Jun 1, 2013 – “The opposite of love is not hate but indifference; for, at a minimum, to love or hate someone is to have intense emotions toward them”. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner

The world is indifferent to farmers. Never mind the politically correct, ballot box directed noises, one does not even sense any emotion for this critical segment of Indian society from the public at large. That is what farmers believe and what they say in no uncertain terms when we meet during my frequent interactions with them across India. These discussions usually culminate in a mutual mulling over the question: why policy is what it is and not what it should be.

A policy is made by a complement of bureaucrats and chosen advisory councils, generally peopled by academics close to those in power at a particular time. The outcome is often impractical policies that are too unrealistically framed to be executed by any administrative setup. Policy interventions thus fail to meet the objectives and the failure is conveniently attributed to implementation and governance issues. The impact of policies is, however, felt for generations; beyond the tenure of those designing them. The next lot of bureaucrats is tasked with the follow up.

When programmes fail, politicians and officers come up with their new favourites and design schemes to replace the failed ones; sometimes with little change save the name and form; with little understanding of the structural issues that led to policy failures in the first place. Rather than solving the fundamental problems, those that influence policy want quick and, eventually, expensive solutions to address the fallout of the self-inflicted problems.

Most of the proposed beneficiaries of the national food security act are farmers but rather than empowering farmers to be self-sufficient and grow what they want to eat, policymakers passionately debate the mechanism of delivery of cheap food grain to farmers, either through cash transfer or kind. Such measures are mandatory in times of crises like droughts but can hardly be recommended as a long-term solution for inclusive growth.

The point is that enabling self-sufficiency for every farmer family is possible and preferable to life time support that is impossible to deliver, as has been proved in developed countries. What seems to be impossible is changing mindsets about farmers. Post the spurt in food prices in 2007, farmers are increasingly being considered as mere suppliers of cheap food!

In his budget speech, the finance minister said that agriculture grew at 3.6 per cent over the past five-year period. What he seemed to want to avoid was saying that agriculture grew at only 1.50 per cent last year. Most of this growth has come from allied activities like animal husbandry, poultry and fisheries, which are more essential for livelihood security. Farmers have responded to market demand not on account of government policy but in spite of policy continuing to focus on crop cultivation.

More than 60 per cent of poor farmers in India have no access to institutional credit but this is obviously not what the government would have one believe. The public is deceived as it unconditionally accepts government figures on credit as the gospel truth without examining what exists between the lines. The direct credit to farmers by scheduled commercial banks increased from Rs 21,499 crore in 1993-94 to Rs 51,229 crore in 2002 and to Rs 5,10,728 crore in 2011-2013. This would have represented a whopping increase had the figures not represented a sleight of hand. The trick has been to increase items that qualify as agriculture credit thus increasing the number of activities being quantified. Farmers would rather have only the credit that they receive or access directly to be quoted as agriculture credit. This is why the true components of agriculture credit to farmers needs to be investigated and the impact understood.

There is also the issue of loan waiver that has been investigated and where major irregularities have been detected. In the process, what has been missed is that the one-time loan waiver of around Rs 60,000 crore is a pittance compared to what the industry gets every year, courtesy the Debt Recovery Tribunal. Farmers too deserve a similar agency. What is structured for the industry as matter of routine is touted as a big-ticket favour for the farming community, even when it comes after decades.

The Bharat Krishak Samaj (BKS) wrote to all members of parliament, chief ministers and the top echelons of the bureaucracy to force a Comptroller and Auditor General audit for farm credit but to no avail. The Reserve Bank of India too has been very evasive in its answers. Indeed, the BKS extends an open invitation to any Member of Parliament to explain what exactly constitutes agriculture credit and is reasonably confident that none would be forthcoming from any of Indian policy-makers.