Struggling for survival

Himanshu Shekhar

Despite tall claims about positive impact of globalization, India is still considered as a nation of farmers and about 70 percent of its population still relies on agriculture for livelihood. A section of economists says repeatedly that the contribution of this sector in GDP is coming down day by day. However, Congress led UPA government pretends to be concerned about the condition of farmers and agriculture but in terms of policy the government appears to be anti farmer. In fact, agriculture sector of the country is facing a number of challenges and these problems are making the survival of a farmer very difficult.

These problems are pressing farmers to quit agriculture and think over other options for survival. Take an example of Punjab. This state was a driving force in Green Revolution. A recent study done by Punjab Agriculture University is showing the bleak picture of farming of the state. According to the study, every ninth farmer in the state has left farming in the last 25 years mainly because of low income from agriculture and 22 percent of them have joined labour market. The condition of the small and marginal farmer is more terrible and their satisfaction level is quite low in comparison with the large farmers. The report cites, as many as 70 percent of the large farmers expressed full satisfaction, while the figure for small and marginal farmers was only 23 percent. If this is the case of Punjab then the condition of other states can be easily understood.

According to government estimates, 44 percent of Indian farmers are not interested in agriculture. Between just the Census of 1991 and that of 2001, nearly 8 million cultivators quit farming. The census of 2011 will tell us how many farmers quit farming in this decade. Farmers are not getting expected return on their investment in farming. Production cost of agriculture sector is increasing day by day but farmers are not getting better returns. That’s why Indian farmers are realising that their love affair with intensive agriculture is on the decline.

The government and Metrological department is claiming that monsoon was very good this year and its positive impact will reflect in production. But, they forget to mention that a number of states are facing the problem of drought. Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand are in the list of worst hit states by drought and farmers of these states are in severe crisis. According to government data, West Bengal received 16 per cent less rainfall than normal between June 1 and September 8, while Bihar and Jharkhand got 25 per cent and 48 per cent less rainfall, respectively, than normal.

West Bengal has declared 11 of its districts are drought-hit, while Bihar has given a similar status to 28 out of 38 districts. All 24 of Jharkhand’s districts have also been declared as drought-hit. Union government announced a package of Rs 500 crore for these states. Every farmer will get Rs 500 per hectare as diesel subsidy. But, the million dollar question is how much of these will really reach to a farmer?

A couple of years ago, the government announced a loan waiver of 71,000 crore for debt ridden farmers but in that particular year farm suicide went up. The loan waiver year of 2008 saw 16,196 farm suicides in the country, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Compared to 2007, that’s a fall of just 436. According to the NCRB, there were at least 1,99,132 farmers’ suicides in India since 1997. The share of the Big 5 States or ‘suicide belt’ in 2008 – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh – remained very high at 10,797, or 66.6 per cent of the total farm suicides in the country. It’s shocking to know that the national average for farm suicides since 2003 stays at roughly one every 30 minutes.

It means, farmers are not getting the benefit of scheme like loan waiver. These schemes appear very good in document but on ground level these schemes fails to deliver any difference. It doesn’t mean that there is no use of scheme like this. A scheme like farm loan waiver and easy credit to farmers at nominal rates can make a difference in agriculture sector but the way of implementation must be different. Government must keep these schemes away from corruption and develop a proper and effective system to keep a tab on these schemes.

Union government is trying hard to rope corporate farming. Major corporate houses from all across the world are evincing interest in corporate farming. But, agriculture analysts have a different view. They are in favour of empowering small and marginal farmers to make this sector profitable and effective. According to them, small farmers and their cultivation communities must be at the centre of any strategy to tackle poverty and increase food security and productivity. The role of small farmers is vital in our economic system. It’s needless to say that small farms play a major social role. They tend to spend their income on local goods and services, boosting local economies, and are more likely to employ people than adopt capital-intensive technologies. Analyst consider small farmers as ecologically sound because smallholders manage a large share of our water and vegetation cover, and farm far more sustainably. They reduce soil erosion, use water more efficiently, protect biodiversity, and preserve soil fertility. 

This is high time to re-orient the focus, for, from the time of liberalization, the ‘development’ done in the name of the small farmer has left him worse off and hungrier than before. In the 2006 Working Group on Distressed Farmers report, its chair, Sardar Singh Johl, said so explicitly, “Mostly small and marginal farmers, as well as tenant farmers and farm labourers, bear the brunt of crop failures. Therefore, the target group for preferential treatment should consist of small and marginal farmers, as well as tenant farmers and farm labourers.” The reasons for the crisis are largely systemic, said the Working Group report.

Inadequate farm income coupled with limited non-farm opportunities have led to distress conditions in most of the cases. “Other contributing factors are increasing input costs, non-availability of quality seeds, increasing pesticide usage, de-skilling, supplier-induced demand in the input market, inadequacy of institutional extension services and research, market uncertainties, declining public investments, and additional household/consumption requirements,” the report added. If policymakers are really concerned about the problems of agriculture and farmers, then they have to once again think over the current agriculture policy and take some appropriate steps, which can deliver some positive result. Otherwise, farmers’ struggle for survival will continue.

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