Updated: May 26, 2015 12:21:21 pm
The prime minister has announced a more glorious future for farmers and farming. He has initiated a major programme on irrigation, since water security is fundamental to food security. He has also promoted greater attention to soil healthcare through the provision of soil health cards to all farmers. Unfortunately, the monsoon has not been kind. Drought, floods, hailstorms and unseasonal rain have caused total food production in 2014-15 to decline by 5.4 per cent. Thus, production this year, a four-year low, will
be 251.12 million tonnes. The weather is not under the control of the government, but weather management is possible.
The Union budget for 2015-16 has increased the allocation for agriculture credit, but much of it will go to large companies and not small farmers. Other pronouncements by the government, as well as the agriculture minister, are yet to be implemented. The hope is that state governments will invest more, since there will be greater transfer of funds to the states. It is rather premature to judge the performance of the government in the farm sector. Unfortunately, suicides by farmers have not stopped and agrarian distress has become more severe. The land acquisition act has generated considerable controversy.
I would like to concentrate on a few issues, important for converting the hope of achhe din aane waale hain into reality. Our green revolution has been sustained only because of public procurement of wheat and rice at a fairly reasonable MSP. In the farmers’ commission report, we have recommended that the MSP be the total cost of production plus 50 per cent. Unfortunately, a recent panel set up by the government has recommended only a margin of about 10 per cent more than the cost of production. No other profession has such low return. At the same time, farming is the riskiest profession due to uncertain weather conditions arising from climate change. The future will belong to nations with grains and not guns. Moreover, agriculture is the major livelihood industry in our country. It is our duty to safeguard the interest of small farmers who have limited marketable surplus. This is why I urge the government to implement our recommendation on the MSP. This is the only way to attract and retain youth in farming, to bring small farmers out of the poverty trap and to ensure sustainable food security.
The purposes for which farm land is to be acquired, and the procedures, have become a subject of considerable public and political controversy. The bottomline should be public good and not private profit. Food security has to be safeguarded, since in the coming years foodgrains will not be easily available in the international market and price volatility will be high. There is a need for an all-party consensus on preserving good farm land for farming and for adequate consultation and compensation before farm land is acquired for other purposes.
Also, for a population that may reach 1.5 billion in two decades, there is a need to create special agriculture zones (SAZs), where land will be utilised only for farming. SAZs should be designed to conserve prime farm land so that we do not revert to a ship-to-mouth existence. This will be an appropriate commemoration of the International Year of Soil (2015). The Punjab-Haryana agricultural area could be the first SAZ.
Recent IMD data reveal that at least 8.5 million hectares of crops were affected by unseasonal rains and hailstorms. Rainfall between March 1 and April 15 was almost double the normal. Experience shows that if the southwest monsoon begins early, there may be a lull in rainfall later. We should start preparing now. The following steps will be prudent. One, mandatory rainwater harvesting in all farms for crop-life-saving irrigation if there is a prolonged dry spell. Wherever farms are small, community rainwater harvesting can be promoted. Equity in water-sharing is essential for cooperation in water-saving. Some method of community management, like a pani panchayat, will be useful. Two, in case there is a prolonged dry spell between rains, seedlings may wither. Therefore, seed banks with alternative short-duration crops should be built up and the choice of alternative crops could be according to both home needs and market demand.
Three, contingency plans to adapt to different weather probabilities should be prepared jointly by agriculture universities and farmers’ associations. Women farmers in particular should be consulted. Unless such joint work is promoted, the technical advice may remain on paper. Four, our grain reserve is dwindling and climate change is posing unforeseen threats. Thus, codes of coping with weather probabilities like drought, flood and good weather should be prepared jointly by scientists and farmers. Eternal vigilance is the price of stable agriculture and sustainable food security. This will call for an inter-disciplinary monsoon management strategy.
The aim of the International Year of Soil (2015) is to highlight the importance of land and soil to meet the zero-hunger challenge. Land is a shrinking resource and we have to produce more and more from less and less land. The following steps are essential: One, declare areas characterised by fertile soils capable of sustaining two-to-three good crops a year as SAZs. SAZ identification and declaration may be done by state governments in consultation with farm people. Special facilities may be provided to farmers to maintain
SAZs as the custodian of national food security. Two, establish in each of our 130 agro-ecological zones a soil health monitoring and amelioration centre. These should not only help farmers with soil health cards but also extend assistance to rectify soil defects. Three, pay special attention to soil organic matter, since this is essential for improving the hydraulic conductivity (physics), chemistry and microbiology of the soil. Four, popularise local-level soil health assessment systems, such as earthworms and nitrogen-fixing and phosphorus-solubilising micro-organisms. Five, train a cadre of local-level soil health managers (both men and women) to help soil health monitoring and amelioration.
If we do not attend to soil health and improvement, we will not be able to end hunger. No further time should be lost in establishing SAZs. Farmer Gajendra Singh taking his own life in public was an example of the lack of social protection and commitment for saving farmers’ lives and livelihoods. I hope our collective conscience will lead to steps that provide farmers with a reasonable income and a decent life. Unless there is a pan political commitment, we cannot save our farmers from the era of agrarian distress. Today, there is a temptation to make political capital of such inexcusable human tragedies. Such political rivalry will not help solve farmers’ problems. The time has come to pay serious attention to the basic problems confronting farmers, as a result of both unfavourable monsoon and market. The prediction for the forthcoming southwest monsoon is discouraging and steps like SAZs, mandatory water harvesting, etc should be promoted.
The writer is founder chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.
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