Thursday, April 23, 2015

Farm Distress and How It Can Be Tackled


The death of a quasi-farmer in a rally - ostensibly to challenge the Land Acquisition Bill, has brought to the fore the issue of farm distress in a rather ironical manner. The party holding the rally has little to do with farmers, being an urban party rooted in Delhi where every farmer doubles up as a land dealer and doesn't have even a nodding acquaintance with poverty. The man who died was just a quasi-farmer in the sense that he derived his main income from peddling saffas, (see and rendering a service in tying them on festive and celebratory occasions. Not just that, there was no imminent threat of any land acquisition in Baswa Tehsil of Dausa district where the only land that may be required in the next 20 years could be for doubling of the Delhi-Jaipur railway line, or the Alwar-Sikandara Highway which joins the main Agra--Jaipur Highway. Both these possibilities are far removed from the village of Nangal-Jhamarwada to which the deceased Gajendra Singh Kalyanvat belonged.
The issue is that of farm distress. Land was always a national resource, and rightly so. Even today, most states call the farmers' land a tenancy. This tenancy has become a holy cow over the years for two reasons- one, the proliferation of a rent-seeking middleman class in areas where a land market exists, or an acquisition is afoot; and second because it suits the local politician to appropriate both goodwill and the land in the name of saving the farmer. Except Gujarat and to some extent, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra, little thought has gone into making the land remunerative. We know now that the population solely dependent on agriculture is down to 22%, and contribution of Agriculture to GDP is down to 13%, yet the figure of 60% poor farmers is bandied about like an incantation. After the 1950s land reforms and 1960s Green Revolution, nothing has happened to remove the asymmetry between agriculture and national economy. Sharad Pawar had the right ideas in agriculture sector but was not able to deliver for reasons that can only be speculated. He did bring about great changes in Western Maharashtra and parts of Marathwada by encouraging diversification into horticulture based on micro-irrigation, and was instrumental in initiating the National Horticulture Mission, but the software part required to make it a  national movement remained absent. 
It is widely recognised that 3 kind of agricultural reforms are absolutely vital to make agriculture a viable option for a majority of people engaged in agriculture:
  1. Integrated Farming: Crop Husbandry by itself is not a viable option in rainfed areas. It has to be supplemented by horticulture and animal husbandry and augmented by micro-irrigation. Even in irrigated areas, rise in income depends upon these innovations. The Gujarat Green Revolution Corporation is an example of how micro irrigation can spread in a State in an exponential manner.I was heading Horticulture in Rajasthan for 30 months. The protective cultivation module developed by us to supplement the crop husbandry in Bassi area of Dausa district is bringing an additional annual income of 20-30 lakhs to farmers on land which used to yield barely 25-30000. Introduction of tissue-cultured date palm in the desert areas is bringing significant additional incomes. If anyone wants to see a model of integrated farming in the world, he needs to go only as far as Kutch where progressive farmers are earning as much as 40-50 lakhs per hectare annually. I tried to adapt that module in Western Rajasthan. Why can;t more states take that route
  2. Modern Seeds, credit and insurance reform: Populism has thwarted any movement on these aspects. After the success of BT cotton, India should have imparted momentum to modern seed industry, but the entire scientific discussion got hijacked by environmental fundamentalists. Credit institutions have been killed by frequent loan waivers, so farmer has to depend on usurious loans. Regressive ideas have prevented a full roll-out of crop insurance policies. All these aspects have to be tackled. With PM Modi at the helm and path-breaking work by him in Gujarat, I have hopes but have doubts if the more regressive elements would allow him to tackle this headlong. Allowing BT Brinjal trials is a welcome move.
  3. Market reform in produce and land: With all their pro-farmer pretensions, how the parties can oppose FDI in retail boggles the mind completely. All progressive farmer organisations support it. Sharad Joshi of Shetakari Sanghatana was its foremost proponent. The argument about small businesses getting ruined is a completely disingenuous one. When the same amount of production brings 40% extra produce from the farm to the fork, everyone wins. "It's the middleman, stupid", seems to be the only explanation. Coming to land, 60 years of antiquated policies have distorted the land market completely. Those who want to cultivate don't have land. Those who have land mostly seek rent by becoming absentee land-lords and big entities have no hope of getting into farming business at all. The Gujarat land policy is a universally admired one. What is preventing the present govt. from extending it pan-India is not known. The amended Land Acquisition Bill is a step in the right direction notwithstanding all the noise, but stops short of actively encouraging land pooling and consolidation for infrastructure projects. This has been the norm in Gujarat. Are you aware that the 3rd Ahmedabad Ring Road has been built without acquiring a single acre of land and purely through land pooling and consolidation. That methodology may require a separate blog. Long term leasing is not permitted when the ground reality is that 70% land is being tilled by share-croppers or contractors. Licensing is not even contemplated. Antediluvian Land Revenue and Tenancy Acts dot the landscape. Selling of agriculture land faces severe restrictions, producing absurd asymmetries. Land conversion is a huge scandal across the country. Once again I have to advert to Gujarat, where these issues were successfully addressed. Unless we modernise our agriculture market and land policies, farm distress will occur and recur with nauseating regularity.