Singh, a Padma Bhushan awardee and the current chancellor of Central Agricultural University in Imphal. Singh is also a former Assistant Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

On the other hand, Surjit Singh, a farmer based in Punjab, thinks loan waiver is his most urgent necessity.

“I was looking forward to the loan waiver scheme when our chief minister announced it. Farming under growing debt is crushing. But the loan waiver scheme has turned out to be just a formality. We haven’t got anything so far. We want all our loans waived off immediately,” he said.

This sentiment is echoed by Shiv Kumar Sharma, popularly known as Kakkaji, who led farmer protests in Madhya Pradesh in June last year during which five farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur. Political leaders such as Congress president Rahul Gandhi have made a beeline to the epicenter of the agitation to mark the anniversary of the stir.

“Most of the anger against the government is about pending loans. No reform in this sector is worth mentioning unless the government waives off all the loans of farmers in this country. After all, farmers have been burdened with these loans because of the faulty initiatives of the government,” he said.

Fixed Monthly Income

Experts in this sector have argued that farmers’ incomes often are subject to several variables, including market fluctuations and weather. This is why all measures to bolster farming — from expanding irrigation canals to providing credit — will fail unless farmers are assured a minimum monthly income.

“The crisis really has been of farmer incomes. Over the last two years, we have seen prices of all commodities falling and this has happened across the board. The challenge therefore is how to get farmers a fixed working capital and source of sustenance. I have written to the finance minister, who himself has said that GDP growth is unjustifiable unless benefits reach farmers, recommending setting up of a commission to set fixed wages for farmers,” said Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst.

He has recommended that an existing commission — Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices — be renamed as the Commission of Farmers’ Income and Welfare to find out ways of providing the minimum wage of Rs 18,000 to farmers.

Raju Shetty, an MP from Maharashtra who recently broke ties with the NDA claiming that it had not implemented the MS Swaminathan Commission report as promised, also spoke in favour of a fixed monthly income.

“One-time loan waivers will not work. What we need to do for our farmers is provide them with fixed incomes. Unless they know that a fixed amount of money is getting credited to their accounts in the following months, why should a farmer work under huge debts today?”

A fixed monthly income could also be assured if the government implements the Swaminathan Commission report and pays up the promised MSP+50%, says Kakkaji.

“We are not asking for the moon. It was the government itself that had promised to implement the Swaminathan Commission report. Till the time they take care of our investments and pay us according to this formula, which would assure a monthly income for us, more and more farmers will drop out of this sector,” he said.

Research

Yudhvir Singh, general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, said: “We depend on foreign universities for our research. But what we don’t understand is that their seeds and their technology are not suited for us. Our climate and soil conditions are vastly different. A major reason for mass-scale farmer suicides has been failure of imported seeds. Green Revolution was propelled by our technology, our seeds. Till the time we invest in world-class research facilities, we will not be able to stand on our two feet.”

Also, these research facilities should not remain confined to cities, Singh added. “We should set up these universities in villages where actual farming is happening.”

“Our research universities are either non-existent or in very bad shape. Most of the funds that the government allots in this area go towards meeting salaries of the employees. Very little is being done to bring in new talent and improve the infrastructure of these facilities,” said RB Singh.

Subsidies

Apart from one-time loan waivers, reforms in the agriculture sector inevitably lead to discussions on subsidies to farmers. Many claim these farm sector subsidies should be increased. But some experts also argue that the government ought to understand the nature of farming in India before doling out subsidies indiscriminately.

“We have to think about the manner in which we give subsidies. Farmers based in areas with enough water supply don't need subsidies as badly as farmers working in arid areas do. Farmers in Punjab for instance, which has a good network of irrigation canals, are relatively better off than farmers elsewhere. Subsidies that were launched to reach lower-rung farmers have mostly benefited the well-off,” says Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The issue of subsidies also needs a rethink, he added, because “free power has also put a lot of pressure on depleting groundwater resources”.

Guruswamy also supports increasing subsidies on all farm implements such as tractors and pump-sets, on food processing, and also talks of another sort of financial support that farmers in India desperately need.

“More than 65% of farmland in India consists of marginal and small farms less than one acre in size. We need to give loans to farmers to buy adjacent properties so that they get farms that are spatially viable to work on. We should understand how division of farmland, through inheritance, has shrunk land sizes exponentially,” he said.

Infrastructure

According to one estimate, post-harvest losses — those incurred on crops for which farmers have already spent money — for Indian farmers are around Rs 63,000 crore, which is around 70% of the investment needed to make sufficient storage facilities to avoid these losses.

This is why several experts, when News18 reached out to them for their suggestions, said the government should invest heavily in creating infrastructure, including storage facilities to provide the necessary fillip to agriculture.

“In the recent Kharif season, farmers were forced to sell their soyabean crop for Rs 1,800 per quintal. This was substantially below the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 3,500 but they had no choice because they had no place to store their produce. Right now, the same crop is selling for Rs 3,400. If only the government had created enough infrastructure for our farmers, so many of them wouldn’t have to sell their season’s harvest at a loss,” said Raju Shetty.

“Water, water, water. That’s the most important issue and I can’t stress it enough. Till the time our farmers get water for their crops, all other talk is futile,” said Siraj Hussain, former Secretary of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (GoI) and currently Visiting Senior Fellow at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

He added that of the 99 major and medium irrigation projects identified for completion by 2019 through the Long Term Irrigation Fund (LTIF), no more than 10 have been completed so far.

“The micro-irrigation fund has not taken off yet. No wonder, with such a lacklustre performance, one cannot expect much improvement in agriculture or farmers’ incomes,” he said.

What if the government created an infrastructure industry in rural India and used it to boost agriculture? This is what Mohan Guruswamy suggests.

“The government must step up its expenditure for infrastructure and habitations to create a demand for labour. They should start huge infrastructure projects in rural India. This would not only provide a solid support to farmers, but also generate a lot of jobs for youth that are unemployed right now,” he said.

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