Loss of crop diversity is one of the main reasons why farmers in India are unable to earn surplus income to repay their debt.

The demand for loan waiver and MSPs over the years has become more intense. Restoring crop diversity is vital for addressing farm indebtedness.

State governments provide interest rate subsidies on farm loans. The Centre keeps raising the target for farm credit and spends huge sums on procuring wheat and paddy.

If the MSPs for 23 crops are paid, the expenditure will reach lakhs of crores. State governments have waived farm loans worth ₹4.7-lakh crore in the last 10 years; (SBI Research) but these initiatives have had little impact on farmers’ indebtedness.

As per the National Statistical Office’s Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India 2019 Survey the percentage of agricultural households in debt decreased slightly from 52 per cent in 2013 to 50.2 per cent in 2019.

The average outstanding loan increased by 58 per cent to approximately ₹74,000. The cost of cultivation has increased by 35 per cent which erodes farmers’ net profit. Minister of State for Finance Bhagwat Karad in his reply to Lok Sabha in July 2021 said the farmers have a debt of ₹16.8-lakh crore. Farmers need surplus income which will help them repay the loans and create economic assets.

The rich dietary diversity in India is a boon for the agriculture sector. The native food items if promoted will create demand for diversified crops and increase farmers’ income.

In the 1990s, Vidarbha farmers converted more than 70 per cent of their farm land into BT cotton, despite the soil there not being conducive to cotton cultivation. Similarly, sugarcane farmers in other parts of Maharashtra, rice and wheat farmers in Punjab and Haryana made farming unsustainable with mono crops. Farmers in most parts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka, Odisha and West Bengal grow cheap high yielding rice to get the MSP; they cause immense damage to the crop diversity.

Mono crops have destroyed the food back up in Kerala and forced the State to buy three-fourth f its food requirement from neighbouring States.

India has lost more than one lakh varieties of indigenous rice after the 1970s; many exotic varieties of crops have disappeared. Had India saved the native crops it would have been the chief food exporter of the world today.

Nearly 85 per cent of the farm households in India have less than two hectares of land; the average land holding does not exceed 0.5 hectares per household. Experts have always questioned the viability of small landholding. Interestingly, small farms contribute 51 per cent of agriculture output and have 70 per cent share in high value crops. A family with small land holding can double their income by undertaking non-farm activities like making handcrafts, weaving clothes and making hundreds of products. Some of the non farm products like Patta Chitra of Odisha, handloom silk sarees of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, metal craft of Chhattisgarh and Telangana, the Pashmina shawl of Ladakh and the handmade carpet of Kashmir have incredibly high value addition.

Small farmers need to organise themselves through healthy co-operative societies, SHGs and farmers’ clubs to boost incomes.

Documentation of the germplasm of all native crops, registration of native foods with the UNESCO and Geological Indicators for those local products will safeguard crop diversity.

Crop diversity will maintain soil fertility, conserve water and meet the nutrition needs of people; it will save expenses on chemical fertiliser, pesticides, hybrid seeds and other farm inputs. Apart from boosting farm incomes, banks can also increase credit to the farm sector.

The writer is a freelance journalist