From plate to plough: Does anyone love the farmer?

The Union cabinet lacks a champion for agriculture

Written by Ashok Gulati | Updated: October 12, 2015 7:44 am
Since 2012-13, agriculture is limping, partly due to droughts and partly due to the collapse in commodity prices. Since 2012-13, agriculture is limping, partly due to droughts and partly due to the collapse in commodity prices.

Policymakers in the corridors of power in Delhi are feeling upbeat. There is recovery and resurgence in India’s stockmarkets. The Make in India campaign is getting more publicity and being noticed by foreign investors. FDI inflows are improving, and India’s ranking in the Ease of Doing Business index seems to be improving, as per some selective ratings.

But agriculture, where almost half of India’s workforce is engaged, continues to be in the doldrums. And no one seems to be perturbed about it. That’s pathetic and tragic.

Between 2004 and 2011, domestic agricultural prices rose in line with global prices, which incentivised farmers to invest in agriculture. This, in turn, resulted in higher growth in agriculture, higher wages for farm labour, and the fastest decline in poverty since the initiation of reforms in 1991. The decline in poverty during this period was almost three times faster than during the 1993-2004 period. But the dream run seems to be over.

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Since 2012-13, agriculture is limping, partly due to droughts and partly due to the collapse in commodity prices.

Government officials vie with the RBI in taking all the credit for taming inflation, especially food inflation. If their policy instruments are so powerful, how is it that they are helpless to control the prices of onions and pulses, which have gone up by more than 50 per cent in a single year? Our analysis shows that almost two-thirds of the decline in food inflation has resulted from the fall in global prices. This is leading to a decline in agri-exports, rising imports and falling food inflation at home. This is a result of sheer good luck for the Narendra Modi-led government — not a policy success.

But there is some bad luck too — in the form of back-to-back droughts. Monsoon rains (June 1 to September 30) in 2014 were less by 12 per cent compared to the long period average. That led to a drought, and agri-GDP growth collapsed to 1.1 per cent. This year’s rain deficit is bigger at 14 per cent, and water storage in 91 reservoirs is also lower than last year. Unless a miracle happens, or statistics are cooked, all reports from the ground suggest that growth is going to be even lower. That would mean that, against a target of 4 per cent, the average growth of agriculture during the first  four years of the 12th Five Year Plan is going to be only around 1.5 per cent. That’s a massive failure in a sector that engages the largest number of people, especially those at the bottom of economic pyramid.

So the big political question that needs to be addressed is: What is the role of public policy? I will not recommend sacrificing growth to attain equality, but the nature of growth must be tweaked to get at least 4 per cent growth in agriculture.

Farmers are losing patience with each passing day. Punjab farmers are already up in arms, blocking trains because their cotton crop is heavily damaged and basmati prices have collapsed by more than 50 per cent. Soon farmers from Maharashtra, the interiors of north Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh are likely to rise up in protest. Can the Centre hear the rumblings? It is a wake-up call. Only the deaf can ignore it.

On August 15, the prime minister announced a change in nomenclature, adding “farmers welfare” to the name of the department of agriculture and cooperation. But, so far, there is no sign of any welfare measure for the farmers. We have only heard of the OROP for jawans, but kisans have been left to fend for themselves. What can the PM do to improve the economic situation of those engaged in farming so that their poverty can be eliminated in the next 10-15 years? A number of things can be done to achieve this.

First and foremost, we need a true champion of agriculture in the Union cabinet — someone who has a clear vision and the commitment and passion to tap the full potential of Indian agriculture in a global setting. Second, it is about time the Centre declared a drought in the worst-hit states, like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and even Punjab. The Centre should ask the states to assess the damages in the next two weeks. Further, the assessments being made today are more political than scientific. That needs to change. And based on the degree of damage, the Centre should frontload the compensation package. Crop insurance needs to be resurrected. And farmers should be mainstreamed so that they avail of life insurance schemes, the Atal pension scheme, etc. Among other things, loans can be restructured and interest rates waived off. These measures will reveal the PM’s concern and compassion for the farming community.

It would be good economics, as well as good politics.

The writer is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at Icrier 

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First Published on: October 12, 2015 12:14 am
  1. 4
    453135
    Oct 12, 2015 at 5:19 pm
    agri minister baliyan and food processing minister niranjana jyoti look like quite some champions
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    1. R
      Rob Krishnan
      Oct 12, 2015 at 6:10 pm
      Why is that in India intellectuals always blame the Govt. (doesn't matter which party is in power) for everything. If people are sleeping in the streets because they left their village for the city or for people peeing in the streets. Why don't these people look at the mirror & ask what have they done that day to help? If people are procreating like fleas because of religion or ignorance or stupidity it is the Govt. fault, if people can't clean up their own back yards it is the Govt. fault and if s like Khobragade can't live without a servant in a country where the Presdent carries his own umbrella, it is the Govt. fault. Why?
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        Govindarajan Sampath
        Oct 12, 2015 at 6:32 pm
        Successive Governments have done little to inoculate the agricultural sector from the vagaries of weather and the far too obvious climate change. Disproportionately large acreage is set aside for cash crops when there is shortage of staples like cereals and pulses. People too have to change their dietary habits, so that we learn to use what is available rather than insisting on a shortage commodity like onions. Stopping trains and other such disruptive behavior should be punished. Farmers are not the only people in this nation.
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        1. J
          Jai Hind
          Oct 12, 2015 at 3:18 pm
          Your article is highly appreciated but we could change the le 'Plough to Crematorium' the Politicians are losing count of how many farmers are committing suicide, unfortunately nothing much being done about it, Let us remind our PM his foreign policies may be fine, but domestic sector is highly ignored.
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          1. T
            Tellitasitis
            Oct 12, 2015 at 9:50 am
            I sincerely appreciate your concern for the farmers, Dr Gulati. But agriculture has few champions in the cabinet, either at centre or in the states, for the simple reason there are no kickbacks for the policy makers or the implementers. Poor, unorganised, clueless about how the government works, and voiceless, they are the most neglected lot in the nation.
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              BharatK
              Oct 12, 2015 at 2:46 am
              I appreciate Prof. Ashok Gulati for writing these informative articles on agriculture and farmers. BJP govt must find a heavyweight person with background of agriculture and farming for the Agricultrure Ministry. Our media eats TVs, computers, elites gossips and not FOOD. They never highlight anything of farmers and agriculture.
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                BharatK
                Oct 13, 2015 at 1:14 am
                This is the only piece readable and worthy in the entire news of IE. More than 90 percent are garbages in IE.
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                1. N
                  Narendra M
                  Oct 12, 2015 at 3:50 pm
                  (1) Farming has become very risky on account of weather changes, and other environmental risks. But question is what can the marginal/small farmers do in the current situation? Big farmers have capacity to sustain one or two bad years. In case of small farmers an additional factor of distress is lack of opportunities to sell produce wherever they want. (2) Author’s suggestion about crop insurance as a remedy for farmers’ woes may not be acceptable to many since (I believe) farmers' distress and agony cannot be mitigated by crop insurance alone. (3) For taking care of small farmers, both the Central and State governments will have to implement policies which take care of marginal and small farmers' financial interests, as also deal with hazards ociated with poor monsoon, and similar natural hazards. Question is this: Are our governments serious about solving farmers’ problems or they would continue to offer some financial help in times of crisis and then forget implementing long-lasting measures?
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                    Rajeev Tomar
                    Oct 12, 2015 at 5:05 pm
                    Dr Gulati, very well thought and said ... I just waana add that centre should start and implement such policies where learned people and agri companies shall join and boost farming. why all companies are into selling farm inputs or trading farm outputs leaving all the risk to a poor farmer who is not enough educated to support his highly risky and dying profession? why policies can't protect skimming of farm profits by MNCs from poor farmer's torn pocket. if at all there are policies where is the will to implement them. being an agri professional from last 14 years i strongly advocate that indian agriculture needs policy revamping which shall focus on converting a farmer to a agri prenure
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                      Deshapnde Deshpande
                      Oct 13, 2015 at 10:01 am
                      Unfortunately no one in central ministry to represent farmers, main reason is farmers only they have to create union and vote bank to get their issues fixed resolved. In Indian political context if people are grouped in big chunk then govt listens, else they simply divide them in caste, reservation and minority basis and their problems will never be fixed.
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                        Ramesh Grover
                        Oct 12, 2015 at 8:53 am
                        It is a right, well argued and articulated article on a pivotal issue. Agriculture has a vitality which gulvanises rural sector, which is our backbone and impacts economy including, industry, commerce, services, and all else. It is a ber not to have powerful voices in the government and Niti Commission to move rightly so as to be able to steer agriculture rightly or correctly.
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                          Ram
                          Oct 13, 2015 at 5:03 pm
                          We know the farmers who commit suicides when they fail to repay loans taken due to what so ever the reasons may be. Farmer is just an agenda. Nobody is worried about anybody. If anybody pretends, he is a hypocrite of the highest order. The politicians have money to compensate deaths may be due to any reason, whether one dies in stampede, in road accidents or lynched by the mobs. Life of a poor has a value after death only. As long he is living, he is meant for exploiting and perpetrating. It is our culture. The people do not treat parents like human beings, do not feed, do not take care of, do not spend for medical treatment, snatch every penny from them but after death spend millions so that the people appreciate after eating a sumptuous 'Mrityubhoj' in the Shraddh performed by the 'Shravan' like obedient and loving son.
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                          1. S
                            Sabir
                            Oct 12, 2015 at 3:38 pm
                            Feku made every farmer dream very high who are realizing their mistake of daydreaming with him now when suicide rate is all time high.
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                              xyz
                              Oct 12, 2015 at 12:16 pm
                              Finally. It took 18 months to get converted. Still better late than never.
                              Reply
                              1. X
                                xyz
                                Oct 13, 2015 at 6:27 am
                                Real one line gems: India's agricultural productivity was higher during Mughal times ( without dams) then it is today. Dreamed it a what? Indian farmers do not need dams to grow food. Lovely.
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                                  T.V. SIVAKUMARAN
                                  Oct 12, 2015 at 9:12 am
                                  Farmers like any of us is engaged in a profession, and ups and downs are part of the game and have to be taken in the stride. If a small trader opens a shop and incurs losses compelling him to shut down and end up in penury, no one asks the Govt. to come to his aid. Then why this pampering of farmers. ()Of course, this happens all over the world . Farmers , get loans at low interest,(which get completely written off quite often), get subsidised inputs ie. seeds, fertilisers , water, electricity etc. They do not pay income tax whatever be their income. What more is needed to help them. How long can we go on collecting taxes from people in other professions and keep on giving sops to the farmers. Why can't they organise themselves and arrange an insurance scheme through which those unlucky in a certain year is helped by those who are better placed? The Govt. should step in only if needed, when distress is widespread nationwide and serious.
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                                    Unni Krishnan
                                    Oct 13, 2015 at 12:40 pm
                                    Farmers have been a neglected section by successive governments. the majority are not only dependent on the vagaries of nature but also at the mercy of input dealers or private lenders,for finance and support. As regards to subsidies to the farming community there are many which appears on the paper but most of them never reaches them,rather they are framed for the benefit of these very input dealers or the middle men/agencies.Added to this most of these subsidies are not need based and are spread too thin. For sustainable agriculture there has to be a distinct shift from the subsistence mode to commercial mode of farming practices ,for which there is a need for investment. There are many central government programmes which encourage farmers to set up agri- business centers on good and beneficial terms. However the hurdle most of them face is in getting timely bank loans,and the subsidy part linked with bank loans. Without spreading subsidies thin,if the government were to encourage field level banks and central banks to extend credit facility and subsidy facility respectively agriculture will become a profession of choice. Dr.R. Unnikrishnan,09000262634
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                                      Vish
                                      Oct 14, 2015 at 5:27 pm
                                      It is true. Only ignoramuses do not know. Just google or research. You will know the truth. Vast majority of Indian agriculture is still rain fed. So farmers do grow crops without dams as they used to before Bhakra Nangal, Damodar valley etc. were built. In reality Indian governments, whether Congress, BJP, Janata Dal, DMK, AIADMK, SP, Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, NC, CPI, TMC, CPM do nothing for the farmer. They are aided in this because farmers settle for sops like loan waivers etc. and rest are ignorant like you.
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                                      1. V
                                        Vish
                                        Oct 12, 2015 at 3:59 pm
                                        Mr. Ashok Gulati writes impressively in favour of India's most important occupation/ profession. Sadly farming has always received a raw deal from India's ruling elite starting with India's first PM, who was obsessed with capital goods and the public sector. Since then all governments have followed the same path, refusing to reform agriculture and bring prosperity to the farmer. Unless India builds a firm agricultural base, strong economic growth that will completely eradicate poverty will remain a pipe dream.
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                                        1. V
                                          Vish
                                          Oct 12, 2015 at 9:53 pm
                                          Sorry it's you who doesn't know. No government since last 60 years has followed policies that empower the farmer. Grow up the dams were for generating Hayden power. Indian farmers do not need dams to grow food. India's agricultural productivity was higher during Mughal times ( without dams) then it is today. Indira hi nationalised banks so that her cronies could get jobs there or siphon money for industrial projects. No farmer benefited. Employment guarantee scheme was again for corrupt politicos and bureaucrats to make money creating fake payrolls. Famines are created thanks to stupid govt. policies like growing a water guzzling crop sugarcane in a water scarce state like Maharashtra. Farmers are made poor thanks to govt. policies of not giving them a proper price for what they produce by not allowing them to sell freely in the open market to whoever wishes to buy. Farmers are forced to sell only to select middlemen in APMCs. If farming is made profitable to the farmer, nobody will sell their land to Marwaris and Gujarti Sharks as you say. Govts. Keep farmers poor and make show of loan waivers, which farmers will never need if they are empowered. No govt. will allow that because it will lose a vote bank. Ignorant urban dwellers like you truly need to understand the unhappy plight of farmers, which is thanks to govt. policies of last 60 years.
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                                            Vish
                                            Oct 12, 2015 at 3:53 pm
                                            You cannot be more incorrect. Farming is like no other profession. It is the most important profession carrying the highest level of risk. The farmer gets no help from the government whether it is weather forecasting, scientific inputs, help in storing farm produce or even a fair prices for his produce. Government levies indirect taxes on farmers by not providing them a level playing field. Farmers cannot sell their produce to who they wish to at the price they wish to. India still does not permit easy movement of agricultural goods leave alone export of farm produce. Farmers are tied to middlemen and big buyers who milk all the profit. No wonder in India farming is fast becoming a losing proposition.
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