Mar 1, 2012 – Over the years, it has been your labour of love that has revitalised the often tired earth and brought forth abundance for the nation. Utilising a judicious mix of age old wisdom, modern technologies and some governmental assistance, you have done it again by enhancing the agricultural production of India to all time record levels in rice (102.75 million tonnes) and wheat (88.31 million tonnes) with total food grain production reaching 250.5 million tonne for the first time…” Thus runs the adulatory message addressed to the Indian farmer by the union ministry of agriculture, which was published in newspapers, courtesy full page advertisements on March 25 this year. A grateful government has thanked the farmer and applauded his hard work that “nourishes the nation.” The farmer, however, has two issues, with this government campaign. A thank you, howsoever heartfelt, does not fill his stomach and even as the farmer is nourishing the nation, there is very little to nourish India’s farmer who are living in utter penury – around 80 per cent of the community – while others are just about managing to make ends meet. There is nothing in Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s budget for the farmer, even as he has some things to offer for Indian agriculture per se. There is nothing in terms of putting a little more money in the hands of the farmer that the government so admires.
The problem is that much of India’s simpleminded farming community is taken in by the numbers released by the budget or by announcements that place it on a high pedestal even when the bulk of the community is financially on the hang- man’s noose. Years of farm suicides have led to little action in terms of a holistic solution to India’s farming problems even as the farming community persists with its efforts, planting crops with nothing more than the hope that all factors will be favourable: from the weather, to pests, to yields, to middlemen and finally to prices. Voltaire’s saying: “Optimism is the madness of insisting all is well when we are miserable,” comes to mind.
A Farmers’ Forum panel discussion in the capital on March 26, featuring a cross section of political views and planning commission assessments, emphasised one thing in no uncertain terms: there is no future in Indian farming and the son of the Indian farmer would rather be a chapraasi. This may seem a little curious because the government seems to be allocating substantial sums for agriculture, irrigation and making credit accessible for the farming community. The worry is in the manner this impacts on the farmer at the grassroots even if agricultural productivity is enhanced. The greater worry is that for all the allocational enhancements, no basic agricultural reform is actually taking place and without such reforms the budget will remain just numbers, figures and a disappointment. To be charitable to the government though, its good intent often results in more money being spent in things that often do not benefit the farmer while throwing its own finances out of kilter, often exhausting its resources and severely limiting its options while losing the support of the farmer.
Not many might have noticed, but the farmer has played a critical part in the outcome of the recent state elections, especially in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. With the Centre-determined Minimum Support Prices (MSP) – courtesy the recommendations of the Commission of Agriculture Cost and Prices (CACP) – being far from satisfactory, the Punjab farmer held the union government responsible for his miseries and expressed himself at the hustings with sorry results for the Congress. For anyone willing to read the writing on the wall, the minimum support price, which is supposed to an alternative mechanism for the government to step in and ensure a base value when market forces fail to deliver, is just not working for the Indian farmer. What has made matters worse over the years of neglecting agriculture reforms is that the MSP has become the market price. Most farmers do not understand why things should be so because the CACP is mandated to recommend a price and policy that would be beneficial to both consumers and farmers.
Then again, there is the impact, or the lack of it, in these elections of such populist schemes as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). The current year has seen a reduced allocation for this scheme. Uttar Pradesh had the largest utilization of MNREGA funds at wages higher than minimum wages in the country and yet the United Progress Alliance government’s (UPA) candidates lost their security deposits. The point is that the MNREGA no longer captures the farmer’s imagination even though it is perceived to be populist and is expected to transfer into electoral gains for the Congress party. The election results expose the disconnect between New Delhi and the grassroots. As far as UP is concerned, there was yet another farmer problem that cost Ms Mayawati her faithful constituency. The scant availability of fertilizer has hurt Uttar Pradesh particularly hard and the need to procure it at black market prices caused enough angst amongst farmers to prompt him to vote the state government out of power. Thus, even as the centre neglects the farmer, Mr Akhilesh Yadav would be well-advised to keep the farmers happy and the industry at arm’s length should he want to seal his seat at the helm of power in India’s most populous state.
It would, however, be a sad day for India if the farmer’s interests were confined to vote bank politics and not made a part of India’s grand strategy to become an inclusive society in which agriculture and the agriculturist plays a critical role. Yet, the signs around agriculture are dismal with declining trends on several counts. Between 1992 and 1997, when overall annual GDP growth went up by 6.5 per cent, agriculture growth went up by 4.8 per cent but as the overall GDP growth rate moved to the eight per cent range, agriculture GDP plummeted to a pitiful 2.9 per cent. This is the disparity that policy makers address with lip service alone. There is little evidence of informed investment, instead there is subsidy that is poorly targeted while an entire farming community is left to its own devices; sometimes with both its hands and feet tied.