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The Farmer Forsaken

Times of India

18-07-2015

Modi government is at best apathetic and more often than not adversarial to his aspirations
According to a Planning Commission report, for India to grow at 9% its farm sector must grow at 4%. Unfortunately, for the first time in a decade, India’s agricultural output witnessed negative growth this year, with farm output declining by 1.4% between January and March. The growth of the agriculture sector in 2014-15 has been paltry at 0.2%, compared to 3.7% a year ago. And in case these statistics don’t depict the extraordinary state of distress in this sector, farmer suicides have increased by over 40% during the past year.At a campaign rally last year, Narendra Modi accused UPA of turning `Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ to `Mar Jawan Mar Kisan’. But his accusation couldn’t be more inaccurate given that during the past 10 years agricultural output grew at an accelerating pace ­ increasing from 2.6% under the NDA government to 3.1% under UPA-I and 4.1% under UPA-II. In the same period, India’s share in agricultural exports increased from 0.8% to 2.6%, and agricultural credit increased and benefitted more than 7 crore farmers. A supportive government implemented several schemes to address the concerns of the farmer in a holistic manner.

Today the crisis in the sector stems from a number of factors. Weather has played spoilsport with threats of both drought and unseasonal precipitation.There has also been a free fall in prices of all crops. Gross capital formation in agriculture has declined over the past year. Significantly , as Ashok Gulati wrote recently , more than 80% of this investment comes from the private sector, but with prices in free fall private sector investments are also slowing down.

In the face of shocks like these, a responsible government must intervene to provide relief to farmers, while also putting in place policies to prevent such crises in the future. Unfortunately, the Modi government has failed to take appropriate measures, and the promise of `acche din’ continues to elude the farmer. BJP’s own ally , Shiv Sena, has criticised the party’s government in Maharashtra for not taking any action on restructuring old loans or issuing new ones to farmers affected by unseasonal or deficient rainfall. While banks and financial institutions have slashed agricultural credit to farmers, the central government has failed to play its role by stepping up to the plate and ameliorating the situation.

Government’s efforts to recompense farmers for their losses have been similarly tardy and scarce, if that. Earlier this year, the Centre offered to reimburse state governments for compensating farmers through the State Disaster Relief Fund. However, this policy comes with a significant rider: the assistance will only be provided for the first disaster in a financial year. And in the event that “the state faces another severe disaster during the same year, no adjustment will be made while releasing National Disaster Relief Fund assistance“. There is also a cap on relief for damaged crops, to a maximum of two hectares ­ this automatically excludes 50% of farmers from protection. In effect, policies announced promise more than they can deliver on the ground. This is counterproductive, and the intentions underlying these policies are questionable.

Government has also done little to arrest the downward spiral of prices.The increase in MSP announced by the current government is significantly less than the average yearly increase during the 10 years of UPA. The Centre has also prohibited states from declaring bonuses beyond its MSPs, further exacerbating the crisis being face by the farmers.

All this indicates that the government’s policy towards the farmer is at best apathetic, and more often than not adversarial. Nowhere is this more visible than in NDA’s land acquisition ordinance that seeks to dismantle the safeguards that were put in place by UPA’s land acquisition law. Requirements for consent and social impact assessment have been done away with. Specific restrictions that were imposed to prevent arbitrary acquisition of multi-crop and agricultural land have also been removed, the return of land has been made much harder for poor farmers, and provisions for the employment of farmers and landless labour have been ignored.

Such actions are incomprehensible at several levels. The criticality of the agriculture sector in addressing India’s broader development challenges is self-explanatory . Global experiences also demonstrate the central role of agriculture growth in addressing the broader development challenges of poverty, health and malnutrition.

As M S Swaminathan writes, “Food production provides the base for food security as it is a key determinant of food availability.“ Referring to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, he adds that the “experience of countries that have succeeded in reducing hunger and malnutrition shows that growth originating in agriculture, in particular the small holder sector, is at least twice as effective in benefitting the poorest as growth from non-agriculture sectors“.

The current attitude towards the farm sector demonstrates that the `Make in India’ campaign has no intention of eradicating the challenges in agricultural productivity . Perhaps it’s time for the government to take a `selfie’ now, and introspect on the impact of its policies (or lack thereof). Ultimately , slogans like `Sab Ka Saath Sab Ka Vikas’ remain just that when the needs of a sector that employs three-fifths of the country’s population are ignored.

The writer is a Congress Lok Sabha MP