Doubling abysmally low farm incomes is not impossible but only if India takes a sensible policy route, ridding itself of legacy contradictions.
The Prime Minister has promised to double farm incomes in six years. Agriculture economists argue that this would be impossible because it would entail an annual 14 per cent growth in incomes; something that is unprecedented globally. One disagrees with the economists. Abysmally low farm incomes can be doubled in a five-year time frame but not in the manner envisaged or proposed to be implemented by the government.
The recent Kisan Swaraj Sammelan organised by ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture), in Hyderabad bore testimony to the anguish afflicting the various participating farmer organisations. The silver lining lies in the commitment to organising divided farmers and farmer organisations into a force that can bring about policy-level changes. The road ahead is steep and long though and one needs to begin by the addressing scores of contradictions that farmers tend to ignore.
What are farmers demanding? Curiously, the most common demands from farmers or farmer unions, as reported by the media, revolve around farm loan waiver; no reduction in fertiliser subsidy; and higher minimum support price (MSP). Yet more than half the Indian farmers do not have access to institutional credit and cannot benefit from farm loan waivers. Nor will farmers who have repaid their loans. Where are the demands on behalf of farmers at the bottom of the economic pyramid?
Instead of demanding access for the farmers disenfranchised from the world of accessible and affordable loans, farmer organisations seek waivers for those who have access. This is akin to demanding caste reservations for the creamy layer.
The demand for higher MSP is even more perplexing. Less than 20 per cent of farm produce is regularly purchased under the MSP programme but farmer organisations vociferously demand MSP hikes without bothering to press for benefits for farmers producing the other 75 per cent of the produce that remains outside the MSP purview.
Yet again, farmer organisations are speaking about the need for organic farming, without speaking against fertiliser subsidies that should have been a natural corollary to going organic. The demand for abolishing fertiliser subsidy, as a step towards reducing fertiliser use to achieve a higher objective, should have naturally followed but it has not.
Like Rasputin, those with political ambitions make farmers dance to their tunes and are the real nemeses with their doublespeak. Confused farmers are easily swayed by rhetoric and get divided. At a personal level one is against the removal of fertiliser support but in favour of delivering support such that farmers can choose the support for inputs they wish to purchase.
At the external end of the farm policy spectrum are the unhindered farm imports or farm produce restrictions that rarely get any traction in the media, which is more interested in catering to urban audiences demanding cheaper food or industries such as textiles demanding cheaper farm inputs. Organisations love to blame the WTO that did not get India into the mess to begin with. The mess has been created by contradictions in India’s own policy.
It is equally fashionable to scream, demanding the implementation of the M. S. Swaminathan Committee recommendations even without seeing the report; let alone reading it. Sloganeering gets instant support for sure but achieves little more; sometimes even blurring the lines between right and wrong.
Consider the case of the poultry industry that manipulated duty-free maize imports. Admittedly, the industry creates sizable employment and supplements incomes for small farmers. As feed price rises, so does the price of chicken. As the chicken price rises the demand for chicken drops; or it is so claimed. The organised large poultry industry, which manipulated duty free imports, gets far more adversely affected than the household poultry farmers. Maize imports for poultry feed, however, have adverse consequences for a larger section of society; the maize cultivators for starters.
There are serious repercussions of duty free maize imports of 500,000 tonnes into India. India allowed these imports much to the glee of international commodity traders looking for markets. Once it was explained to the government that these imports would cause a massive loss to maize farmers — as high as ₹10,000 per acre, making the total loss to the country ₹20,000 crore (incidentally the allocation for the ministry of agriculture and farmer welfare in the budget 2016) — New Delhi stopped imports after contracting for 250,000 tonnes of maize.
There are other positive responses to genuine concerns of the farm sector too. It is now compulsory for every pesticide shop to have an agriculture graduate on its floor. This is something that the Bharat Krishak Samaj has been advocating. It is important to get the perspective right. India exports crops like rice that require a large quantity of water while it imports pulses that are a rain-fed crop. In effect, India has managed to change planting practices in other countries while failing miserably to do so to benefit domestic farms. With contradictions such as these, a doubling of farm incomes becomes difficult.