May 30, 2015

Those responsible for the agrarian crisis cannot be expected to provide a solution.

Fifty-three expert committees have submitted reports on farmer suicides in the past few decades and yet the serial death dance continues unabated. Despite so much of expert advice, nearly 3-lakh farmers have committed suicide in past 20 years, which averages to two farmers ending their lives somewhere in the country every hour. This paradoxical situation must an amazing feet that can find an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records.

I am not sure how many more committees will be set up to know why are farmer’s taking their own lives. But in the meanwhile what is becoming clearly evident is that even these experts are beginning to throw up their hands. A brain-storming session organized by Punjab Farmers Commission to find some newer approaches to address the continuing and deepening agrarian crisis failed to come up with any ‘out-of-the-box’ solution. Except for making some routine suggestions, they had nothing new to offer.

This reminds me of a news report a few weeks back which said Maharashtra’s Agriculture Minister Eknath Khadse had in an honest admission accepted that the State Government was clueless about how to put a stop to farmer suicides in Vidharbha and Marathwada regions. Such a feeling of despondency prevails at a time when Niti Ayog has set up a task force on agriculture and has also directed State Governments to constitute similar task forces.

I don’t know what the use of a task force on agriculture is when Niti Ayog vice-chairman, Dr Arvind Panagariya, has in his inaugural piece on the Niti Ayog website, already spelled out his approach to address the continuing agrarian crisis. He wants a sizeable percentage of the farming population to be forced out of agriculture. The roadmap, howsoever faulty it may be, has already been laid out and I wonder what purpose the task force at the Central and numerous others at the State level are therefore expected to achieve.

This is not the first time that an effort is being made to find solutions to the vexed farming crisis. Earlier too, and for several years now, numerous expert committees had been set up by the erstwhile Planning Commission.  At the same time, many State Governments, including Punjab, have brought out Agricultural Policy documents after a series of expert consultations. Also, in preparation for the 12th Plan document, several task force and committees on sustainable agriculture, technology, water, and marketing had given their reports. The agrarian crisis meanwhile has continued to worsen.

I have time and again said that those responsible for the crisis cannot be expected to provide any plausible solutions. Most of the expert committees and panels are dominated by senior bureaucrats, farm scientists, economists and senior agriculture officers who have in one way or the other been part of the system that led to the crisis in the first place. To expect them to provide ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions therefore is like hoping against hope. If 53-expert committees have failed, it is futile to think that 30 more task forces to be set up across the country, both at the State and the Central level, would serve any purpose.

This is exactly what Albert Einstein had warned us about. He said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

He was so right. What is not being admitted is that the prevailing agrarian crisis is the outcome of the same kind of policies and approaches in which unfortunately we are now again trying to look for answers.  These unworkable solutions that are being routinely suggested fall within the contours of the existing agriculture cropping pattern. Some suggest diversification of crops like shifting from wheat to maize; some suggest water conservation as the key to boosting incomes; some other call for market-driven interventions; and finally everyone talks about need for raising crop productivity.

All these options have been tried in US/Europe and China. And still, US/Europe pays massive farm subsidies, exceeding $ 1 billion per day, to sustain farming operations. Withdrawing these subsidies would mean a collapse of the high-tech agriculture in the developed countries. Introducing more sophisticated and expensive machinery in India would simply add to farmer indebtedness. Further, despite a thrust on technology-based solutions like in Punjab, the farm crisis has only acerbated, 
Every day two farmers are committing suicide somewhere in Punjab, the frontline agricultural State.

For nearly three decades now, India’s rural underbelly has been gradually caving in. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers have turned the verdant lands poisonous, water mining has dried the aquifers leading to the expansion of the desert, and chemical fertilisers and pesticides have played havoc with the environment and human health. With the input prices climbing up year after year and the output prices remaining static, farmers have become a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country’s heroes. Agriculture has turned not only unsustainable but economically unviable.

With all these technological inputs has the income of farmers gone up? I looked at the costs and price calculations for Punjab farmers who are considered to be progressive, using the latest technologies and also bestowed with 99 per cent assured irrigation. The latest reports of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) works out the average net returns from a hectare of wheat and rice Rs 36,052 or Rs 3,029 per month.

Increasing farm income without selling him a new technology or mechanical equipment requires a different approach in policy planning. It requires two immediate steps: 

1) Time to discard the usual set of experts to look at agriculture. We need people from divergent streams to think and plan differently. The same set of people who were at the helm of the crisis cannot be expected to provide any meaningful suggestions. This also holds true for the Niti Ayong task force. Looking at the composition of the task force, my only worry is that Niti Ayog’s recommendations might only worsen the existing crisis. Albert Einstein was not wrong. 

2) The solution to the complicated and vexed Indian farming crisis does not lie in America or China. It is high time we stop citing the examples from the developed countries, which only ends up importing newer and expensive farm machinery and equipment. The solutions lie in our own backyard. If we look carefully in our own backyard, and search for local solutions meeting the specific needs of an agro-ecological zone, we can have ever- lasting answers to ensuring sustainable food security in the long-term. Technological solutions play an important part, but the bottom line has to be on how to provide an assured monthly income package for farmers. #

समितियों का सिलसिला Dainik Jagran, June 6, 2015

Package for Peasants. Orissa Post. June 10, 2015.

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