Save the farmer
Astring of farmers' suicides, in the aftermath of hailstorms and unseasonal rainfall over the past fortnight, in Maharashtra sheds light on the parlous state of Indian agriculture. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics tell us that over 2.8 lakh farmers have committed suicide since 1995. Though attempts were made to attribute this staggering number to other factors, documentation - journalistic and official - of many such deaths have clearly shown that indebtedness, crop failure, and harassment by lenders led farmers to take such extreme measures. The damage to jowar, cotton, grape, wheat, and other standing crop in 28 Maharashtra districts on 15 lakh hectares of farmland comes at a particularly bad time for farmers. With the model code of conduct coming into effect and the administration in election-mode, the announcement and the doling out of compensation could be delayed.
Since the onset of trade and commerce, the risks associated with agriculture have made it a particularly demanding, yet indispensable, occupation. Tales of drought or unseasonal rainfall leading to crop failures, indebtedness and ruin has been oft-told for centuries. The onset of modernity, modern government, and technological developments has drastically changed urban India, but the pauperisation of farmers further intensified. At Independence, India was confronted with the choice of redistributing agricultural land to landless peasants and sharecroppers. Instead, political expediency led to a technocratic solution, now known as green revolution. Technological improvements have bolstered foodgrain yields, but the expenditure incurred in fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, machinery and other inputs have affected the viability of small farms. Without institutional financing, moneylenders and middlemen were granted a free run of the field.
When margins fell because of higher input costs, farmers have taken to risky experiments with multiple crops to tap market preferences. But the returns have been erratic. Other than power and urea subsidies, enduring interventions have been few and far between. Riding a wave of rural anger against the NDA, the UPA government offered minimum support prices (MSP) and a one-time debt-waiver on farm loans during its first term, but precious little since then. Even these measures had minimal impact on small and marginal farmers. A recent CSDS survey found that only 53 per cent farmers heard of the loan-waiver, of whom 10 per cent benefited from it. On MSPs, 62 per cent had not heard about them, while 64 per cent who availed them found the prices too low. CSDS also captured an alarming finding: 76 per cent of the farmers wanted to give up agriculture.
This crisis in agriculture has cataclysmic consequences for India in the short run. Though it now contributes only 13 per cent of India's GDP, agriculture employs 49 per cent of the Indian workforce, a sizeable number. Like many governments, India is also envisaging a capital-intensive agriculture where GM crops, larger farm-sizes, fewer farmhands and mechanised farming will become the norm. A steady shift out of agriculture has gathered pace in recent decades but few other sectors are as labour-intensive. The ability of the Indian economy to accommodate a sudden spurt in workers shifting out of agriculture is also doubtful. A renewed political focus on the rural economy and a standing commission in all states to deal with farmers' suicides has become imperative. Nowhere should men or women have to commit suicide because of a failed business. Without mitigating the risks associated with agriculture or offering farmers' alternate livelihoods, the responsibility for their deaths falls squarely on the central and state governments.