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Dealing with the agrarian crisis

Monday 28 May 2007, by SWAMINATHAN*M.S.

The well-fed individuals in government bhavans should recognise agriculture as the backbone of the livelihood security system for 70 crore of our people and a basic requisite for national sovereignty.

THE REPORT to the People (2004-07) presented by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on behalf of the United Progressive Alliance on May 22, 2007, contains many bright spots with reference to both economic and social development. Agriculture, our most important living industry as well as the largest private sector enterprise, however, remains a dark spot. The remedial measures listed include more outlays for irrigation, setting up of a National Rainfed Area Authority, more than doubling of credit, special attention to horticulture, cotton, oilseeds, sugarcane, bamboo, livestock, poultry and fisheries, market reforms, better insurance coverage, and direct delivery of fertilizer subsidy to farmers in at least one district in each State during 2007-08. In addition, greater attention will be paid to research, education, and extension. These are all good steps, but essentially constitute a factor centric "business as usual" approach devoid of any attempt to generate synergy among the vertically structured programmes.

Inadequate financial allocation is not the primary cause of the present agrarian crisis. For example, the report card refers to an allocation of Rs.16,000 crore for 31 districts affected by farmers’ suicides. Considering what is happening in Vidharbha, the epicentre of the farmers’ suicides, the agrarian distress alleviation packages are not working.

The year 2007-08 marks the mid-way point in the time frame set for achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. The first among these is reduction of hunger and poverty by half by 2015. Today, hunger and deprivation affect about 260 million people in the country. India is home to 40 per cent of the world’s underweight children. Iron deficiency anaemia is estimated to affect 75 per cent of children under the age of five; 57 per cent in the same age group suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Under-nutrition in women of reproductive age contributes significantly to child hunger. Consequently 30 per cent of babies weigh less than 2.5 kg at birth leading to multiple handicaps in later life, including in cognitive ability. No wonder India ranks 126 out of 177 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index.

Soon after the UPA Government came to power in 2004, a National Commission on Farmers (NCF) was set up with terms of reference drawn from the Alliance’s Common Minimum Programme. The NCF adopted the approach "before advising farmers, listen to them." One of its terms of reference was "work out a comprehensive medium-term strategy for food and nutrition security in the country in order to move towards the goal of universal food security over time."

The NCF has dealt with this issue in detail in its reports and proposed the following six-point action plan:

Restructure the delivery of nutrition support programmes on a life cycle basis — from birth to death.

Universalise the Public Distribution System and enlarge the food basket by including nutritious cereals such as ragi, bajra, and millets; promote community food security systems through a decentralised network of community managed grain banks.

Launch a concerted attack on hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies through an integrated food-cum-fortification approach, with special emphasis on horticultural remedies for nutritional maladies.

Attend to sanitation and the safety of drinking water, and strengthen facilities for primary health care and primary education.

Improve small farm productivity and pay concurrent attention to on-farm and non-farm employment; bring about a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work, thereby adding value to the time and labour of the poor, particularly women. According to NSS data (2003), the average total income of farm households with up to two hectares was less than 80 per cent of their consumption expenditure.

Develop and introduce as soon as feasible a Food Guarantee Act, combining the features of the food-for-work and National Rural Employment Guarantee programmes. Food as currency confers multiple benefits; it strengthens household food security and helps to raise production through increased consumption.

The six-point programme, if implemented holistically, would help to save our country from being the home of the largest number of the hungry in the world.

The twin challenges facing Indian agriculture are: improving the productivity of small farms (less than two hectares), which constitute over 86 per cent of the operational holdings, and the launching of an agro-processing and agri-business revolution. Small farm productivity enhancement can be achieved through the integrated five-point action plan proposed by the NCF in 2005. The components of the renewal strategy are: soil health enhancement with particular reference to soil organic matter and micronutrients and the issue of soil health cards to farmers; rain water harvesting, conservation and efficient use; insurance and credit reform; technology and inputs for conservation farming; and producer-oriented marketing.

In the area of agri-business revolution, a major initiative was announced by Dr. Manmohan Singh in his budget speech in February 1992:

"Special attention needs to be paid to supporting innovative ideas for generating income and employment in rural areas through support to various types of agribusiness. As an experimental measure, Government proposes to set up a Small Farmers’ Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC) as an autonomous corporate entity funded by the Reserve Bank of India, NABARD and IDBI. The Consortium will include representation from Development Boards dealing with individual crops and public sector corporations dealing with agriculture and agro-industries, private sector companies, banks, scientific organisations, and farmers’ associations. The Consortium will function on the principles of economic efficiency, environmental soundness, and social equity. We must begin a new chapter in our agricultural history where farm enterprises yield not only more food, but more productive jobs and higher income in rural areas."

Unfortunately, the SFAC became a bureaucratic organisation and did not fulfil the original purpose for which Dr. Singh created it. In the first UPA budget in 2004, the Finance Minister announced that the SFAC will be revitalised, but this is yet to happen. The NCF recommended in 2005 that during 2007-08, 60,000 lab-to-land demonstrations on agro-processing and agri-business be organised in collaboration with the Central Food Technological Research Institute and private sector food processing companies to commemorate the 60th anniversary of our Independence. This is also an idea whose time is yet to come.

Thus, there are hardly any worthwhile steps mentioned in the three-year report either for improving the productivity and profitability of small farms, or for generating more income and employment opportunities through improved post-harvest technology. We are not able to achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goal in relation to hunger and poverty elimination largely because the majority of consumers are marginal farmers possessing less than one hectare and assetless labour. Their income is not sufficient for balanced nutrition. A small farm management revolution can be achieved only by providing relevant centralised services to support de-centralised production. Without such support, it will be difficult to achieve a technological upgrading of small scale agriculture and confer on small producers the power and economy of scale in the production and post-harvest phases of farming. Unfortunately, schemes like agri-clinics and agri-business centres are yet to take off. In the case of rainfed areas constituting 60 per cent of our cultivated area, there is need for group endeavour among small farmers for water harvesting, and effective and equitable use. The yield of pulses and oilseeds can be doubled in such rainfed areas through concurrent attention to conservation, cultivation, consumption, and commerce. This is why I have been pleading for the establishment of special agricultural zones both in irrigated and rainfed areas in order to provide integrated services to small scale cultivators.

The U.S. example

It would be useful to study the Farm Bill 2007 of United States. The number of farming families in the U.S. was less than 1 million in 2005. Much of the support of the U.S. Government goes to areas such as conservation farming, market support, credit and insurance, and support for attracting young people to take to farming. An amount of $618 billion will be provided to farm families during the next 7-8 years. All this is considered essential support and not subsidy.

Our packages should be similarly designed for launching an ever-green revolution leading to enhancement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. Small and marginal farmers, who constitute 25 per cent of the global farming population, have to lead this revolution. The NCF has submitted a draft National Policy for Farmers summarising what needs to be done to revive farmers’ interest in agriculture by making it economically rewarding and intellectually satisfying. If adopted, this will be the first time either in the history of colonial or independent India that the human dimension will guide agricultural policy.

If we are to make hunger and farmers’ suicides history, four urgent steps are needed. First, is a change in mindset. The well fed individuals in government bhavans should not view agriculture as a mere food producing machine, but should recognise it as the backbone of the livelihood security system for 70 crore of our population and a basic requisite for national sovereignty. Secondly, they should not describe farmers as `beneficiaries’ of their often ill-conceived programmes, but as our hosts on this earth. We all live on this planet as guests of the sun and of the farmers who convert sunlight into food through green plants. The scant respect for the farm women and men who toil in sun and rain to keep us alive is seen from the fact that, in spite of the plea of NCF, they do not find a place in the list of Padma awardees. Thirdly, we should recognise that small farmers and those engaged in mini-retail business constitute the majority of the self-employed. A livelihood impact statement must be made mandatory before steps that may lead to their marginalisation are introduced in the garb of promoting greater foreign or national investment. Finally, the UPA Government should stop appointing committee after committee to examine the same issues. Overcoming paralysis by analysis is the greatest challenge before the UPA Government.

(The writer is a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and formerly Chairman, National Commission on Farmers.)

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