Farm sector demands urgent attention
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 27 Jun 2019 3 Comments

A new government is in place in New Delhi, with an absolute majority, which in itself should give it enough courage to implement reforms that will ramp up a slowing economy. No sector beckons support as much as the farm sector does, because that is the life line of India. If rural India’s economy looks up, that acts as a strong precursor for the manufacturing sector and other allied services. Thus, one can definitely see a positive “ripple effect” for the overall growth of India.


When the agricultural economy slumps, the country’s growth engine nose dives. Nothing highlights this as the countrywide farmers’ agitation did, some months preceding the Lok Sabha election. Now an environmental disaster is looming large. And that is global warming. The United Nation’s Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, is convening a summit of the global heads of governments for a summit on global warming early September. This simply speaks of the urgency of this matter. And, to be precise, water is at the centre of this grave environmental hazard.


Take, for example, the situation in Kerala. In August 2018, there were torrential rains, unheard of since decades, the dams were full and overflowing when an ill-informed electricity minister ordered the dam shutters be opened and created a man-made disaster, forcing thousands to abandon their homes, because it seemed as though parts of Kerala, especially southern Kerala, was sinking! Now it is mid-June, the delayed south west monsoon is making a drinking water shortage apparent to all.


Tragically, all those “policy planners” in government never had a clear plan to harvest the rain water and as a result, 99 per cent of the water received from the skies last August simply flowed into the Arabian Sea, after causing havoc to human life. This brings us to the central question: is there a clear level headed water management policy in India? At the time of writing this article, India’s south west monsoon rainfall is deficient by 43 per cent.


One could look at Israel, carved out of large tracts of the desert in the Middle East, where the Americans, French and British wished the Jews of Europe, principally Germany, to be herded after the Second World War. The place was dry as dust. Seven decades later, Israel produces the best orange in the world, “Jaffa”, and the system of drip and sprinkler irrigation was the brain child of Israel’s hydrologists. Look at the neighbouring tract, it is still as dry as dust.


Israel has the world’s best desalinization plant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the country two years ago, and while a lot was said and written, no joint package in water management and desalinization project has materialized in India. Why? The same is true of water-rich Kerala. Almost a decade ago when an LDF government was ruling the state, a delegation was sent to Israel “to study” water management. Till this day, nothing is seen on the ground.


The new government will have to face three major challenges in the long run. First and foremost would be to end the water woes of perennially drought-prone areas. In India, agriculture to a large extent is still rain-fed. Intensive irrigation systems are confined to only States like Punjab and Andhra. Take the case of Bt cotton in Maharashtra. If it has failed in Vidarbha region, leading to thousands of suicides by the cotton farmers, it is because of failed rains, because Bt cotton needs copious water to produce well. And, in the dry season, starting August-September, when cotton is sown, the land is parched, and if the northeast monsoon fails, the cotton crop simply withers. Vidarbha can turn into a dust bowl.


The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana was formulated to enable completion of 99 projects by 2019. Yet, 93 projects remain uncompleted. On account of assured prices for paddy and sugarcane, farmers continue to grow these water-guzzling crops, even in regions unsuitable for them.


When the NDA government came to power in 2014, it very disappointingly did not do enough to encourage farmers to switch from the perennial paddy-wheat rotation to other crops, and to also grow soil-nitrogen enriching legume crops to replenish the degraded soils of fertility in the “green revolution” belt of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, India continues to produce more sugarcane than its domestic consumption requires, but sugar prices are higher here than in the global market, which hints at dirty politics of sugar barons and the sugar lobby. It should be noted that the World Trade Organization has questioned the subsidy to sugarcane farmers.


The next challenge would be on marketing of agricultural produce. It is high time India thought of a “Common Market” like the European Common Market of the European Union. Take the price of agricultural produce like grapes. When one travels from northern Belgium to the southern-most tip of Spain, the price of grape would not vary more than one Euro a kilo. Yet, in India, it can vary by as much as Rs. 40-50 a kilo when we move from grape producing states like Madhya Pradesh or Maharashtra to down south in Chennai. The difference is simply gobbled up by middlemen.


It is nearly two decades since the Model Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act came into being, but New Delhi has failed to persuade States to adopt it. New Delhi brought forth the State/UT Agricultural Produce and Livestock Marketing (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2017, yet it is still in limbo.  


Perhaps no other factor is of more concern than the question of minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural produce. In principle, it has been agreed by New Delhi that the MSP would be 50 per cent more than what it costs for the farmer to produce a crop. This was effective since kharif 2018. But, procurement was so tardy that millions of farmers were left uncovered. This was one reason why farmers began to dump their produce on roads as a sign of protest. Most poor and marginal farmers felt cheated.


In sum, I would conclude, the Modi government has its hands full, and it must start urgently with agriculture, lest five years hence, Indians again complain that promises made during the election were not honoured.


The author is an internationally renowend agricultural scientist; he can be reached at

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