Farmers over three lakh acres may not grow crops this kharif to protest against negative incomes. Yet, policymakers are unmoved.

Issues related to farmers do not generally get the same kind of attention as news related to food inflation. Take for example, the ‘crop holiday' announced by farmers in Andhra Pradesh for this kharif season. Don't think that this phenomenon will be confined to Andhra Pradesh. Those leading the ‘crop holiday' campaign have begun to talk to their peers in Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, asking them to go on a partial crop holiday as a mark of protest against net negative incomes.

These farmers belong neither to the rain-fed areas nor the drought-prone regions. They belong to the water-rich districts of East and West Godavari, Krishna and Nellore. The reason for not growing kharif crops is: it has become unviable. The cost of production is far higher than the returns they get.

The extent of area under crop holiday is not insignificant. Farmers' organisations have put it at three lakh acres! One may dismiss this, saying that it is just a fraction of the total arable land in the country. But when you convert acres into yields, it will certainly send a chill down your spine. At five tonnes an acre (two in kharif and three in rabi), the country is all set to lose 15 lakh tonnes this year!

If more farmers in Andhra Pradesh and other States join this new kind of protest, the extent of loss would be much higher and pose a serious threat to country's food security. More than the loss itself, the desperation in the farming community poses a long-term challenge.

SPIRALLING COSTS

A farmer posed a simple but pertinent question to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture recently. “Why should I bother about country's food security, when my own financial security is not taken care of,” he asked.

And he had good reason to say this. While the cost of production for an acre of paddy is Rs 19,050, returns are only Rs 19,575. If you add rental of Rs 6,000 and managerial costs of Rs 2,000, farmers end up with huge losses. In the absence of its own assessment mechanism, the CACP (Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices) depends on State bodies to collect information that, generally, becomes obsolete by the time it calculates cost of cultivation. According to the Confederation of Indian Farmers' Associations (CIFA), the data the Commission uses are three years old. The Commission used data of 2007-08 while calculating costs for 2010-11, resulting in a skewed picture.

As a result, instead of getting higher compensation to cover the increase in inflation and input costs, farmers end up incurring losses. Farmers are criticising the Government for not factoring in realistic changes, such as the steep increase in labour costs post NREGA.

During the peak of agricultural operations, labour costs could go up as high as Rs 350. And a 75-kg bag of paddy gives only Rs 700 income to farmers!

EXCESS RABI STOCKS

Overflowing stocks from the rabi crop have only added to their woes. Most farmers in the water-rich areas are saddled with 30 per cent of the produce from rabi still lying unsold. Asked whether permission to export will help them, they say they asked for it five months ago, when they were expecting a bumper crop. After dillydallying for so long, the Centre gave the permission only now.

The farmers would have been empowered with better bargaining capacity had the Government announced the same around the procurement season. “What's the use announcing it now? It will only help exporters and traders,” a farmer says. Frustrated and disillusioned, farmers thought it best to skip a season rather than increase their debt and desperation. And that is why they are unwilling to withdraw their agitation. This has already had a cascading effect. Several thousand people who are directly and indirectly dependent on agriculture are not finding the jobs they get around this time. This, in fact, should have set off alarm bells. It, unfortunately, did not. It has not even acted as a pinprick to policymakers, both at the national and State levels.

IMMEDIATE EFFECTS

The problem deserves immediate attention, because it is not a problem that can wait. After suffering for several seasons, it occurred to the farmers that it makes sense (by not making losses) for them to skip a season. This mirrors a serious crisis in Indian agriculture. If the thinking in the water-rich areas is such, one can only imagine the plight of those farmers in rain-fed areas.

One can argue that this is just a protest and that farmers cannot afford to do this forever. Agreed. But this is a strong political statement by farmers, with serious implications for food security and employment in rural areas. This crisis is driving the youth away from agriculture and allied activity. You find almost no young people to carry out farming chores or to work in the fields. And this is certainly not going help the country as it braces to feed 140 crore people in 2026.

(This article was published on July 18, 2011)
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