Every time there is a tragedy, the parliament discusses the issue and then business resumes as usual. I hope things will change this time. Not because in the presence of thousands of people, a farmer was allowed to commit suicide. But because the conditions which lead some farmers to take extreme step have their roots deep in our current policies and institutions.
The first priority of farmers is to reduce the cost and increase the margins. They would not mind if prices do not increase as much as they demand, so long as the cost comes down. But the cost cannot come down with the current policy biases. No matter which input we take, the policies are biased against their efficient, economical and effective use. The water guzzling crops and crop rotations are completely not in sync with the current crisis of declining water table and increasing real cost of energy. Free electricity and free water can get votes in the short run but cannot reverse the water wasting practices. Despite the fact that farmers have innovated so many water saving practices, the extension system completely ignores them and pursues hardly any on-farm trial on them. Likewise, despite NREGA, in-situ water conservation has not picked up the momentum as it did in Saurashtra. Even in Wardha, where we had Shodhyatra, no watershed structures were noticed for hundreds of km. The case of pesticide and fertilizer is no different. On March 23, the Prime Minister drew the attention of farmers in Punjab to the non-sustainable use of water and unbalanced use of fertilisers. The soil health has been neglected systematically. The non-chemical alternatives for pest control get practically no mention on the helpline of Ministry of Agriculture. And these problems have not arisen in the last one or two years. These have been there with us for decades. The agro biodiversity has gone down, the drainage structures have remained in disuse and farmers have been encouraged to follow non-sustainable rotations such as wheat and paddy. When farmers incur debts to pursue non-sustainable agriculture, climatic, production and market fluctuations make conditions of many farmers extremely precarious. I visited many farmers in Maharashtra a few years ago in whose families suicides had taken place. Not one had been educated on non chemical means of pest control.
The National Commission on Farmers failed to reorient Indian agriculture and correct the inherent biases. The chemical input lobby is of course powerful. Just as sugar lobby is powerful to persuade government to make a buffer stock of sugar without encouraging farmers to shift to less water wasting crops. India certainly doesn’t need as much area under sugarcane as it has. Given our low sugar recovery, our prices cannot make the export competitive. We need to use water more judiciously to ensure minimum production assurance for maximum dryland farmers. The virtual water that we export, if priced properly, will make our export non-competitive. Efficiency in water and other input has to increase urgently. There are a large number of farmers innovations in Honey Bee database. It is time we reorient our research, extension and marketing focus to shift farmers preferences towards sustainable, affordable and frugal agriculture. We cannot afford to have more suicides before the conscience of policy makers gets pricked severely. The time will tell.
We need a new commission on agriculture, which should not merely help in correcting the focus of current misguided policies but also create consensus through widespread consultations for a new paradigmatic shift.