Farmers were sold a dream in 2014 that everything was going to change. But now they have compelling reasons to feel they were deceived. Party manifestos indicate what the politicians want us to believe. After elections, winners get either selective amnesia (Rs 15 lakh in each bank account), re-interpret promises (MSP at C2+50 per cent), continue to tout failures as successes (crop insurance) or devise policy fine print to exclude proposed beneficiaries from the promised largesse (farm loan waiver). Actions not even referred to in manifestos wrecked a stable economy (demonetisation and GST) and, consequently, unemployment percentages have risen. Unable to create jobs (let alone the promised 100 million jobs in five years) or kickstart the Make in India initiative, the wisest thing BJP did with the lost causes was that it let them go. I had naively presumed it would similarly bury the “doubling farmer income by 2022” slogan. But it hasn’t.
Though, there are countless reasons and measurable indicators for rural India to reject the government and not cry over spilt milk, in election time it’s time to heed the words of C S Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
Considering the acuteness of the crises in the rural economy and the external factors, it’s time to focus on practical deliverables and prioritise from amongst the best combination of trade-offs, rather than on populist unicorns (PM Kisan, Farm Loan Waiver, NYAY).
The earth is on the verge of crossing the planetary climate change tipping point and depleting natural capital. Everything has a cost, which we are transferring to the next generation, including what has not been even attempted. The unregulated over-exploitation of scarce natural resources is resulting in a falling groundwater table, deteriorating soil health and environmental pollution. While this generates today’s food surpluses and low commodity prices, it also ultimately foments farm distress. Ironically, this leads to public scorn and policy apathy towards farmer demands. Political parties are unable even to fathom the urgency of the existential crisis we are headed for.
Transferring agriculture input subsidies (fertiliser and power) to farmers in cash is the need of the hour. This must precede attempts to transferring cash for subsistence. Politicians have clarified that the proposed large cash transfers will not be funded by removing existing subsidies. I do not wish to speculate whether this is wishful thinking or wilful deceit. Experts advising on cash transfers, designed it as a “rationalisation” of subsidies — an academic way of saying “reducing or removing’ subsidies. My fear is the ensuing fund crunch will not only grind to a halt improvements in essential basic services of healthcare and education, which are far below acceptable levels but also strangle the flow of productive public investments. Policies propagated by theorists, twisted by politicians, fine-printed by bureaucrats are akin to jumping from the frying pan to the fire.
At the same time, many government programmes will need to be shelved. For example, the concept of 100 smart cities must be replaced by developing 6,000 smart census towns (population over 5,000) spread across rural India. Even a novice would have suggested developing the hinterland rather than draw the millions to a few megapolises. Instead of aping western development models, it’s better to try establishing institutions like US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide timely market intelligence services. Prioritising a “nationally consistent database” will be the key driver for improved transparency, traceability, governance, policies and implementation.
The undeniable fact is that farmers will need to be supported in perpetuity — we need to tread cautiously in designing support systems because neither do we have the luxury of time, nor do our nuanced problems have silver bullet solutions. The required transformative change can come from a statutory “farmers commission” headed by a farmer with a mandate to review existing interventions and recommend new initiatives to improve rural livelihoods. For coordination and deliverables, ideally the commission must be comprised of an IAS officer as a full-time member-secretary and agriculture secretary as an official member.
Finally, after the heat and grind of the elections is over, India needs a national government with practitioners heading important ministries. It’s time for professional politicians and armchair experts to step aside.