The revival of GDP growth rate in the September quarter to 6.3 per cent from a three year low of 5.7 per cent in the June quarter may trigger a higher growth trajectory for the economic parameters in the forthcoming quarter, but at the same time the deceleration in the growth of agriculture sector to 1.7 per cent in September quarter from 2.3 per cent in the June quarter is a cause of concern.
A slowdown in agriculture means a dent in the disposable income of over half of the countryâ€™s population. These 90.2 million rural households, dependent on agriculture, are the backbone of the colossal Indian market and a major demand driver for the industry and services sector. The turmoil brewing in the agriculture community of the country in the aftermath of non-implementation of recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission (which was a part of the election manifesto of the ruling government), growing rural indebtedness, stagnation in agriculture and a discernible lack of alternative employment opportunities for agriculturists in hinterland has united farmers across India.
The farming sector is unorganised and hence unable to exert pressure on the corridors of power to tweak policies in favour of a larger section of the population. Nevertheless, the developments in the recent past are a pointer to a farmersâ€™ uprising at a scale which the political class may not afford to ignore in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The protest organised by All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee in New Delhi last month demonstrated not only solidarity among farmers across India, it also underscored the common agenda of farmers cutting across regional differences and geographical diversity. The protest march from Ramlila Maidan to Parliament Street near Jantar-Mantar on November 21 culminated with a Mock Parliament of farmers represented by 184 odd farmersâ€™ associations from different parts of the country. The farmers came out with two private bills â€” Freedom from Debt and an assured price of crops to be determined at 1.5 times the cost.
Probably, for the first time, the problems of farmers and their solutions across India have been identified and documented in a structured manner. Freedom from debt and not a concession or debt relief is what farmers want. Two important private bills were passed by this mock Parliament in the presence of designated speaker, social worker Megha Patekar. The consensus emerged for 1.5 times remuneration for every crop/product because a sustainable income can only save farmers from falling into the debt trap year after year.
Now, further discussions would revolve around the two proposals drafted as private bills defined as freedom from debt and an assured price of 150 per cent to a farmer. The modus-operandi would be to hold 500 discussions at district level by March 2018. Of the 184 organisations, 160 are district level entities which are expected to play a key role to sensitize farmers at the grassroots level.
During a recently held pre-budget meeting with agri experts in New Delhi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was apprised on the need for structural problems in agriculture to be addressed rather than farm loan waivers. The recent spree of loan waivers in some states and proposals for the same in some others may not cut ice in the 2019 general elections.
Talk to any farmer and you get to know that he does not want a debt waiver but remunerative price. I remember when the UPA government announced a massive debt waiver of 70,000 crore in 2008, the then Finance Minister P Chidambram chose to visit two villages of Punjab to get feedback from farmers. The language barrier (he could not converse in Punjabi) did not let him assess the true picture. I was incidentally the only mainstream journalist in the flock of select media with his cavalcade visiting the two bank branches in Punjab selected for the FMâ€™s visit and sensed that farmers wanted to explain to him that the dwindling water table in Punjab was the main culprit in rising cost of cultivation. They wanted to communicate that instead of debt relief, the upgradation, expansion and regular maintenance of canal network is the solution to save them from recurring debt burden.
Unfortunately, the frail voices of distressed farmers are reversed by vested interests and year-on-year the number of farmers resorting to suicides due to rising debts has been increasing. â€śFarmers should be treated as special servants of the country like soldiers and there is dire need to engage the whole nation in a debate over the unrest in agriculture sector,â€ť Avik Saha, National Convenor of Jai Kiasn Andolan, told Tehelka.
The states hailed as the harbingers of green revolution in India â€” Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh â€” are also grappling with discontentment among farmers that was reflected during the Jat agitation in Haryana in 2016 and loan waivers to appease farmers announced by the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab governments recently.
A brief entourage of rural pockets of India unfolds the resentment of the farming community over the callous disregard of successive governments towards the food producers of the country. Due to geographical and cultural heterogeneity, the problems of farmers may appear to be different but a close scrutiny reveals that they need a single remedy â€” the intention of implementation of the announcements and the policies.
An insight into the findings of the 70th Round of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) Survey may intrigue readers about the sustainability of agriculture in an era of digital India, where the average monthly income of a rural household is 6,424 and the state of Bihar is at the rock bottom with 3,558 per month. Is it possible to meet both ends with the given income figures? These make borrowing from unorganised sources imperative for a rural household and bear the burden of debt at exorbitant rates of interest for a lifetime. The average debt of 46,848 per rural household as per the survey validates the observation.
The grim scenario in the agriculture sector can be perceived from statistics that indicate that the average amount ofÂ loan outstanding per agricultural household in a progressive state like Punjab is 1,19,500, which is slightly above Tamil Nadu, a majorly rain-fed state, with an average of 1,15,900.
Farmers have been paying through their noses to pursue mechanised farming, hoping to get higher returns but sinking deeper into debts as their ability to repay has not improved. The indebtedness of farmers is only the tip of the iceberg; the problems of the farming sector are the vast and complex. Farmers in India are completely unaware of farm management practices. The officials in the state agriculture departments concede that a peasant can save his cost significantly if he prepares a roadmap before sowing the crops every season.
Most farmers, especially small and marginal farmers, do not maintain written records of their daily purchases of agri inputs and other expenses, and sometimes owe debt to moneylenders which they have actually repaid. Inadequate market infrastructure also needs to be ramped up to save farmers from exploitation of commission agents.
A recent study by the Haryana Farmers Commission has recorded that from 1990-91 to 2011-12, the arrivals of major crops (wheat, paddy, bajra, oilseeds, cotton, fruits and vegetables) has increased by 128.8 per cent but the number of regulated markets has increased by 12.3 per cent only. The insufficient forward linkages throughout the country are a major factor responsible for distress selling of crops and diverting profits towards middleman. Integration of markets through e-NAM can help but can be successful only when farmers are educated. Illiteracy of farmers is a major barrier to achieve the goals of such digital tools.
It is high time that our policymakers should introspect that 57.8 per cent of our population is thriving on only 15 per cent GDP. An immediate correction in policies is imperative, else it may result into social and political unrest. â€śOf what good is democracy if it is not for the poorâ€ť.