Why cannot there be a consensus on major farm sector reforms-1? A vain hope

There are bound to be political turns and twists in a democracy and that is an essential part of the freedoms we enjoy. A time for consensual politics is ahead of us. No one ideology or political belief system can discover all the solutions for the future. To identify all thinkers and researchers with any particular party political ideology just because they may have participated in the national discourse on development during that rein is not a model of viable politics. Nobody suffers more from such exclusion than the people whose interest warrants pluralistic and inclusive dialogue. Having said that and knowing that this advice has been ignored in the past and may be ignored in the future too, let me make some suggestions for agricultural sector first.

Recently, we had the same familiar spectre of onion prices ruling very low. The police response was expanding export incentives, which in the short run might help. But it is unlikely to help farmers a great deal, yes, the traders would benefit much more, as it is the case always. What could have government done: in situ value addition, something I have been pleading for more than a decade. There are at least three ways of doing it: a) farmERS ( farmer emergency response system) , portable value adding machines are taken to glut sites, and vegetable/fruits are processed, or dried into powder and put on sale online for global buyers; farmers can take powder after paying a token amount of processing fees ( it can be subsidized); b) private traders are encouraged to buy and store in government warehouses, c) employees of private and public sector organizations are advanced interest free loan to buy such a produce at concessional price (it will be far lesser than they pay in the market). Which political ideology will come in the way of this support system? One can also advise farmers to get out of cyclical behaviour of higher acreage after a year of high price and then low price due to excessive production.

Similarly, let us take the recent agitations by farmers organizations and movements on the implementation of Swaminathan committee paradoxical recommendation of fifty percent higher price over cost. If this is indeed implemented, it will be recipe for disaster. I am saying this despite my highest regards for the wisdom of Dr Swaminathan. But in this case, let us look at the implication of this recommendation being implemented: farmers will have no incentive to reduce cost, they will continue with excessive use of water, chemical fertilizer and pesticides. If the water table goes down, so be it. If small farmers cannot deepen well and thus become dry famers, so what. If the soil gets spoiled, and pests become resistant, who cares.

We need to understand that crops need moisture, not water. There ought to be a massive program of drip irrigation, let money spent on loan waiver be used to provide long term solution for drip irrigation to majority of the farmers. This will provide long term relief to farmers, reduce their cost, conserve water and reduce pest attack, and also increase productivity. It will save the cost and quantity of fertilizer also because of fertigation (fertiliser mixed with water will be needed in much smaller quantity). One can also increase use of liquid organic fertilizer which is minimal today. Similarly, massive program, of biocontrol and IPM (integrated pest management needs to be launched). The crop rotations need to be modified, mixed farming needs encouragement, border crop should be grown for biocontrol.

Likewise, the potential of livestock including poultry in generating jobs and income remains always obscure in the excessive discussion on crop-based price politics. Studies have shown several decades ago that poverty reach down impact of investment in livestock economy is much higher than in land-based interventions. The ownership of livestock, as a seminal work by late prof Vyas had shown, is much less skewed than land ownership. In a CMA study on household economy , I had found that value of small ruminants owned by landless and small farmers was higher than the ones owned by medium and large farmers showing them to be a more efficient producer than the rest. Still, in almost all farmer agitations, the voice of landless workers remains muted, I hope I am not blamed because of my advocacy for them.

Time has come to take a hard look at distorted priorities for farm sector and eschew short-term measures like loan waivers and focus on long-term in situ water conservation as done so well in Saurashtra), in situ value addition, and direct marketing by farmers to consumers in every city by providing open spaces to them. Loans should have been rescheduled, and rehabilitation finance should have been provided urgently. Strong incentives could have been given for premature repayment. Those who never get loans are the poorest people and need urgent inclusion. I know, such measures will not win me any support by the majority but then my job is not to be populist but argue for longer-term sustainability of Indian farming systems. I am not sure; we are concerned with it enough yet.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place