COMMENTARY – The way out of the Crisis

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Harvesting crops in India's Maharashtra state. Photo/IAC

By Manoj Harit

Indian agriculture is in crisis. There are no two ways about it. Was it always so, post-independence? My answer is emphatic : No.

Agriculture used to be an honorable profession where aspirations, prosperity and political power resided together. Then things changed. Society, living, aspirations, politics, mobility, priorities, goals as an individual, as well as a nation changed. Change isn’t bad if one is able to evolve with it. That has not happened. As a result we are staring at this monumental crisis.

Is there a way this crisis can also be changed? My answer to this one is emphatic : Yes.

Let me share briefly some information about a progressive farmers group who identify themselves as ‘Navyug Shetkari Mandal’. The members of the group are into horticulture — mostly grapes and pomegranates. But they also experiment with other fruit crops such as Lime, Sweet Lime, Mango, Amla, Guava etc. There are some basic similarities in the people forming part of the group :

  1. They have sizable area under horticulture.
  2. Almost all of them have planted fruit crops under ‘Phalbag Yojana’ floated by Sharad Pawar when he was the chief minister of Maharashtra. The state provided for saplings, basal dose fertilizer, digging expenses and 50% subsidy on drip-irrigation which went up to 75% in case of women farmers. (No wonder Maharashtra leads the nation in horticulture exports.)
  3. They enjoy a proud place in society as “Dalimb/Draksh Bagayatdar”.
  4. They are economically well off enough to afford ‘residential school education’ for their children.
  5. Again, almost all were poor marginal farmers, dependent upon rain fed field crops, before they ventured into horticulture. And here, the role of the state as a facilitator comes into play.

I’m not saying that the millions of marginal farmers can be compared to groups such as ‘Navyug’. But we can derive some clues for the transformation of agriculture in the highly inspirational life stories of these farmers.

I agree with Kumar Anand when he says:

The mindset is paternalistic. The government behaves as if our poor farmers are incapable of making their own decisions, which is one reason why, as I explained in my last essay, free markets are not allowed in any aspect of agriculture.

I also agree completely when Kumar writes:

[A]uthors Gulati and Shweta Saini point out how agriculture has never been on the reform agenda in the era of economic reforms post-1991. Gulati and Saini affirm that Indian agriculture can grow at more than 4 percent per year, provided these three sets of reforms are carried out.

The three reforms he quotes, though I would call them ‘basics’, would go a long way in resolving the crisis in agriculture.

But I disagree with Nitin Pai when he says : “The Agricultural Crisis is a Jobs Crisis.” In fact, agriculture has the possibilities to lessen the impact of job crisis which has been forced upon the nation due to the incompetence and ill-thought decisions of the regime. The situation on the ground is different than what has been routinely stated in newspaper columns. There is a vast scope for employment in agriculture, which remains the largest segment of the economy. There is a shortage of agricultural labour. Ask any horticulturist and he will tell you that farm workers are a scarce commodity.

To give an illustration: my farm needs 15 full time workers while I have only 10 now. The break-up will further astound you: 4 Adivasis from MP, 3 Adivasis from Dangs region and 3 locals. The wages are Rs. 275/- per day for male and Rs.200/- per day for female. That’s way more than youngsters in service industries, who work as couriers, delivery boys and peons get in metropolitan cities. Not many youngsters in villages want to work on farms anymore. They are drawn to the cities and work as daily wage construction laborers, peons etc. With a dwindling economy, those jobs are fast disappearing like dinosaurs.

Finally, my two pennies on the way forward:

  1. 100% and timely procurement at MSP.
  2. The state staying away from prices of vegetables. Let tomatoes, potatoes & onions sell at a market-determined price without tinkering with the export duties. Make no mistake : if tomatoes, potatoes & onions are allowed to fetch a price of Rs 15/- per kg, even for one year, the economy will rebound like nothing this world has ever seen.
  3. Collateral/mortgage-free loans of up to Rs 1 Lac per acre, with an incentive of 100% increase in eligibility upon timely repayment.
  4. Investment in infrastructure like the ‘Phalbag Yojana’ implemented by Maharashtra Govt.
  5. Restoring the social status of the farmer and bringing back the dignity in the profession.

(The column is reproduced here courtesy Pragati, where it first appeared)

(Advocate Manoj Harit. Born at Bissau, a small village near Churn, Rajasthan. Schooling at Malegaon. College & LLB in Mumbai. A textile unit, horticulture, a pre-school with Educomp & fresh fruit export to Dubai, is the past. Horticulture at Malegaon and law practice at Mumbai, is the present)

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