G Chandrashekhar

Farm crisis: Short-term palliatives are futile

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on January 06, 2019

Farmers Left in the lurch   -  Getty Images

To help farmers, a long-term plan to improve input delivery, irrigation and rural infrastructure is a must

Some 60 years ago, the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said: “Everything can wait except agriculture”. But for the last two decades, agriculture has been waiting even as the economy has continued to make rapid strides.

The country is today paying a price for the omissions and commissions of successive governments over the last 20 years. Instead of improving, the lot of the farmers has deteriorated with the passage of time; and there are no positive signs of a progressive transformation.

Policymakers then and now continue to look for facile options to keep farmers ‘pleased’ or in the least, not complain. The most critical reforms — structural reforms — have remained largely untouched.

As a result, farm sector growth is stymied and competitiveness of Indian agriculture stands substantially eroded. Farmers remain mired in an artificial world of make-believe security through largely cosmetic policies including announcement of higher minimum support price (unrelated to market conditions and not adequately backed by efficient procurement mechanism), farm loan waiver, and a plethora of programmes and schemes whose implementation and outcomes are far from clear.

Sops and palliatives might have done the trick so far; but will perhaps do no more. There is increasing scepticism among growers about the intentions of policy-makers, and realisation among the farming community that they are being short-changed. Problems of inputs, water, extension services, agri-infrastructure, marketing and lack of capacity to face risks continue to characterise the farm sector.

Water is the most critical input; but despite huge budgetary outlays, irrigated area for major crops has shown no marked increase. Several irrigation projects continue to languish with time and cost overruns.

Farmers continue to be gullible target for palming off sub-standard inputs as there is no monitoring of their quality and price.

While the whole world is utilising technology in every sphere of human activity, Indian agriculture continues to be nearly in a time-warp. When was it last (and the only time) that the country’s agriculture saw a meaningful technology infusion? Some 15 years ago when technology seeds for cotton were introduced. We have not moved beyond that. There are now multiple technologies available — Biotechnology, Information and Communication Technology, Satellite Technology, Nuclear Agriculture Technology and of course, Nanotechnology for food processing.

And now, stung by electoral reverses in some key States, the government is reportedly working on some tantalising announcements to woo back the farming community. These include income support scheme (payment of fixed amount to every farmer), zero interest loan, waiver of premium for crop insurance and similar measures.

Whether or not these measures will deliver political dividend is debatable; but even if they ultimately do, none of these proposed measures is likely to solve the ongoing crisis in the farm sector.

Without doubt, farmers in this country deserve much higher income than they earn at present; but higher income in a sustained manner cannot come from short-term fixes of the type under contemplation. For resurgence, the sector needs a more matured and informed approach that would need a few years of committed action to show results.

Six-point plan

A six-point action plan (or six mantras) that can potentially result in sustained farm resurgence without undue burden on the country’s fragile fisc is given below.

* Strengthen the input delivery system: Input supplies have to be suitably regulated to ensure farmers are able to access in time the right quality of inputs at the correct price.

* Rapidly expand irrigation facilities: Scores of irrigation projects are languishing for want of funds and attention because of time and cost overruns, and inefficient execution;

* Infuse multiple technologies: Growers are savvy enough to adopt technology if they find value. Extension service is key;

* Invest in rural infrastructure: Huge funds are required to upgrade rural roads, improve connectivity, revamp agricultural markets, build warehouses as well as primary grading and sorting stations;

* Use ICT: Delivering information relating to weather, input prices and availability, output market rates and so on will allow growers to take more informed decisions; and finally,

* Capacity building: A nationwide movement towards capacity building among farmers including farmer producer companies to face market volatility and de-risk agricultural production and marketing to the extent possible.

Because agriculture is a State subject, it devolves on the Centre to take States on board and work out a farm resurgence plan with adequate policy support, research support and investment support.

The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal

Published on January 06, 2019

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