The latest round of talks between the government and farmers’ representatives has once again concluded without an agreement. The good news is that the two sides have agreed to meet again on January 15. Let’s hope the farmers from the country’s northern states show flexibility in understanding why the government has undertaken to reform the agriculture sector.
Time is non-partisan and it judges us ruthlessly. If we do not embark on reforms in agriculture and allied sectors now, we will have failed the future generations. They will not forgive us when they look back at today’s stubborn but misguided opposition to the new farm laws.
The need for reform has been felt for the last three decades and that’s why the M S Swaminathan Committee was set up to come up with solutions to address the malaise in the sector. You need huge political will and courage of conviction to initiate reforms in agriculture, on which nearly 60 per cent of the country’s population is dependent. The two UPA governments had neither any interest in the welfare of farmers nor the political will to implement the Swaminathan Committee report.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi had so desired, he could have easily let things drift. He is being accused of initiating these reforms for the benefit of his alleged capitalist friends. But nothing can be farther from the truth. PM Modi has launched these reforms for the benefit of the farmers and their future generations. The new laws are meant to take not just the farm sector forward but benefit the entire country.
Even if the Modi government had not framed these new laws, I would have demanded reforms in the farm and allied sectors. We need reforms because much of our agricultural practices are trapped in the past. The production of crops is lopsided and distribution is even more skewed. We produce much more wheat and rice than we need. But our fruit, lentils and vegetable production is much less than our requirement. We do not find much use for science, modern machines and satellite images for data analysis and are not imaginative about irrigation. The sector is starved of capital and bereft of start-ups.
The paddy and wheat farmers appear to have little or no regard for the demand and supply cycle in the market because they know that the government will buy their produce, demand or no demand. This is not an ideal farm practice.
Just imagine this: The farm and allied sectors contribute only 17 per cent to our GDP, while they constitute 60 per cent of the country’s population. The services sector, the backbone of India’s economy, contributes a massive 55 per cent while the share of industries is 26 per cent. The two together make up much of the GDP but the population dependent on them is just about 40 per cent.
Year after year, the GDP contribution of agriculture and allied services is going down. We should have arrested the decline a long time ago. The UPA government never did so. The Narendra Modi government has done that.
Consider this as well: Only the US has more cultivable land than us. But we produce four times less crops than the US. China has less arable land than us and yet, as agriculture expert Ashok Gulati says, it produces three times more crops than us.
Forty per cent of our arable land is afflicted with degradation and infertility. It produces fewer nutrient crops and at less than its capacity. Deforestation is chipping away at cultivable land. Monsoon rains bring floods and deficient rainfall causes drought. Our water management system is outdated and uses a lot of the underground water, causing the water table to deplete fast.
China began its farm reforms in 1980. Agriculture scientists believe it takes more than 30-40 years or at least two generations to enjoy the fruits of reform. If we start now, we will be doing a great service to our future generations. PM Modi’s vision should be seen in this backdrop.
In fact, it’s not all doom and gloom. We have bits of everything going in the farm sector, largely due to market forces. For example, big private players already operate in the agriculture sector. The ITC’s annual farming sector turnover is Rs 7.5 thousand crore. They have been doing contract farming of sorts through the “E-Choupal” scheme that has brought 40 lakh farmers under it. The company aims to hit the one crore mark soon. There are private players in agro-businesses too and thus far it’s been a happy relationship between the two sides — cases of exploitation, if any, are negligible.
A few start-ups are using new technologies such as drones and satellite images to analyse the quality of soil and seeds and determine how much water a particular crop needs at what time.
But the development is uneven and not spread across the country. It needed government intervention. It needed to be given a direction. Hence the new farm laws. In fact, we need more reforms. This should just be the beginning. Hopefully, the entire agricultural system is remodelled to serve the farming community.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 11, 2021, under the title “A reform for the future”. The writer is a BJP MP
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