State must intervene to end farm distress
Aug 26 2015
The persistence of farmers’ suicides inspite of the several programmes and social support systems developed by state and Union governments has become a matter of national concern. Until recently India was known to the world as the nation that launched the green revolution, but now the focus has shifted to the tragic suicides by farmers.
It is in this context that we must recognise the effort of the Maharashtra government to establish a mission for distressed districts headed by Kishor Tiwari, who is well known for his meticulous chronicling of farmers’ distress. Tiwari is well aware of the problems and the solutions to tackle them. I hope the mission will be able to identify the key components of agrarian distress and suggest implementable remedies. In particular, I would like to suggest a five-point action plan:
n Establish an agrarian distress consultancy centre within every krishi vigyan kendra in areas where farmers are prone to committing suicide. Such centres should have at least one male and one female adviser well versed in counselling those who feel hopeless and are likely to commit suicide.
n Strengthen the coping mechanism of cotton farmers who buy expensive new technology by persuading the seed companies to provide insurance cover to farmers against unforeseen damage caused by unfavourable weather.
n Strengthen the agriculture insurance mechanism and promote insurance literacy.
n Empower women farmers to have access to kisan credit cards even if they do not have title to land.
n Promote farming systems involving high value pulses, millets, oilseeds and horticultural crops that also require less water.
Above all, the various relief packages announced by governments should give high priority to the care and education of women and children in households where the male farmer has committed suicide.
The problem of farmers’ suicides is not only confined to Vidarbha, in Maharashtra. There are reports that similar distress is common to several other states, and more recently, in severe form in Karnataka and Telangana. This is why the Maharashtra initiative must be followed up by all states facing agrarian distress.
A major problem concerning agrarian distress is the economics of farming. While input prices have been constantly rising, output prices remain vola-tile. Assured and remunerative marketing holds the key to ensure stable and adequate income to farmers. This is also why the national commission on farmers, headed by me recommended the C2 formula (i.e., the total cost of production plus 50 per cent) as the procurement price. So far, this suggestion has not been accepted on the ground that a higher procurement price might add to the food subsidy bill and also violate WTO rules.
We should, however, remember that farm families themselves constitute more than 50 per cent of the consumers. Therefore, ensuring adequate compensation for them would help reduce the extent of malnutrition and hunger prevailing in rural areas.
Agriculture promotes jobs that lead to economic gr-owth, while industrialisation invariably results in jobless growth. Given our huge population consisting of a high proportion of youth, we should only promote job led growth. This is why agriculture becomes very important to national well being.
There is a problem of WTO regulations in relation to the minimum support price we offer to farmers and also how much food buffer stocks we can maintain for fulfilling the obligations under the National Food Security Act.
In developing the principles for assessing what is fair and what is unfair in trade, the WTO normally takes a global view. This is where the problem arises. Agriculture is essentially a commercial occupation in developed countries where hardly 5 per cent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. On the other hand, agriculture in many developing countries, including ours, is the principal occupation of a majority of rural families who depend on crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry and agro-processing both for their livelihood and household food security. Also, their farm size is small and marketable surplus low.
As a result, farm families require social protection. It is wrong to designate the limited support given to them as subsidy. It would be appropriate to refer to such assistance as support to sustainable farming.
Most international agencies describe India as the country with the largest number of hungry people. Small wonder then, foreign experts constantly advise the government to give the highest priority to ending hunger and malnutrition. Both agrarian prosperity and national food security depend on the economics of farming.
We have now come to the stage of giving legal right to food through the National Food Security Act 2013. Our country has evolved from ship-to-mouth existence to right to food commitment. To fulfil this commitment, we have to constantly pay attention to production, procurement, and public distribution. The difference between agriculture as commercial occupation and agriculture as a means of abolishing hun-ger and malnutrition will have to be clearly understood at the 10th ministerial meeting of WTO scheduled to be held in Nairobi this December. Union minister for commerce and
industry, Nirmala Sitaraman, has clearly tried to convey the message that supports policies for food security and abolition of malnutrition are non-negotiable.
The industrialised countries should understand and acknowledge the human dimensions of trade in foodgrains. Developed countries have safeguarded the extensive financial support they give to their farmers through the green box provision. It is high time that there is also a food security box to help countries adopt farm support policies that can help them achieve the zero hunger challenge launched by the UN secretary general. This will be an important step in our efforts to mitigate agrarian distress.
(The writer is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)