The recent budget has included many steps for the benefit of farmers and rural communities which may alleviate some of the distress in rural India. But much more remains to be done. The cost of cultivation has to be reduced by promoting non-chemical inputs which will also help enhance the sustainability quotient. Let me focus on major area of farmer distress which is glut in the market due to higher production in different regions and crops. This wipes away the income of the farmers and increases debt burden. Farmer gets punished when production is low and also when it is high. Recently, country witnessed glut in potato, tomato and several other crops. It happens regularly in one or the other regions. There are three major reasons for it: one is the almost absence of greenhouse cultivation of certain vegetables which could help in distributing the production round the year rather than concentrating it in only in few weeks or months. Second, in the year when production is low, the prices increase and hoping for repeat, many farmers increase area under that cash crop. Next year, due to excess supply, prices come down. Third, there is hardly any processing of these crops in the regions where they grow, that is in situ food or agro –processing is missing, this further dampens the demand. Those who do decide to store output in cold storage, don’t anticipate next year’s crop well, they lose out heavily.
In a country where large scale child malnutrition exists and where food processing sector has enormous scope for improvement, such a waste is unacceptable. What is the way out? Let me explain the concept of FarmERS.
In each agro-climatic zone, there will be a fleet of mobile food processing and bulk packing machinery units. Wherever there is distress due to excessive production by small farmers, these ?vans like ambulance under 108 service, reach, offer to process at concessional cost, pack and either give back to farmers or have private sector partners lined up to buy the processed and procured value added farm produce at reasonable price.
Government can offer tax benefits for the food processing sector to procure from farm distress prone zone declared every year, every season. Farmers can pay bank loans also in kind through such farmERS vans. Such procurement of food products can be used under mid-day meal scheme. All major mid-day meal programs supported by government will be obliged to use so procured agro-food products. Likewise, public canteen, stores, and messes in PSUs, Institutions of higher education hostels, etc., can be encouraged to book orders in advance against the proposed procurement and processing of farm produce.
Private sector will be an active partner but not a binding partner that is, state will be well with in right to use the procured products for national nutrition mission in collaboration with UNICEF and WCD ministry. If private sector has provided support, it will be compensated for the same of course.
Consumer groups can also bid on line for such relatively low proce products. The industry needing potato starch, or lycopene from tomatoes, or using its puree as such can also bid for the processed products.
There are some precedence of such kind of support. In Kerala, when there was price decline in cocoa beans a few decades ago, the state took over and set up bean processing units and supplied powder to industry.
There is a huge need for in situ value addition if government really wants to increase the farmers income, as I assume, it does. Likewise, the budget missed the opportunity for making farming community aware of huge waster wasting irrigation practices. Urgent steps must be taken to mount a major national campaign in rural and urban areas for the purpose. Likewise, the problem of pesticide residues in food and consequent adverse health effects on workers who spray and consumers who eat such products has been ignored. Unless cost is reduced, processing support Is provided by encourage rural start-up in agro and food processing sector by creating a new joint sector farmERS system, we will not be able to improve farm economy in a sustainable and efficient manner.