First they lowered the monetary poverty threshold to prove that poverty had been reduced. They subsequently changed how the gross domestic product (GDP) is formulated; to prove growth. They did not even spare the farmer suicides data. Even after such accounting jugglery, when policy makers failed to justify their years of folly, they changed the measurement scale. When changing the scale did not help, they trashed the data as garbage. They may even alter the definition of a farmer to justify the abolition of subsidies but they cannot change the realities on the ground.
Scientists try and prove hypotheses. Economists and academics follow the path of research too, but have it much easier, as they can change the arrangement of data to uphold or decry an idea. The way data is classified and presented influences policy. Biraj Swain explains how by reducing the baseline for defining poverty by just 26 cents from $1.51 to $1.25, the number of poor people has decreased from 1.75 billion to 733 million. That is how poverty is reduced. Trying to prove a hypothesis through data, one will generally find what is being sought. Yet, not even the much vaunted national skill development programme will empower farmers to develop the number crunching skills to counter absurd viewpoints
It is fair to say that poverty is a precursor to farmer suicides in a majority of cases. If a dot were to be placed for every poor farmer and farmer suicide on a map of India, it would mostly fall over areas where farming is dependent on the rains. Even as ridiculous and often obnoxious reasons are cited for farmer suicides (impotency, barrenness and love affairs, to name a few), there is no denying that farmer suicides are on the rise.
Only once every few years do commodity prices spike in the international market. When prices of commodities like wheat, rice and onions spike, the government imposes an arbitrary ban on exports. When prices fall in the years following a ban, as it has for potatoes, the government and academics do a Houdini-style disappearing act, leaving farmers in peril. Arbitrary and reactive decisions are the bane of farm policy and such export restrictions are a form of regressive taxation on the farmers and detrimental to their interests.
When prices do rise, the farmers have an opportunity to make a profit and use the proceeds to repay their past obligations. When farmers are denied the opportunity to realize better prices by export restrictions, they remain burdened with old debt, with moneylenders compounding interest. In the ensuing years, when production is hit by weather calamities or when prices tank (last year production and prices tanked simultaneously) the farmer’s financial burden shoots up, aggravating an existing crisis and leads to larger number of farmer suicides. Suicides, however, are just statistics to academics. The absence of good policy compels farmers to abject poverty and suicides. Compensation packages are not the answer.
As ensuring cheap food in times of food scarcity is perfectly justified, government intervention when farm prices are low is just as desirable. Economists, howsoever curiously, engage in writing endless documents to establish that farmers are a pampered lot that deserves to have subsidies and support terminated. The thinking behind restricting exports of nonfood items like guar or cotton, however, beats reason
For over two decades the debate on farmer issues has been languishing and it was considered necessary to revive discussion on farm issues at a national level. While some sort of a momentum has been created around understanding that perpetual farm distress is the horrifying new normal, there is also the abject failure to protect the farmer’s turf from questionable academic erudition and farm representatives who don’t farm.
Policy makers focus on tackling food inflation. The truth is that the real fear is around food deflation and this provides one of the many reasons for farmers to remain at odds with agriculture academicians. Policy makers first aggravated food inflation and are now conveniently propagating importing food as a means to keep it in check. Economists have pessimistically built their arguments on the assumption that food inflation is perpetual and cannot be solved at home.
Farmers are optimistic about being able to produce amply to feed the nation but are threatened by a deflation problem. Supply will continue to outpace demand for years to come. This month the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations validated such a deflation forecast. Inflation has more to with issues of hoarding, governance and marketing bottlenecks than production constraints. If, like the United Progressive Alliance, the National Democratic Alliance too remains convinced that only academics possess knowledge and the farmer’s opinion is a best ignored burden, India will permanently remain a developing nation.
It is common practice for industry associations and international, corporate funded institutions to commission studies, projects and reports to influence policy, opinion and newspaper articles. Allowing only academicians to frame farm policy is akin to asking genetically modifying seed manufacturers to frame food labelling guidelines