The agrarian core of India, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, is heading into polls. Poor farmers have got old hearing election promises of loan waivers, Swaminathan report, higher MSPs and free and cheaper electricity. It’s sad, politicians are surrounded by courtiers who don’t farm and can’t even drum up new slogans.
In this season of election manifestoes, there are alternatives, which will win elections without saddling tottering state governments with additional financial burden. To explain, I’ll choose Punjab, not because I farm there, but because it’s an environmental and economic nightmare rolled into one poisonous brew.
Average Punjab farmer household debt is over Rs 5 lakh. Approximately 10,000 farmers have committed suicide in 10 years of the farmer-oriented state government, inspite of having assured water, good soil and additionally receiving annual ‘farm support’ of `9,000 cr, which mainly includes fertiliser and the power component. Of this, the smallest 34% cultivators receive a measly 9%. Farm support is based on use of inputs, so lesser land a person cultivates the lesser support the person receives.
In broad brushstrokes, at no extra burden to the exchequer, we can replace the present instrument (favouring large farmers) by direct cash transfer of Rs 90,000 each to the 1 million cultivators regardless of land holding size. In return, framers will be expected to purchase electricity or fertiliser at market prices. An algorithm could take into account changing prices of fertilisers or power to be reflected in the support amount. The transferred amount is not income, but if implemented, 70% of the farmers would be net gainers. Delivering social equity through resource distribution is the key to inclusive prosperity.
70% of farmers are women and transferring the amount directly into the bank account of the lady member of the household will be a clincher. Rs 90,000 in the bank account would yield unparalleled political dividends when the average Indian farmer’s income is Rs 77,000.
Farmers realising that ‘rupee saved is rupee earned’ will work towards improving efficiency. They will begin to grow crops like pulses which require lesser inputs, leading to the much elusive crop diversification. A cascading effect of judicious use of inputs like fuel, water, fertilisers and subsequently pesticides will save depleting aquifers, improve soil health, biodiversity and human health. Think of it as an economic stimulus, whereby WTO worries too fade. But, it’s absolutely essential that farmers have a choice to use the money as they wish.
However, after the dream merchants are elected to office, they invariably renegade on promises. Prodded by government promises of higher moong MSP (Rs 5,225) farmers sowed over 32 Lac hectares of moong. But, without the promised purchase being initiated, the price is expected to continue to fall below Rs 3,500 and each small farmer could lose about Rs 25,000. The total presumptive loss to just the moong farmers for this season alone could be Rs 5,000 cr.
When it comes to farmers, political parties have a narrow two-fold agenda to win elections; ‘dishing populist promises and blaming others’ which only boils down as Ambrose Birrce put it, “Politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”