Despite being the country with the second largest agricultural land in the world, hardly two fifth or forty percent of the agricultural land is irrigated. Also, even though the country boasts of being the highest producer of many major agro commodities in the world, it suffers from low productivity. The naked and cruel truth is that agriculture remains its Achilles’ heel, the source of livelihood for hundreds of millions of people but a fraction of the nation’s total economy and a symbol of its abiding difficulties.
Approximately 70 per cent of the rural households survive on agriculture and this population has a lion’s share in the consumption of many consumer durables and non-durables, rural vehicles, two wheelers and tractors. Also, rural income which primarily is farm driven, is a critical component of infrastructural sectors such as construction and cement. Another dimension of the importance of agriculture in Indian economy is the forex that it generates for the country. Agricultural and allied industries exports account for nearly one fifth of the total exports of the country and have grown sustainably over last decade or so. Indirectly, agriculture plays a big role in some industries such as food processing by providing bulk inputs.
Farmers in India have had to cope with the removal of a government safety net that guaranteed them fixed cotton prices. Starting in the 1970s, the state of Maharashtra would purchase all cotton production at a price independent of world market prices. This program was called the Monopoly Cotton Procurement scheme. This program guaranteed cotton farmers a fixed price for their entire crop. Mismanagement and financial losses led the state to open up cotton trade to private traders in 2003 and to discontinue the monopoly scheme. The state still purchases some raw cotton from farmers, but the average prices it offers are below the average cost of production.
The problem with rural India is that people are guided by the herd mentality. Lack of access to markets, research universities and credit bureaus means they have to be guided by what their farm input dealers would advise. In the fierce market where so many products are jostling for a place on the shelf, the most catchy tag lines became the metrics for deciding a choice about the product. Added to the farmers’ financial woes is the heavy burden of financing the extravagant lives of their children whose minds have been perverted by the consumerist media. A decade back rural Vidarbha became more of a tourist centre and India’s suicide capital with squadrons of correspondents, camera crews, development experts, politicians and scientists descending on the ravaged terrain in hundreds.
A large chunk of rural India is feeling the jaws of the agrarian crisis sink in even deeper, tearing its veins apart. In the midst of this crisis, there are the women who work quietly without raising a din about their work. These are the women left behind to live for their children after their husbands committed suicide, unable to bear the burden of their debts anymore.
The reasons for famers distress lie in a combination of factors such as crop failure, shifting to more profitable but risky (in terms of output, quality and prices) cash crops like cotton/ sugarcane/ soyabean, exorbitant rate of interest and other terms and conditions of loans availed from money lenders, lack of non farm opportunities, unwillingness to adopt to scientific practices, non availability of timely credit from formal channel, absence of proper climate/ incentive for timely repayment of bank loan, etc. At some places even though water is available but can’t be exploited fully due to insufficient power supply. Huge expenditure on children’s education and sudden demand of money for health considerations and marriage, etc. in the family are also major contributors for stress in farming community.
On the one hand, costs of all inputs, particularly labour and water, are increasing and on the other hand, there are controls on food prices. Our food pricing policy is built on the premise that we are a poor country, so consumers must be protected. But this means farmers – who are also consumers of food – are not paid remunerative prices for their product. And all the big talk about deregulation and ease of doing business never makes it to their fields. They are restrained in where they can sell; prices are artificially “fixed”; and when shortages grow, government rushes to buy from heavily subsidised global farms. This cannot go on.
We need to do much more to fix our agrarian crisis. It is clear that farmers are caught in a double bind. In the last two years, drought and water scarcity was a huge challenge but the government managed to convert that into an opportunity for development. The Jalyukta Shivar programme of saving rain water by deepening and widening of streams, construction of cement and earthen stop dams and digging of farm ponds were implemented as a social movement, which resulted in 4,600 villages being made drought-free. By 2020, about 20,000 villages would be made drought-free. The programme also resulted in the increase in ground water table, which greatly supported the farmers. Maharashtra government has decided to set up a committee under the chairmanship of a top bureaucrat for the implementation of a Rs 4,000-crore project on climate resilient agriculture.
We need to plan for development knowing that weather will be more variable and more extreme. This means doing all that we know has to be done. There is no rocket science here. Build water and drainage infrastructure that can both hold water when there is excess rain and recharge groundwater when rain fails. We are not even using the optimal potential of rural employment to build water security. We have just not understood that in a climate-risked India, water has to be our obsession. Infrastructure – everything from cities and roads to ports and dams – must be built in a way that they are compliant with best environmental safeguards.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decade .He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org