Agriculture in India

Agriculture in India dates back  to the  Indus  Valley  Civilization. South  India had farming  even  earlier  to that period. India  is  primarily  an  agrarian  economy  by any  definition. According to a recent survey, the country has 90.2 million agricultural householdswhich consists of 58 percent of the  total population.Agriculture  contributes some  27  percent to the  GDP.The primary  sector  provides  employment  to  a little  over 70 percent  of the  population.Agriculture  covers   more than  50  percent of  the  total geographical  area  of  India. Sadly there  are some  86  percent marginal farmers in  India  with small and tiny land holdings.   Demographically,  agriculture is  the  broadest economic  sector.In  2013 India  exported $ 38  billion  worth agricultural  products.Thus India became the  7th largest  exporter  to  120  countries.

It  plays a critical role in the overall socio-economic fabric  of India.In 2018, agriculture  employed more than  50  percent  of  the  workforce and  accounted  for nearly  20  percent of  the  GDP.

India  is  witnessing  a very  different  type of mega  farmer drama  enacted  in the  national Capital of  the  country. It is  unfortunate and at the same time   an eye opener to all stakeholders and  particularly  to  Government.

  The  Joint Farmer Movement (SKM) is a Federation of 500 farmer organizations, spearheading the agitation based on agricultural discontentment in India. It is of paramount  importance as  the  latest number of  farmer  suicides  stands at  3. 75  lakhs. Sordid  vested  interest  groups  are  trying  to  depict  it as only  a local  protest  of  farmers  form Punjab and  Haryana.In fact it’s the   collective  voice  of  some 14  crores  of  farmers from the  whole  country.The recently enacted Farm Bills  is the core issue. The new regime  would  adversely affect   the system of procurement under MSP, among others.It may become a  ground  for  the  free play for corporates. The demand  for ensuring farm prices at least 50 percent more than inputs cost is the real issue. Would it be implemented, is the moot question! The inclusion of the rental value of land in the inputs cost is another  issue. Agriculture must remain environmentally sustainable and at the same time remunerative for the producers. The current protest is therefore, neither ill-informed or motivated by external forces as  alleged.Nonetheless, Hon  Amit  Shah  did  never  brand it  as a  politically  motivated agitation.

let us now examine the 3 farm bills in detail.

Liberalisingaccess to agricultural produce markets is the first close to be understood. Removing the existing barriers of storage of produce is the second bill. The third one is about facilitating contract farming.

We must understand the background of the farmer concerns to begin with. The total area under food crops run into millions of acres in India  as  pointed out  earlier. States like Punjab and Haryana together account for nearly 35% of the land under  cereal crops. In Punjab alone nearly 100 lakh acres are under food crops.Out of this nearly 99% is irrigated. Tubewells and borewells constitute   the major source of irrigation. The average area of a farmer  under  plough –average holding size-is around 10 acres. In Punjab alone some 75  lakh acres is cultivated under Paddy  and another 70 lack acres under wheat, apart from maize and cotton .Very interestingly  much of  the  sought after basmati rice is cultivated in some 15lakh acres. The productivity per acre in Punjab for paddy- rice  and wheat is nearly   7 to 9 tonnes   each  per acre. Compared to international standards, Punjab is quite  at par with  the  others. Nearly 100 lakh tonnes of rice  and  130 lakh tonnes  of  wheat  are procured by  FCI every year. The  major share of central pool of the Government of India  is  accounted  by  Punjab alone. If you take it at the national level the Punjab farmers contribute nearly 35percent  to   the Food Corporation of India. FCI  pays to  Punjabi  farmers  Rs.60,000 crores  per annum.This means on an average Punjabi household makes a  littleover Rs 23,000   per month from agricultural operations. In a way that explains  the higher  standard  of living even in the  villages in Punjab.

Why the farmers  are scared of the new Farm Laws? The major concerns of the farmers include the following namely  minimum support price. Would  the farmers  be forced to market the marketable  surplusto the private traders. Would  they face  distress  sales?

Another concern  is  once  the   supported  and controlled marketing system becomes weaker or  obsolete, the private sector may take  the  farmers   for  a ride. Currently  the  APMCs—Agricultural  Produce Marketing Committees- are  doing a  commendable  job.

There  are  some 6700 APMCs in India  covering a  wide  spectrum  of agriculturalactives. Taking into  account  the number of  districts at 781 in India,  for  catering the  needs of 14  crores  of  farmers,  logically  we need 42,000  APMCs.

In the  absence   vibrant and  effective  MPMCs, the  farmers  market  in distress markets  their marketable  surpluses. For instance  while  the  MSP  of  paddy  is Rs  18, the  Assam  farmer  sells it  for Rs  5 to  6 and  goes   as  seasonal migrant workers  in states like  Kerala, who owns and  operates 20 to  30  acres of paddy  growing  land in  his home   village.This  is  another  topic of a case study.

Admittedly  the  APMCs are  to be  revamped  for making them   leakage  free. Here  the government    should have focused ,instead of  going  for introducing many bills in  Parliament.Sadly it is  forgotten  that  agriculture is a state  subject under the  constitution of India. The union  government has  no  mandate  to legislate on agriculture.

 The supply of power and the provision  of free electricity to the farmers maybe another setback to the farming communityunder the  new law. Stubble  burning , immediately after the harvest is considered as a big environmental challenge and it attracts  heavy penalty on the farmers. Unless bio degradable waste management is practiced on a large scale within the minimum possible time , this problem remains a major challenge.One must understand that within 45 days  after the harvest  of  paddy  , the farmers in Punjab sell approximately 150 lakh  tonnes of Paddy . These markets have got well established infrastructure facilities like quality control, packaging,  etc.Surely  the  APMCs  needs  much more  strengthening.

In fact this is an amazing act in collective marketing. Farmers in Punjab  remind us a  success story ofconnectivity and collective bargaining power . It  is  an amazing  case study material  for  IIMs  or  even  Harvard. In Punjab, rural and semi urban areas are experiencing great activity boom during the sowing season and the harvesting season. Post-harvest technology is in its highest   form ensuring maximum returns to scale  in agricultural operations.

The farmers are extremely disturbed when they think about the sudden departure oforganised markets . The sudden non-operational situation of Food Corporation of India is totally unimaginable. Surely the farmers have every reason to be upset .

The Way Forward

After  having  seen  the murky state  of  affairs  culminating in the  form of farmer agitations  of unprecedented  magnitude,  some policy  road map  should  counsel the  policy makers in  New Delhi.

  1. The only way forward is to take farmers into  total confidence without attributing motives. Again the state shall not resort to regressive methods to handle farmer agitations .
  2. Honesty, transparency and sobriety must counsel the government to ensure development oriented all-inclusive approach, welfarism and social justice .
  • Peoples participation in the governance is a must for the acceptance of any reforms.
  • Repeal of  all  the  three   Farm Laws is the only way out. We must understand there were instances in the history like the repeal of   British Corn  Laws  to guide  us.Forget  not the  constitutional provisions .  Agriculture  falls  within the  purview  of  States jurisdiction to legislate  laws.
  • Appoint  expeditiously a task force consisting  members  of the  Farmer  Organisations, state  governments, NGOs, Think  Tanks,  APMCs, Union  Government  representees and  the like. The  TOR  may be  drawn  up  by  the  farmer  organisations, NGOS and  Think-Tanks representatives . Our own  think-tank,  namely  SDF—Sustainable  Development Forum- is only  too  happy   to  facilitate  the  work of  the  Task Force.
  • The most inhumane of  all provisions of  the  act is the  deprivation  of  the right  to  appeal  for  a   farmer! Let us  therefore, give  a decent  burial  to this  farm  law. Let the  darkness  exit with decency. Only meaningful regulations in the form  of  acts aimed at the  common good  of  the largest  majority exhales  darkness.

Note:  I am  immensely  obliged  to  many  international  professionals  like  Mr  K P Kannan , Former ADB Director;  Dr.John Akkara, Former NDDB Scientist; Mr  PV Mathew, Former  NDDB  Management  Expert and  Mr  Harwant  Singh  , Former  General Manger  of  PNB  for sharing  their  views  on a draft note on the theme.

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