All those who contribute to the public distribution system should be given a smart card that will entitle them to nutrients, micro nutrients and seeds at a concessional price. PROF. M.S. SWAMINATHAN, CHAIRMAN OF THE NATIONAL COMMISSION ON AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND NUTRITION SECURITY.

K. Venugopal

Agriculture is the responsibility of the States, but the money comes from the Centre. So what can the Budget promise for a sector that is in considerable distress? Known as the Father of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, 81-year-old Professor M.S. Swaminathan, now Chairman of the National Commission on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security, explains what can be done to make farming viable again.

The National Sample Survey has found that 40 per cent of farmers would like to quit farming if given a choice because farming has become unviable in many regions of the country. What specifically can the Finance Minister offer in the Budget for them?

What (the survey) shows is the uneconomic nature of farming, particularly those who have one hectare or less. Eighty per cent are small or marginal farmers. When they have no irrigation that further confounds the problem; more than 60 per cent of the area is rain fed. It is but natural that farmers feel that farming is no longer a means to a livelihood. It is still a way of life, but it is becoming difficult to make a livelihood of it, particularly where you don't have assured irrigation, and assured markets.

If you go to dry farming areas, market arrangements are poor. So farmers are struggling on their own, without much support unlike in industrialised countries where there is a heavy support of technology, capital and subsidies. (Farmers here) have neither technology, nor capital nor subsidy. All the three strengths of industrialised agriculture are missing. So what can the Finance Minister offer in his Budget for them?

This Government over the last two years has created a number of programmes and structures: the National Horticulture Mission, Rainfed Area Authority, National Fisheries Development Board. We need to implement the projects started already. Of course, most are on paper and not taken off. The extension service is in disarray according to the Tenth Plan approach paper. So what can the Budget do?

The Budget can address issues such as credit. Last year the Finance Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, agreed to reduce interest rates (for farmers) to 7 per cent; some State Governments such as Karnataka have reduced it to 4 per cent, as recommended by the National Commission for Agriculture. (The Commission) had recommended several measures for credit reform including increasing the credit cycle to five years in dryland farming areas rather than annual credit. Because, if rain should fail, (farmers) are not able to pay and then are forced out of the formal credit system. That is why they are forced to go the moneylender.

NABARD was primarily intended for farmers. It has gradually gone into several other areas such as the rural infrastructure development fund. So farmers want a separate bank, a national bank for farmers, which would understand the economic problems of farmers and the agro-ecological diversity of the country. One size cannot fit all.

In a bid to reduce input costs for farmers, the Centre has been providing subsidies to fertiliser companies so that they make urea available to farmers at less than the cost of production. This has led to an unbalanced use of fertiliser. How would you react to a suggestion to provide farmers with cash so that they can buy fertilisers of their choice and need at market prices?

If you want to keep farmers in farming, you ought to make farming viable. Today it is not. If you are going to allow private traders to buy wheat then there must be some incentive to farmers to give to the public distribution system. All those who contribute to the public distribution system should be given a smart card that will entitle them to nutrients, micro nutrients and seeds at a concessional price. We can operationalise this on the basis of a soil health card for each region, rather than subsidising the companies for inefficient production

(It may not be good to) give farmers cash. They are all cash starved and they may use the money for other purposes such as for health. We found that in the suicide cases in Vidarbha, 30 per cent of the credit taken was for health expenses and not for agriculture.

Balanced nutrients are important because without them factor productivity becomes very low, leading to low profits. When we give smart cards, the entitlements will be different for irrigated or intensively cropped areas and for dry lands growing jowar and bajra. Pulses require much more phosphorous; you can increase yields of chickpea, pigeon pea by giving a little more phosphorous. We have spent so much money for agro-ecological mapping, but we are not using the data. All the maps embellish the walls of offices.

What's your response to the ban on the export of food produce?

It is always a knee-jerk reaction. When onion prices go up, and the elections are there, the immediate reaction is to ban exports. Or when pulses prices go up, we import them. We won't give that price to our own dryland farmers. If only we give the price we pay to Australian farmers for wheat, production will go up.

What is your take on providing an exit policy for farmers?

There are those who advocate land markets for farm lands to help small farmers who want to quit farming and give up their lands. I always say that if you want an exit policy for farmers you must have an entry policy as well. Where will they go when they sell their land. If a farmer collects his money for the land sold, the money lender will take a part away, and the toddy seller will take the rest. Then he is on the street. He has nothing.

That is why when the Chinese started their agricultural reform in 1979-80, they had a two-pronged strategy, an on-farm and the other off-farm. They had a higher population than India, their farms were also smaller, not enough to be viable although they were mostly irrigated. They simultaneously began withdrawing people from the farm putting them in non-farm activity.

There is a view in top echelons of the Central Government that the farm extension system has failed to deliver the goods in recent years. Do you agree? What can be done about it?

The (extension system) has been meddled with too much. A lot of money has been spent on them. It is the responsibility of district collectors. They have told me, "if you want good extension services there should be another district collector for agriculture; we can't do both."(The Commission) has suggested a five-step process. Start with the good farmers. If they are willing put a hostel there, and start what we call farmer-to-farmer learning; this is particularly useful in horticulture and in seed production. This has got high economic credibility. When farmers come to agriculture universities, they think the professors know no economics. Second, we spend a lot of money on Krishi Vigyan Kendras. Today, there is a mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies. Unless you have agro-processing losses can be enormous. We must revitalise the Kendras.Thirdly, panchayat raj institutions have responsibility for agriculture extension. But they have not been trained legally, financially or technically for the task. For example, in areas where Bt cotton is grown, farmers do not know why they have to grow an old variety in a corner of the plot called the refuge; otherwise you put pressure on the pathogen to change. As you go in for knowledge-intensive agriculture, farmers need to have a better understanding. We said one man and one woman from the village must be trained as farm managers by the agri-university. Then we can use information and computer technology-- the gyan (or knowledge) choupal can be an effective system because it gives a demand driven information on seeds, weather and prices to disseminate the information. Mr Dayanidhi Maran's Ministry has put up 1,00,000 rural common service centres as part of a mission to make every village a knowledge centre. But there is no point putting only hardware; content creation is important. The Centre can only provide the infrastructure, but the content has to be fitted locally.In dry farming areas, the most important problem is getting a fair price. We buy tomatoes (in the city) at Rs 15 a kg, a few days ago I saw farmers getting only Rs 3 a kg. That is where (we come to) Dr Kurien's contribution: it is only in the case of milk that the producer gets Rs 10 a litre when the consumer pays Rs 12 or Rs 13. In vegetables, it is just the opposite even though it is more perishable.

What is a viable return for farmers?

Our poverty line is most austere because it captures only the cost of food you need. There are two ways to look at it. In the Soviet model, income may be low but the social support services are very high. If you have good health and education services and habitation, then low incomes do not matter. My last job was in the Planning Commission; my salary was Rs 2,250. That was in 1982, not long ago. But then one had a house and a car. The fact is that farmers need at least Rs 10,000 a head a year, or about Rs 4,000-5,000 a month for a household of five.

Can he earn that with one hectare?

Yes, provided there is good technology and water. We have worked out all over India - how to earn more income per drop of water even in Kashmir giving one or two (rounds of) irrigation at the right time gives a 60 per cent increase in yield. One hectare with double cropping in irrigated area can provide the requisite income. In dry lands it has to be mixed farming where you have a couple of cows or buffaloes providing milk.

On the challenges of globalisation and competition

There are new problems from globalisation; we are exposing our people to competition. That is what is happening in cotton. I am annoyed with the cotton mills. Unlike the case of cotton, sugarcane mills and sugarcane farmers have an organic linkage. The cotton mills federation does not take any interest in cotton farmers. They would rather allow all the American cotton at no import duty, and it is such a subsidised cotton. The Prime Minister was going to Vidarbha. The people who had committed suicide were cotton farmers. You are using that cotton and you have prospered. Why don't you send a cotton mills federation team to Vidarbha to study their problem. Have we no responsibility at all to the producer of the raw material?

Why doesn't the Government support dryland farmers by procuring the coarse grain they grow?

I asked Mr Sharad Pawar this question. He says there is no demand in the public distribution system for such grains. He said, "If we buy, what shall we do with them?" Partly (the lack of demand) is an education problem, a nutrition problem. All our ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) programmes do not provide such grain. When the World Food programme gives an India mix with bajra and so on, people accept it. But why not here? We have not mainstreamed nutrition in our policy.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 16, 2007)
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