Prof. M. K. Bhat
Farmers in India have ample sympathisers in political parties yet their position has not improved much since independence. They commit suicides every other day due to crop failure, indebtedness, live in poverty, and die in poverty, send their children in Government schools where no one bothers whether they learn anything or not, use obsolete techniques of farming, have no access to good living, still one after every other politician says he is a farmer and farmers interests are at the core of his heart. The reality is that Indian farmer is in the vicious circle of poverty. He needs alternatives to shift from farm to non-farm occupations, wants proper price for his produce, soil health testing, improvement in livestock and crop productivity, he needs support for the sowing of seeds and reduction in the production costs. Waving of loans is no solution of his problems, it is a publicity stunt of political parties as it does not involve even one percent of the farming community besides loans are taken by medium or big farmers not by those who commit suicides and waving is done once in five years. It weakens the banking sector, creates no value for farmers rather develops a habit of dependency. Those agitating wanted MSP to go but had no guts to take the challenge for the reasons best known to them only.
Farmers comprise a large portion of our population and Governments since 1947 neither did anything concrete for them nor could ignore this big chunk of population for their political career, so stunts and duplicity became their fate accompli. The much-talked green revolution remained confined to a few states only and was not pursued on continuous bases. The Governments have simply distributed alms among farmers and kept them busy over the years. Indian farmers require good infrastructure, abolition of unnecessary restrictions and guidance from the Governments. They are ready to put in hard work but being illiterate, less manipulative and wedded to simplicity and honesty easily become victims of false promises and sentimental appeals, election after election. Every Government since independence has cared for those who have vocal cords to make people hear their grievances and no one bothered for farmers because they lacked voice. It is for the first time that the government has a concerted plan to escalate the status of farmers within a definite time frame.
Farmers are in news after the bills on agriculture were passed in 2020 by the present regime to have agriculture reforms in the country. There are some who believe that the bills introduced will change the fate of farmers in India and at the same time there are others who believe that they will make the life of farmers miserable. They apprehend that corporate will overtake farmers and leave them high and dry. The antagonists have resorted to Rail Roko and other such things while as protagonists got the bills passed by both houses of Parliament. So, it needs a proper introspection to segregate the malafide intensions from genuine concern for the problems of farmers.
The biggest problems in our agriculture sector are not only low productivity, disguised unemployment, sub division and fragmentation of land, low mechanisation, alternate farming and wastage of production, but also low investment in agriculture, illiteracy of farmers, lack of marketing techniques, innovation, technological adoption, agriculture infrastructure etc. There is ruthless wastage due to lack of storing facility. It is status to have land even though earning from it may be negative.
The present government with a target of doubling farmer’s income by 2024 has come out with various post production reforms in the current year besides setting up1lakh crore agriculture infra fund. It has also come out with three legislations namely (1) Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 (2) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and the essential commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020. Out of these three bills, the main concern of agitators is on MSP and contract farming i.e. first two bills.
The farmers produce trade and commerce (promotion and facilitation) bill permits farmers to sell their produce outside Mandis or agriculture produce markets that are regulated by APMCS which in turn are regulated by state legislatures. The APMC act was made to protect farmers from money lenders and Zamindars but it actually landed them in the hands of middlemen. The result is that middlemen enjoy a high status at the cost of crop grown by farmers. The farmers commit suicide and middlemen turn fatty. The purpose of saving farmers from money lenders got lost with their replacement by middleman. It was just a change of face.
The second feature that made farmers to access mandis was Government purchasing on MSP (Minimum support price). Farmers are being instigated on MSP despite the assurance from Prime minister that MSP will not be scrapped. In this context, it becomes imperative to highlight that MSP is declared for 23 crops. Only 6% of farmers sell their crop at MSP rates according to Shanta Kumar committee report based on NSS data. This clearly speaks that 94% of farmers sell on rates other than declared by the Government. Besides the number of farmers, the procurement by Government is quite low. There was a record procurement of wheat and rice in 2019- 20.It stood at 38.97 million tonnes, the highest so far, the rice procurement was50.5 million tonnes 21 % more than the target. This was mainly because of Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana under this yojana every ration card holder gets 5 kg of rice or wheat per month otherwise storage problems would have come into existence. This procurement is skewed towards a few states and does not comprise even 30% percent of the total production despite record procurement. This hints to the fact that nearly 70 % of production is sold at market rate. Only 32 lakh farmers get benefitted by MSP.
The bulk of procurement in wheat and rice is done in Punjab and Haryana, 85% of wheat and paddy grown in Punjab and 75% of that grown in Haryana is bought by Government at MSP price. The farmers have to rely on middlemen. Punjab government charges 6% Mandi Tax along with 2.5% fee for central procurement and earns 3500 crores from these charges. Middlemen involve shopkeepers who get licence from government. It is an irony that Punjab State Government is more concerned about middleman and their own resources rather than the worsening position of millions of farmers.
Farmer’s empowerment and protection agreement of price assurance and farm service bill grants permission for contract farming. It allows national framework on farming agreements that power farmers to engage with agriculture business firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers for farm services and sale of future farming produce at mutually agreed terms and conditions.
If Indian farm sector is to improve, there is a drastic need of huge investments. This investment has to come from non-agriculture sector. It will be possible only when both the parties mutually agree on terms and conditions. The falsehood, that the corporate will overtake the farm sector is having no shred of truth in it. In case of apple orchids in Kashmir it has been in use and has led to the growth of apple production, Apple orchids are bought by contractors on terms and conditions acceptable to both the parties.
If India wants to grow harmoniously there is a drastic need for farm sector reforms rather than rhetoric for selfish goals.
(The author is Professor (M.A.I.T) Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi)
Prof. M. K. Bhat