- The week-long farmers’ march which reached Mumbai earlier this month, on the anniversary of Gandhi’s Dandi March of 1930, was unprecedented in many ways. It was mostly silent and disciplined, mostly leaderless, non-disruptive and non-violent, and well organised.
- It received the sympathy of middle class city dwellers, food and water from bystanders, free medical services from volunteer doctors, and also bandwagon support of all political parties from the left to the right.
Non implementation of M.S. Swaminathan Report:
- The most comprehensive recent blueprint for reforms and rehabilitation of the farm sector is the report of the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by M.S. Swaminathan.
- That report is already over 10 years old.
- Several of its ideas are yet to be implemented.
- For instance, decentralising public procurement of food grain to the lowest level possible, and setting up of grain banks at the district level.
What is the priority?
- The biggest priority is to reduce the workforce which depends on agriculture for its livelihood.
- There is considerable underemployment and low productivity but farmers are unable to exit to other livelihood options.
- Farming is to be treated as a business and has to be viable on its own terms.
- Monopoly procurement laws and the intermediation through the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMC).
- But that was compensated by providing the farmer with highly subsidised inputs water, electricity, fertilizer, credit and seeds. But this did not benefit the really needy, subsistence farmers.
- Over the years the policy framework is increasingly complex and a patchwork quilt of mutually compensating measures.
- Thus, we have ended up with all the shackles which remain intact.
- The APMC is not discontinued.
- Monopoly procurement continues.
- The farmer’s plight is full of woe, exposed to risks from prices, demand, weather, pests and whims of policy and regulation.
- Loan waivers punish those who worked hard and repaid, and the cash anyway goes to banks, not to farmers.
- Banks don’t issue fresh loans out of their own risk aversion.
Some positive steps:
- Neem-coated fertilizer has reduced leakage, and direct benefit transfer to the farmer-buyer will reduce subsidy further.
- Soil cards ensure appropriate matching of inputs to soil conditions. Giving tax holiday to the farmer producer companies is also the right fiscal incentive.
- The government’s aim to double farm income in the next four years is a near impossible feat, but signals the right intention.
The Way forward::
- The big agenda is to unshackle agriculture to make it a truly commercial market-based enterprise; to create opportunities outside farming for large scale exit of the workforce; to connect farmers to the value chain of farm to fork, including agribusiness;
- to remove restrictions on movement and exports of farm produce and let them tap into international market, to also allow easier land transfers including leasing; to encourage crop diversification and land consolidation that reverses fragmentation.
- As said earlier, the farm problem is a huge mountain, but surmountable.