Farmers distress continues in Spite of record production; heres why its concern
Dr. M.S.Swaminathan may have submitted his reports on agricultural reforms between 2004 and 2006, but 11 years later, are the farmers better off? Are they still in distress? Are thousands of them still committing suicide because of loss in natural calamities and indebtedness? Is that the story of the tiller of the land who feeds all Indians?
Food grain production may have gone up from 30 million tons in 1947 at the time of Independence to 275 million tons today, but the population has multiplied from 32 million to 1.3 billion.
It could be claimed that while grain production has increased nine times, population has gone up four times. But what is the truth hidden by statistics? Even if it is not a matter of juggling with the ground realities, there is another telling story told by the Government. What is it?
The Union Commerce Minister, Mr. Suresh Prabhu, told the World Trade Organization at the Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in Brazil between December 10 and 13 that India has 600 million poor people and they deserved subsidised food grains and farmers’ deserved support prices.
The Minister pointed out that one major country, referring to the USA, has been giving subsidies to farmers for many decades to encourage farm production, especially to step up production of corn and other grains, but it opposed support prices for farm output by developing countries like India.
It insisted that support prices were contrary to rules of fair world trade. What the First World does is morally correct, what the poor countries do is contrary to responsible world order. The WTO talks might have collapsed and India might now be calling a meeting of 40 nations to discuss the American stand supported by most of the rich countries. But behind the jugglery of words might be bullying tactics.
Yet the Indian Minister’s statement just a couple of weeks ago narrates the telling story of Indian farmers’ distress. That is why the Swaminathan reports on farm reforms come into focus. In October India’s SupremeCourt rejected a Public Interest Litigation brought by the Consortium of Indian Farmers seeking directions to the Centre to implement the Swaminathan reports on agrarian distress, forcing farmers to commit suicide by the thousands.
It spoke about the unfinished agenda of land reforms, inadequate and delayed farm credit, lack of remunerative prices for farm produce, fatigue over infusion of technology as well as poor quality and quantity of water supply to farms and farmers. The Court, in its wisdom dismissed the PIL because implementation of the Swaminathan reports was in the domain of the executive.
Let us take a look at the question of land reforms. After Independence it was promised that all land must go to the tiller. In pursuit of this, zamindari was abolished. Was it in the law book or on the ground? Some or quite a lot of land was given away to the tiller initially, but simultaneously fragmentation of land started from generation to generation with the result that some or most farms were down to one hectare after families sharing them. Natural calamities like floods and drought plus indebtedness caused and continue to cause great distress. Farmers have only their land to pledge to the money lender or the zamindar. The result: Zamindari has returned in full force.
Of India’s 600,000 villages in 750 odd districts, how many tens of thousands of villages have been overtaken by urbanization, and industrial complexes? As India continues to modernize and create smart cities, the process of urbanization is unstoppable.
Every year, the government fixes minimum support prices for basic products like wheat, paddy, corn, cotton, sugarcane and acquires substantial quantities of grain for the food reserve. Most countries of the world try to do so. But the USA is now challenging India’s right to the food reserve. Because its own production of farm produce is enormous, it might be pretending that even its huge official purchases for the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and some other official outfits do not amount to a food reserve because private enterprise rules the market. It is this market concept which lays down the World Trade Organization’s agenda.
Even though the Indian farmer is largely at the mercy of the market forces, even increased farm production creates severe distress among the farmers. The private market set-up lays down the prices it is willing to pay, regardless of the minimum support prices fixed by the government. The classic case is of sugarcane. Sugar mills have been in arrears in making payments to cane growers for decades. The sugar mill lobby is so strong at the legislative and official level that the cane grower cannot expect any help.
Mr. Raju Shettti, a member of Parliament, who leads the Swabhimani Paksha, says that the MSP for maize is Rs. 1,400 per quintal, but the farmer gets only 900. Freshly harvested paddy fetches only Rs. 1300 against MSP of Rs.1550. Moong and urad as well as other lentils are bought for Rs. 4000 against MSP of Rs. 5,000 and 5,400 respectively in Maharashtra. This year India has produced a bumper crop of about 10 million tons of lentils against a requirement of a12 million tons. The case of oilseeds is no better.
Potato growers, who produce a bumper crop every year have to destroy large quantities as there are no buyers in the wholesale market at even Rs. 10 per quintal, but in the retail potatoes sell for Rs. 20 to 30 per kilo. Vegetable prices are low for the farmer, but not at the green grocer’s shop.
Lalit Sethi is a Journalist of long standing and a commentator on Political and Social Issues.