Friday, September 15, 2006

Death of a farmer-Policy Changes Must Remove Rural Disparities



Special article

Death of a farmer

Policy Changes Must Remove Rural Disparities
YP Gupta

In the recent past, there has been a wave of suicides by farmers in different parts of the country, prompting the Supreme Court to ask the Centre to review its farm policy. Even after the government announced an economic package for the benefit of farmers in June this year, 105 farmers have committed suicide since 1 July in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where the death toll has crossed 700 this year. It is quite evident that the relief package has failed to curb suicides. Apparently, the Vidarbha farmers continue to be a frustrated lot without any improvement in their condition.

It has been reported that over the past eight years, at least 14,000 farmers have committed suicide. Andhra Pradesh tops the states, followed by Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab and Kerala. Among the states thus affected are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and UP. These distressed farmers could not stand the impact of natural calamities and were not able to repay loans. Some farmers in Punjab feel that farming has ceased to be profitable. Rural indebtedness, the pangs of hunger, and failure of crops due to the supply of either spurious fertilisers and pesticides or due to unseasonal rain and hailstorm or drought have driven the farmers to suicide.

Unremunerative prices

They have not been getting proper remunerative prices for their produce. Also, the liberalised import of farm products has had an adverse effect on the domestic growers. To check the trend and help the farming community, the government made certain policy changes. It has removed the restrictions on storage, sale and movement of food and agro-products. And it has decided to remove export controls, and to build cold storages and rural godowns. These steps did not prove effective in checking the tragic events. Hence the need to ensure a regular supply of food to the poor farmers.
The agro policy envisaged an annual growth of over four per cent. It provided a comprehensive crop insurance for farmers from sowing to post-harvest operations to protect their interests. Agriculture has also been accorded a status of industry. In the past, the rich and progressive farmers were the beneficiaries, as a result of which the disparity between the rich and the poor farmers widened considerably. The poor farmers take loans to be in step with the rich farmers. But the crisis sets in with the failure of their crops. Also, agricultural development did not generate sufficient employment opportunities. As a result, the number of unemployed educated youth increased. The farm policy must be geared to land reforms.

India’s new economic policy has posed new challenges to the farm sector because of the burgeoning population, dwindling natural resources, depleting underground water resources and growing indebtedness. This is compounded by stagnating yield and a decline in productivity. There has been a general degradation of environment and natural resources on account of the problems arising out of the green revolution.
The agro policy was framed to meet the major challenges of Indian agriculture. The objective was to increase production and productivity, to ensure food security for the rising population and to restructure the farm front. It highlighted various shortcomings in the rural sector in respect of regional disparities regarding uneven development and low levels of productivity, low incomes and unfavourable prices, problems in relation to rainfed and dryland areas, unemployment, lack of rural industry, constraints on movement, storage and sale of agricultural products, etc. The policy was aimed at achieving growth based on efficient use of resources, conserving soil, water and bio-diversity, and meeting the challenges of economic liberalisation. A major aspect was promotion of private sector participation through contract farming, correcting imbalances of the eastern, hilly, rainfed and drought-prone areas, augmenting the income of the farming community, thrust in processing, mark! eting and storage facilities.
The policy envisaged an effective pricing strategy to ensure remunerative and profitable prices to the farmers for their produce and a better public distribution system for the needy. There would be flexibility in the fixation of support prices on a regional basis depending on the transport cost. There was also a provision to protect farmers from the adverse impact of undue price fluctuations in the world market. It was proposed to remove regional imbalances to accelerate economic development to cover all sectors of agriculture including horticulture, livestock, fisheries and sericulture. Also, land ceiling laws would be enforced and families headed by women preferred in the matter of distribution of land.
The rural-based approach was intended to meet the socio-economic aspirations of the farming community. Today’s agriculture is a high cost and energy intensive technology, which needs high inputs in respect of quality seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and farm mechanisation.
Therefore, farming became costly even though fertiliser subsidy continued. But the small and marginal farmers have not been able to afford these inputs. It is the rich and progressive farmers who could provide them and have thus been the beneficiaries. There was no mechanism to help the poor farmers per se.
The present policy on farm income as tax-free largely benefited the rich farmers who became richer from the so-called green revolution. They became big landlords and a privileged group. Technological developments increased rural disparities. The gap between the rich and the poor farmers widened. The rich became richer and the poor poorer. The farm policy has to work out a mechanism to take the benefits of subsidised inputs and incentive pricing to the poor farmers.

State responsibility

In rural India, agriculture is the most important means of livelihood for over 65 per cent of the population.. The agro policy should aim at creating employment potential and year-round work for the farmers’ families so that the small and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers are gainfully employed.
There should be a proper development of agro-based industries such as fruit and vegetables, including processing facilities. Livestock also needs to be developed. Only a balanced development of both agriculture and industry can help remove socio-economic disparities.
It is unfortunate that the right to food has not been given overriding priority as there is hardly any concern towards the poor farmers’ sufferings. The public distribution system has to be revamped, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana programme expanded to cover rural households and create employment opportunities to generate income for the poor farmers to enable them to procure food. It is the responsibility of the state governments to implement poverty-alleviation programmes to prevent tragic deaths among the farmers.

(The author is ex-Principal Scientist, IARI, New Delhi)

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