Misgovernance and muddled policy have transformed an unequally prosperous rural society to one that is equally distressed, as farmers accept their fate.
Set in an agrarian economy, the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings reflect an ‘occupational’ mindset, as it were: “Keep working without worrying about the results.” Farmers live by what they preaching. Blaming misfortune on celestial stars, they easily forgive. They are just as easily forgotten. India’s farm policy continues to be impractical and unfeasible, contrived, as it is, by economists, directed by industry and hemmed in by high-profile NGOs, making inclusive growth improbable. Policy, over the years, has transformed an unequally prosperous rural society to one that is equally distressed.
For the first time in history small and marginal farmers feel worse off than the landless classes. Farm income of the smallholder is insufficient to sustain him and suicides predominantly take place in such farmer families that have no additional source of non-farm income. The public is merely distracted by farmer suicides. As the 18th century evangelist, John Wesley, said in another context: “When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn”; and no more. Worse, after analysing data, sociologists and statisticians have deciphered poverty as having been reduced. For the sense of desperation that now pervades rural India, however, blame must be appropriated by all political parties.
There are too many unpredictable facets of behavioural economics and climatic circumstances for a policy based on pure logic to succeed in the farm space. Even regional diversity is not taken into account when designing policies; something that a federal system could help address. The biggest challenge for a regime is to design farm support programmes under which the small and marginal farmers will get their proportionate share; more so in rain-fed areas. Many things are required to ensure farmer prosperity. Contentious solutions arouse fierce debate and must be put aside for a minimum acceptable agenda for a polarised society.
India’s irrigated lands are becoming salt pans without drainage facilities while the rest of the country is slowly getting parched. Successive governments have lacked the political will to tackle the issue. Yet one can say with certainty that it is possible to reduce India’s fertiliser, pesticide and water consumption per acre and still achieve higher yields. Few farmers recognise the potential to increase yields sustainably as a solution to the distress. Increases in yield per acre and per animal is integral to any solution to the rural distress. It is equally imperative to increase farmer’s income and resilience to withstand weather and price shocks.
These require sustained effort, at least over a decade. Politicians, however, do not have the patience as elections come around every five years. It is never too late to begin a good programme; it only becomes more difficult with each lapsed moment. From the politician’s point of view, it is definitely getting late to start programmes that will deliver meaningful results and in turn get transformed into electoral gains. It will take more to deliver benefits and stop the perception that welfare programmes and farmers are being abandoned. At a later date, when the government is under pressure on account of non-delivery, it will quote numbers to explain away the problems without actually convincing anyone.
Economists are artists who will crunch numbers and conjure success out of sheer failures, as in the past. Success cannot be measured by numbers alone. Explaining numbers is easy, measuring success is difficult; experiencing the transformation, more so. The fear is that three years from now, realising that no results are in sight, the regime will be compelled to flood the nation with meaningless, populist schemes to garner votes.
In a democracy, the opposition is usually good at channelising distress into dissent but dissent should be made meaningful by alternative ideas of development. The timing has to be perfect. The opposition could learn from Maharaja Surajmal of Bharatpur who waged war or dispatched raiding parties after the harvest season since the farmers would be free to join and bolster the forces. The opposition ought to keep the fires lit on farm issues, while hoping that the government will succeed with its development agenda. It is the success of any government plan that leads to the success of the nation. That success should be equitable; a consummation devoutly to be wished for.