Sep 26, 2009

Kerala introduces a pension scheme for paddy farmers

Let us accept, the annadata in India is crying. They produce food for the country, and yet they go hungry. They struggle hard, working 24x7 in scorching sun, face the repeated vagaries of drought, kill themselves when they feel helpless, and are abandoning agriculture in increasing numbers. They are the real children of a lesser god. No wonder, we the urbanites, treat them as a national burden. At any given opportunity we want to offload this burden.

Successive Prime Ministers have been eulogising the role farmers play in national economy, policy planners have emphasised on the contribution of agriculture to the country's growth, economists continue to treat farmers nothing better than urchins, agricultural scientists continue to use farmers as a simple tool to boost the sales of chemical inputs -- fertilisers, pesticides, hybrid and GM seeds and so on, and the people in the cities treat them as a burden. Whether we like it or not, we are actually responsible for the plight of the farmers.

I sometimes wonder whether a farmer is in any way different than a beggar. I don't think so. In some ways a beggar is much better placed. A beggar at least gets alms. Many die with a rich bank balance left behind. All that a farmer gets is credit. And as a popular saying goes, a farmer is born in debt, and dies in debt.

For several years now, I have been demanding a direct income support to farmers. Like all of us, a farmer too needs income. He too needs medical allowance, leave travel concession and other benefits like an anuual bonus at the time of Diwali. And why not, after all he produces economic wealth for the country. He needs to be adequately compensated for the food he produces. We have cheated him for ages by depriving him of his legitimate due. It is time we pay him back for the great servcie he renders for us.

It is in this context that it is so heartening to learn that Kerala has launched a monthly pension scheme for paddy farmers. At Rs 300 (US $ 6) per month, it is certainly on the lower side. But still I think it is a good beginning. Kerala Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan deserves all compliments for introducing a pension scheme for paddy farmers. I admire his genuine concern for the farming class, and the political courage he demonstrated by starting a pension programme for farmers, which I am sure the economists must have opposed.

So far only 15,000 farmers above the age of 60 are being considered eligible. After the death of a beneficiary, his wife too will continue to receive half the amount as pension. This is certainly laudable. I however feel the retiring age should be lowered to 55 years, as it is in European Union. At the same time, the pension scheme should be extended to all categories of farmers. Also, farmer's widow should get the full amount of the pension since the entire burden of farming falls on her shoulder.

I requested my colleague Usha S, Director of the Kerala-based NGO Thanal to send me a small note on the farmers pension scheme. I hope in the days to come other State governments too follow Kerala's example and launch a similar pension scheme for farmers. They deserve it more than anyone.

Here is what Usha wrote:

It has become very clear in the last few years that Kerala is trying hard to rejuvenate agriculture and keep the morale of the farmers high after a long period of neglect and indifference. Farmers suffered a lot due to various trade agreements between India and other countries in the last 10-15 years. Why Kerala suffered is also due to its increasing dependence on export oriented cash crop agriculture and at the same time uncontrolled imports during the years. As a result, suicide by farmers in 'Gods Own Country' became a recurring phenomenon.

Several initiatives were launched to mitigate farmers distress. Farmers' Debt Relief Commision, Crop Insurance, Paddy Mission, Organic Farming Policy, GM Free Kerala Policy etc are some of these. But the most important of all these is the Kissan Abhiman Pension Scheme under which some 15,000 paddy farmers have started getting a monthly pension of Rs.300.

The discussion on the pension scheme came up when it was found out that howsoever the farmers may try to increase production, economically they are still at a loss and that is destroying the farming community and discouraging youngsters to take up farming. There was no opposition to this scheme when it was raised in the State Assembly because every body understood that more than the usual relief packages, what farmers need is some sort of concrete financial support. Like any other service provider, farmers also provide a lot of service, the basic service of giving food to the society and therefore need to be supported economically. 

With this understanding, a pension scheme for farmers was launched by the Chief Minister this year . Eligible farmers were indentified (farmers above 60 years of age, with no other income, and has been farming for the previous 10 years) through Krishi Bhavans and the number of eligible farmers came to about 15,000 numbers.

This is the first time a State is honouring its farmers by acknowledging their role in ensuring food security. A family pension scheme is also part of it . Once a farmer dies, his wife will get half the pension amount. A farmer is also supported for the marriage of his daughter with an amount of Rs.25,000/-

Agriculture minister has clearly stated that government will not stop this scheme with paddy farmers, but will broaden its scope to other farmers also. But the state and its farmers are now worried more after the central government went ahead signing the Indo-ASEAN FTA, without even consulting the State government. This surmounts to cheating. The negative impact of the ASEAN FTA surely will acerbate the crisis, and the State will have to launch more financial schemes for the farmers in the days to come.

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