The news that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants an annual agriculture survey from next year, similar to the pre-Budget Economic Survey, is perhaps aimed at kick-starting agricultural reforms. Agriculture had remained on the back burner ever since the Economic Reforms were unleashed in 1991, and has been literally crying for attention.
The Prime Minister's office, says a report in The Hindustan Times (Agriculture reform next on the menu? HT July 5, 2011) has called for an "analysis of policy issues, evaluation of schemes and their impact on farm economy." This is certainly a welcome step. But if what the Prime Minister told a select group of editors the other day is any indication, agriculture is in for still a worst crisis. Why I say so is because the word 'reform' only means more of privatisation. And privatisation in agriculture, especially for a country like India, would only acerbate the prevailing crisis by bringing in unsustainable technologies through inappropriate policy changes.
As per The Hindustan Times report: In case of retail, where a proposal to allow global chains to enter the Indian market is awaiting government decision, PM sought to push the case for allowing foreign investment arguing that it would help improve supply-chains and distribution of food supply. At the same time he tried to soothe swayed nerves of small traders who fear they might be out of business. "There is fear of small traders, but without breaking such institutional barriers, there is fear of food inflation. I am hoping we can make a beginning in these areas. These are some of the ideas that are uppermost in my mind," Singh said.
Although the Prime Minister did not mention the contentious term 'FDI in Retail' when he talked of allowing foreign investment to help improve supply chains thereby streamlining distribution of food supply, he actually implied that. I am aware that allowing FDI in Retail is uppermost in Prime Minister's mind and some news reports have indicated that an approval might come within a fortnight or so. As I have said earlier, that of course will be the beginning of the end of Indian agriculture.
Agriculture today is suffering from a terrible crisis resulting primarily from economic unviability and deepening unsustainablity. The tragedy of farm suicides and the growing economic distress is directly proportionate to the imposition of Green Revolution technology. It is true that farmers are burdened with mounting debt but what is not being realised is that the growing indebtedness is because farmers have been forced to buy technological inputs that have not only created the second-generation environmental impacts but also turned farming into a losing proposition.
From Green Revolution, India is fast moving towards what is popularly called Rainbow Revolution. All policies are being amended/designed to help facilitate the take over of small scale agriculture by corporates. Contract farming, future trading and FDI in food retail are some of the measures that can help agribusiness to take control over farming. And it is primarily to strengthen the control of agribusiness over agriculture that farmers are being pushed out of agriculture. The growing, often violent, conflicts over acquisition of land by the government on behalf of the companies only testifies the government's resolve to hand over agriculture to the industry.
Is this the way forward?
I don't think so. What India needs is a kind of agriculture that encourages production by the masses, and not for the masses. Displacing farmers, acquiring fertile land in the name of economic development, and allowing FDI in food retail are some measures that will destroy the very foundations of country's food security. Unfortunately, unlike corruption, the Supreme Court is not coming down heavily on the government's ineptness in handling agriculture. Somehow farming and agriculture has remained outside the thinking frame of the middle class. It is the least understood and the most exploited sector of the economy.
Reviving agriculture would therefore depend upon a right mix of public policies with appropriate action. Here is what I feel should be the approach to be adopted to truly reform agriculture: