Farm sector policies have not incentivised self-sustainability but have forced farmers on a path where they survive on doles. Will things change under a new government?
Alaud-Dīn Khaljī, facing a revenue shortfall at the turn of the 14th century that obviated the possibility of increasing salaries of a large standing army and administration, realised that the key to increased prosperity lay in not increasing wages. It lay in reducing prices of essential commodities and provisions to enable people to afford more. The UPA II believed that an increase in wages could offset inflation for higher wages never did ease the pain. How wrong it was is evident from the electoral drubbing it received.
Economists refer to similar situations in current conditions as containing inflation. Khaljī did so by controlling prices, appropriating and regulating supplies. Even the idea of government procuring, storing and transporting grain, à la the Food Corporation of India (FCI), has originated from his policies of filling the royal stores with grain that would be sold in times of scarcity at regulated prices. In 1964, five decades ago, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister and inherited a food crisis.
The fact that India suffered pangs of a famine like it would never suffer again is something most people do not remember. Shastri personally advocated for backyards to be used to grow vegetables and campaigned for masses to “miss a meal a day”. He appealed to farmers to increase output by growing more than a single crop a year. He promoted the green and the white revolutions. Farmers responded; for example, in 1964, not a kernel of rice grew in Kota but today farmers sell over two lakh tonnes of rice in the Kota market yard. Without any historic insight and nourished on a subsidised diet, people today criticise the green revolution.
It was in those trying times that the FCI was set up under the Food Corporations Act, 1964. Even though times have changed, the problems persist. The very problems confronting India then are confronting the current Prime Minister. The regime of routine responses must be broken. Rather than following a 600-year-old archaic process, the new government initiated the process of restructuring the FCI. The Bharat Krishak Samaj suggests that it be broken into three dynamic entities: one to procure and transport, another to store and the third to distribute grain. This will reduce wastage and lead to better accountability and delivery.
The Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) that recommends a Minimum Support Price (MSP) too needs urgent restructuring as it has failed to meet its objectives. The post of the chairman of the CACP has been vacant since March. Recent increases in MSP are no more than four per cent, less than the rate of inflation or the increase in consumer price index.
This is in absolute contrast to the Prime Minister’s promise of assured profits of 50 per cent to farmers. Increases are much less than the rise in cost of cultivation, especially in this year of abnormal weather. The same political parties, which cried foul every time a minuscule MSP increase was announced, are quietly doing the same now that they are in power at the Centre. The opposition is absent and there is not even a whimper for the farmers. Such indifference is unpalatable.
The policymakers of yesteryears approached the national agriculture policy with a scientific temperament and developed an agriculture infrastructure. This, along with the sheer perseverance of the Indian farmer, made for the genesis of the country’s transformation from a ‘ship-to-mouth existence’ to one of overflowing granaries. This has, ironically, got India in trouble at the WTO. Subsequent policies, rather than incentivising self-sustainability, have forced farmers on a path where they seek to survive on doles.
The good intentions of governments must translate into positive results. Politicians and economists refuse to learn from history, which is why they make the same mistakes and are called upon to solve the same problems year after year, decade after decade and even centuries after. There is also major concern about who the policy influencers will be. With a clear majority in Parliament, the BJP is free to do what it wills but it will not be free from the consequences of the choices it makes; nor will the farmers be free from the consequences.
The Prime Minister has, in his wisdom, decided to disband the Planning Commission and asked for suggestions. Considering that the farmers are the largest section of the society, it is only logical to have a farmer on board the new authority. If India does not evolve in that direction, one will be reminded of the old Indian adage: how does it matter to us whether Ram reigns or Ravan?