It is a tragic fact that in India thousands of farmers take their lives every year. From 1995 to date, the figure is over 3 lakh farmers. Costly seeds, soil-destroying/life-threatening chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and a monstrous Central government chemical fertiliser subsidy of ₹70,000 plus crore, lie at the core of the problem.

Never green, ever toxic

The “Green Revolution” in the 1970s, ushered in an era of rapid agricultural production, foodgrains in particular. One of the catalytic agents for the revolution was chemical fertilisers. India was gravely short of foodgrains, and this agricultural shift came in handy. With massive inputs of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water, high crop yields were achieved.

The ‘Green’ Revolution may have saved the day (the jury is still out on that) but it was far from safeguarding the future. Damaged soils, expensive and needless farming inputs, water-intensive/water-pollutive, lethal and ecologically harmful farming practices (all of which emanate from chemical farming) do no good to agricultural advancement, and to public health.

What’s surprising is that the powers-that-be (specially the high-profile economists) have not bothered to look deep into the issue of farming distress. All the talk is of “Loan Waivers”, “MSP”, “Contract Farming”, and the like, which are simply cosmetic remedies.

The small farmer struggles for livelihood and existence, battling in vain against the avalanche of negatives associated with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Eighty-six per cent of farmers in India are small or marginal farmers. Chemical farming puts farmers into debt and fertiliser companies into profits. The huge fertiliser subsidy barely touches the small farmer. It is the manufacturer who benefits.

According to the Kerala State Organic Farming Policy Report -2008: “The advent of chemical intensive farming and its prevalence in Kerala for the past 50 years has resulted in the near stagnant levels of productivity…“The farmers are caught in the debt trap owing to the loan taken to meet the high cost of farming, as it demanded more external inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and water. These led to increasing instances of suicide by farmers.”

FAO confirms that Chemical Agriculture is associated with “Farmers indebtedness for inputs and suicides”: reporting that there were 30,000 deaths in Maharashtra, India, from 1997-2005. [“Organic Agriculture’s Contribution to Sustainability” (April 2013)]

A Division Bench of the Bombay High Court, citing the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Report on the causes of Farmers’ Suicides in Maharashtra, found that there was a high incidence of suicides in the cotton growing areas where chemical fertilisers were used. [2006, DY Chandrachud J.)

The 2015 Report of the Committee on Estimates of the government denounces the present dispensation towards chemical farming, stating : “..the extant fertiliser subsidy regime has done the maximum damage to Indian agriculture.”

There is a way out of the vicious cycle of drought, debts and declining soil fertility. Organic farming shows the way. But we only associate organic farming with the expensive, elitist, supposedly non-chemical-grown food products found in a few choice retail outlets.

Modern technical opinion emphatically certifies the wisdom and scientific practices of the traditional Indian Farmer.

The UN’s Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (January 2017) states: “Studies have indicated that agroecology is capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed the entire world population and ensure that they are adequately nourished.” [Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food: Jan 2017]

There are inspiring accounts of villages converting to organic farming and transforming rural lives; as well as stories of urban folk taking to organic farming and making a success of it; largely without government aid. One can imagine how many more farmers could benefit, with the State at their side.

In November 2015, this writer had petitioned the Central government, giving a detailed account of the facts and issues related to chemical farming, and pleading for an urgent change in subsidy policy towards organic agriculture. Needless to say, the government’s stock reply was that they were ‘promoting’ organic farming!

One of India’s biggest economic burdens is the huge Central government subsidy on synthetic fertilisers, which has ballooned from ₹60 crore in 1976-77, to a mammoth ₹75,000 crore now. While the organic sector gets barely ₹500 crore.

Moreover, the National Organic Farming Projects (the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), Mission Organic Value Chain Development for North Eastern Region (MOVCDNER) cover very little ground. The area under organic farming is 23.02 lakh hectares, a mere 1.27 per cent of the total cultivable land in India (181.95 million hectares).

Where’s the commitment?

In January 2016, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry uploaded (on its website) a White Paper, extolling the need for Organic Farming. The Report urges the government to show “total commitment” and promote organic farming. Organic farming has the potential to generate a revenue of ₹50,000 crore per annum and more. [Indian Organic Sector, Vision 2025 - A White Paper, January 2016]

The government has not given organic farming an equal opportunity to grow. The very nature of the subsidies distributed to the two farming sectors speaks for itself.

Chemical farming helps the chemical industry. The 2015 Estimates Report notes the boom in the chemical sector, stating: “Undoubtedly, the input producing corporations/companies for chemical based agriculture, indirectly contribute to promote conventional (chemical) farming so as to have their own business flourishing.”

In 2005, a 7-Judge Constitution Bench of the Indian Supreme Court (State of Gujarat v Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab Jamat and Ors (2005) 8 SCC 534, (‘Mirzapur’ for short), inter alia citing the Report of the National Commission on Cattle, drew attention to the continued utility of live cattle; that in the absence of soil-nourishing organic fertilisers like cattle dung, “farmers are forced to use costly and harmful chemical fertilisers” ; that “investment in chemical fertilisers imposes a heavy burden upon the economy”.

Additionally, the Fertiliser Subsidy Policy violates the Constitutional Mandate of Articles 21, 39 (a, b), 46, 47, 48, 48A, 51 A (g, f) — in ignoring the traditional wisdom of the Indian farmer and depriving him of an adequate means of livelihood; putting in danger the environment, public health and the economic interests of the weaker sections of the people.

The need of the hour is to switch priorities and subsidies from chemical to organic farming as shown by the State of Sikkim (the World’s First Organic State and the Gold Medallist winner of the UN Future Policy Awards; Denmark got the Silver). Last year, Andhra Pradesh launched a ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming‘ Project to phase out chemicals by 2024.

The government should divert the undeserved subsidies from the chemical farming sector to the organic farming sector and assist/train farmers across the country to make the transition to organic farming practices and thereby enhance their livelihoods, and protect their lives.

The writer is a Chennai-based lawyer and writer