Disconnected politicians assume that policies prepared by bureaucrats guarantee their success. The devil is in the details though and numerous imponderables throw them off track

As successive governments have transformed an unequally prosperous rural society to one which is equally distressed, for the first time small and marginal farmers feel worse off than the landless classes. Farm income of small holder farmers is insufficient to sustain them and suicides usually take place in such farmer families that have no additional source of non-farm income. Yet data sociologists have deciphered that poverty has got reduced; never mind the pervasive sense of desperation in rural India. All political parties are equally responsible.

Disconnected politicians often assume that policies prepared by bureaucrats will guarantee the targeted objectives. They are clueless about the fact that unpredictable facets of behavioural economics and climatic conditions mitigate against even logically developed policies for the farm sector. Regional diversity is rarely accounted for when designing policies and policy makers seem to forget that similar programmes for a rain-fed tribal outback and the irrigated chemical-choked fields of Punjab will not work. A truly federal system could help address this issue because states are expected to better understand issues that typically affect their farms.

There are also the implications of the fine print of a policy that can be detrimental to a nation. Discrepancies in the RKYV scheme unearthed by the CAG are a classic example of how welfare objectives are not met when the fine print does not get a perspective from those who will implement the programme on the ground and those who will be affected, like the farmers of the particular area. The MNREGA and farm loan waiver eventually turned out to be not as benevolent acts as made out to be. If they were, farmers would not be feeling helpless and rural India would not be suffering so. Many insist that MNREGA and farm loan waiver got the Congress re-elected in 2009. Irrespective of what data might conjure, every farmer perceives that one of the primary reasons for farming becoming non-remunerative is the increasing labour cost due to MNREGA.

On an average 40 per cent of total farm input cost is labour cost. At the time of harvest and sowing labour requirement the labour cost simply doubles. The full impact of increased wages was felt in terms of falling farm profitability while also fuelling food inflation. While one is not insisting that a badly-designed MNREGA was the main reason for the unravelling of UPA II, the thought must be seriously contemplated. The UPA strategy was that an increase in rural wages would reduce  rural poverty. Increase in rural wages could not offset the high inflation that negated the wage gains. It is akin to hefty Minimum Support Price (MSP) increases that did not offset higher farm input expenses. The Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP) is on record explaining that labour cost is not fully factored into recommendations for a MSP for fear of hurting consumer interests. Yet the MNREGA could have been the great programme it was supposed to be with a little tweaking. If 100 days of labour had been reserved for the 250 days of the lean season, it would not only have doubled the total employment generated without more investments but would have also ensured prosperity of the masses and contained food inflation.

Lately, in response to farm distress and the short-lived outcry over farmer suicides, there is talk of a farm loan waiver. Yet that is not the solution for farm sector problems. About half of the indebted farmer households are dependent on institutional credit sources. Only farmers who defaulted on institutional credit gained from the last farm loan waiver. The benefits of farm loan waiver or other welfare programmes like minimum support price procurement do not trickle down to millions of marginal farmers and those surviving in rain-fed areas. This also fuels Naxalism.

Now that it is apparent industrialisation will not create all the millions of anticipated jobs soon, the only way to rescue those abandoned on the margins is by getting them meaningfully self-employed in diversified agriculture. The biggest challenge for the regime is to design farm support programmes where small and marginal farmers will get their proportionate share, more so in rain fed areas. A strategy solely dependent on doles outs of food and government work or, inversely, on use of force always fails. Funding comes easy for perceived populist programmes but these do not necessarily deliver the promised benefits to society. Short-term measures tend to become long- term fixtures and restrict progress.

Government announcements of ad havoc compensation for crop loss will not solve problems either but only address some symptoms of the deep malice that has crept into the system. It is akin to constantly giving painkillers for a broken arm. A reactive government invariably loses whether it is responding to political jibes or a crisis. After its first anniversary, the BJP will showcase soil health cards, the Kisan channel, crop insurance proposals, land acquisition bill and such others as pro-farmer initiatives. A reading between the lines makes it apparent these too will fail to translate into intended productive outcomes. It will take much more to deliver benefits and to stop the perception from gaining further ground that welfare programmes and farmers are being abandoned. The BJP cannot expect to remain on course and implement farm policies without delivering critical inputs to the farmers. Farmers too cannot survive on mere lip service and political posturing.

The public does get a a little distracted by farmer suicides but, as 18th evangelist John Wesley said, in another context “When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn” and no more.