As children, we were taught to say before our meals, “Annadaata sukhi bhava.”
It was a thanksgiving to God for sending the farmer to make food for us and may God bless him. Today, the farmer is helpless. He has no God to go to.
Farmer suicides are the tip of the iceberg. The future of agriculture, or lack of it, is staring us in the face. Periodical doles like loan waivers are patchwork remedies, not a solution. They enable some farmers to move forward. But what about the loans accumulated in successive droughts?
The crux of the problem is that farming is exposed to the vagaries of nature far more than any other activity. Maharashtra has created only 17% irrigation potential against the national average of 33%. Even if all the stalled projects are completed — and that’s in the realm of hyperbole, it will cover less than half the land under cultivation.
Our farmers need hand-holding that is woven into policy on a sustained basis. Farm subsidies are a norm all over the world, even in the US, Europe and communist China. Farmers need protection in the form of subsidies per acre, and other supportive measures like freezing NREGA to release farm labour during sowing and harvesting, watershed and storage systems, guaranteed bank loans, promotion of agricultural research, and awareness programmes on productive farm practices.
But here, we are bleeding them to cut food prices instead of cushioning them from inflation. The government doesn’t really understand what to do with the farmer. And that’s not its fault. It’s getting elected by these people term and again, giving it no motivation to look into their misery. Farmers, typically, do not vote as farmers or for a political party en bloc. They vote on the basis of the caste of the candidate, at least well until their tolerance threshold is crossed.
This is the case everywhere. The Gujjars in Gujarat and the Jats in Haryana demand community-specific benefits, not occupation-centric. By itself, there is nothing wrong in their not voting as farmers. Most of us don’t vote according to our professions. But the parties are pledged to urban causes because we are empowered whereas the farmer is not. If only to come back from the brink, he needs to smarten up as a voter. The farmers suffer also because they are not united. There are many experts and farmer organisations but they are scattered and don’t always speak in one voice.
If the politician doesn’t care, neither does the bureaucrat. One bureaucrat once told me we need barely a fraction of land under cultivation to meet the country’s needs. So, the argument went, we must let the farmers keep selling out their lands and let the cities expand. That’s happening, at least in Vidarbha. Farmers are selling their five acres of land to cough up a bribe of Rs5 lakh to get a government job as a peon, or 20 acres to pay Rs15 lakh to become a teacher. The economy is more partial to a peon than to a farmer. No kidding.
Last week, Sharad Pawar said Maharashtra does not produce enough food for its needs. As the Union agriculture minister and the most powerful state representative at the Centre, he should also tell us why it is so.