The government and the political class seem oblivious to a deepening farm crisis, resulting from back-to-back monsoon failures and falling crop prices. One indicator of the growing agrarian distress is farmer suicides, no longer a phenomenon confined to Vidarbha or Telangana. The current year has seen farmers even in states like Karnataka, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh take their lives. The recent violence in Punjab over the alleged desecration of the Sikh holy text is also being linked to peasant unrest, following the largescale whitefly attack on the cotton crop and a collapse in basmati paddy prices. The primary factor behind this distress is, no doubt, the weather. Last year’s kharif production was affected by a deficient monsoon, while the standing rabi crop suffered damage from unseasonal rain and hailstorms in March. The monsoon has been poor this year as well. With the rain in October, too, being 47 per cent below normal, the country is staring at the prospect of a second straight bad agricultural year. For farmers, it translates into four consecutive crop failures.
This, clearly, is not an ordinary situation. While consumers haven’t been hit as much — thanks to global commodity prices ruling low — it is a crisis governments can ill-afford to ignore. Yet, states have been largely in denial mode (for instance, attributing suicides to personal problems not linked to crop loss) or slow to respond. Barring Karnataka, most have delayed even declaring a drought, which would qualify them for Central assistance. While some like Maharashtra and Odisha waited till mid-October to do so — even though the signs were clear by August — farmers will have to wait even longer for visiting Central teams to assess the extent of crop damage and release compensation monies. Such delayed payment totally offsets the Centre’s decision to hike crop relief sums per hectare by one-and-a-half times and provide compensation to even farmers suffering one-third crop damage, as against the earlier 50 per cent threshold.
But the Centre cannot escape blame either. Even as rabi season plantings are underway, it is yet to declare the minimum support prices for wheat, rapeseed-mustard, chana or masur. The importance of timely announcement cannot be emphasised enough at a time when the country is facing a critical shortage of pulses and farmers should get the right signal to grow these rather than wheat. Once the Bihar elections are over, the Centre should work towards getting its agriculture act in place. Farmers today need support, not through market-distorting subsidies, but from a robust crop insurance mechanism that triggers automatic payouts linked to measurable weather parameter deviations. The premiums on these are worth subsidising more than urea or electricity.