Rethinking farmers’ welfare

Farmers’ welfare is a multi-dimensional issue, with the farm ministry playing a small but significant role

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to rename the ministry of agriculture to ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare may be symbolic, but is at the least a recognition of the stress in rural economy.

Farmers’ welfare is linked to the investment in agriculture and irrigation, which have suffered funding cuts after recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission were adopted. Photo: AFP

The stress, particularly in the farming sector, is now all too obvious with the increase in suicides being reported in many states. The unseasonal rains that have destroyed crops and predictions of low rainfall this year have only added to the perception of a weak and struggling agricultural sector. These are not out of place, given that the recently released fourth advance estimates report a decline in foodgrain production by 12 million tonnes. Even on the monsoon front, latest data suggest a shortfall of 10%, with no signs of the situation reversing.

The renaming of the farm ministry in this context is nothing much to celebrate except for the recognition in the highest echelons of the need to focus on incomes and farmers rather than agricultural growth alone. The idea itself is certainly not new, with the agriculture department in Madhya Pradesh already known as department of farmer welfare and agricultural development for several years. What was missing from the prime minister’s speech were the concrete steps required to improve farmers’ welfare.

Farmers’ welfare is a multi-dimensional issue, with the farm ministry playing a small but significant role. As of today, the lives of farmers are governed by decisions taken by the ministries of agriculture, fertilizers and chemicals, power, water resources, petroleum, finance, environment, forest and climate change, commerce and lastly, food and consumer affairs. That itself is a huge list of ministries that affect agricultural production and farmers’ welfare directly and indirectly. More often than not, these ministries operate in isolation with no convergence between them and at times, they work at cross-purposes.

While this announcement is welcome, the expectation was of concrete steps to revive the fortunes of the farmers. Farmers have been suffering not only due to the vagaries of the monsoon, but also because of the depression in output prices. With the government not passing the benefits of lower petroleum prices, either in the form of lower fertilizer prices or lower power and diesel prices, rising input costs along with lower output prices have squeezed the farm business income of farmers. As a result, fertilizer consumption which had reached a peak of 55 million tonnes (mt) in 2011-12 declined to 47 mt in 2013-14. Also, the production of breeder seeds and foundation seeds declined from 145,000 tonnes to 99,700 tonnes during the same period. At a time when the farmers needed assured minimum support prices (MSP) to sustain them, the negligible increase in MSP announced by the government has also contributed to farmers’ desperation.

The real issue is not the short-term measures of dealing with the crisis, both manmade and natural, but the changing fortunes of farmers which are characterized by increasing vulnerabilities in agriculture. These are not just the transmission of international price volatility but also the unpredictability of government policy. Recent decisions to relax import controls and bar exports of certain commodities have certainly not helped contain price rise in essential agricultural produce such as onions, but has certainly added to the vulnerabilities of the farmers.

The recent crisis is also a grim reminder of the years of neglect of Indian agriculture and its continued dependence on the monsoon. Farmers’ welfare is therefore directly linked to the investment in agriculture and irrigation, both of which have suffered funding cuts after the recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission were adopted. Not only have there been cuts in the budget of the ministry of agriculture but also in other schemes particularly meant for the expansion of irrigation.

Steps to improve farmers’ welfare have been discussed for long. The last farmers’ commission chaired by M.S. Swaminathan gave a broad-based solution to improve the condition of farmers, which has been in cold storage ever since. There has been little progress on the stated promise of giving 50% over costs as MSP. The tokenism of soil health cards and assured markets for agricultural produce have hardly enthused the farmer. It is no wonder that survey after survey has reported young farmers quitting agriculture.

In sum, there is little on the ground which meets the rhetoric. There is some sense of urgency as far as farmers’ welfare is concerned. Not only is it necessary for the basic needs of food security and livelihood security, given that agriculture still employs the majority of workers in rural areas, but also because the demand deflation in rural areas is hurting the growth prospects of the overall economy.

If there is one lesson from the last three decades of Indian economy, it is clearly that reviving farmers’ well-being is not only crucial to the revival of the rural economy and the overall growth of the economy, it is also crucial for poverty alleviation.

The slogans of Start-up India and Stand-up India cannot be realized unless the farmer is taken care of. But then, this requires not only renaming the ministry but also concrete steps to improve the lives of farmers. That can happen only when the focus of government policy is improving the incomes of farmers and above all, giving them income and livelihood security.

Source: LM

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