Agriculture and Nationalism – India holds the card to economic recovery, waiting to be flipped!
Agriculture and Nationalism – India holds the card to economic recovery, waiting to be flipped! I was on a five-minute Facebook break in-between my classes when I chanced on a recent story regarding the plight of farmers in India. The headline read, “UP farmer dumps 10 quintals of cauliflower on the road after traders offer INR 1… Read More »
Agriculture and Nationalism – India holds the card to economic recovery, waiting to be flipped!
I was on a five-minute Facebook break in-between my classes when I chanced on a recent story regarding the plight of farmers in India. The headline read, “UP farmer dumps 10 quintals of cauliflower on the road after traders offer INR 1 per kg”. And I knew then that I would start my article with this piece of information because it’s an honest portrayal of the plight of the average Indian farmer. The individual “was offered the trivial price by the licensed traders on the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) campus in Pilibhit” .
Despite the retail value of a kilo being INR 14 (or much more in urban areas), the concerned farmer was offered INR 1, which is one-eighth of what he expected. And, this isn’t just an isolated incident, one can find many similar media reports, and YouTube videos focusing on the plight of the farmers in India.
Jai Kisan, Jai Bharat? Doesn’t feel like it!
Our country is going through monumental shifts right now as it is witnessing one of the largest protests in the documented history of mankind. The spirit of brotherhood is on test right now as the entire country is divided on the ongoing farmer protests. From a neutral, apolitical viewpoint, this protest that has kept the national capital of New Delhi on its heels since November 26th, 2020 is massive opposition to the recently passed Indian Agricultural Acts, 2020.
Given that India is the largest secular democracy of the world, protesting falls under one of the basic rights of the citizens; the ongoing stand-off has propelled the central government to fortify the borders using harsh methods, with the global media calling out the desperate attempt of the government to suppress the protest. Why is the nation divided?
A part of it believes that the farmers are well within their rights to protest, while another portion believes that the protesters are terrorists, much fewer farmers. Then, there comes the third portion, the extremely thin wedge in the pie-chart consisting of individuals like me – between the right and the wrong, I am worried about the widening distrust between the government and the citizens, and the long-drawn effects it will have on our agro-industry.
However, it is a fact indeed that with the government preparing to fend itself from peaceful protestors in a visible manner, does it believe in “Jai Kisan”? No, I can’t say so. But, let us move ahead with dissecting the agrarian landscape of India, and try to equate it with the concepts of Nation, Nation-Building ad Nationalism.
Nation & Nationalism – the Indian Identity.
I had, in an earlier essay, written –“What is a nation? Can it be defined as a conglomeration of communities indigenous to the land or migrated, enclosed within a boundary that’s decided by global geopolitics? Or is it an Idea – an identity that’s guided by common morale and a spiritual principle based on the collective past? Does the nation encompass all that’s tangible – the geographies and the life that reside within its boundaries? Or is it the manifestation of the intangible principles and identities that the individuals it consists of hold dear, and live by? A practical definition unites both of them – the intangible gives shape to the doctrines that the tangible lives by, thereby creating a unified entity – a Nation.”  I will stick to this.
While defining a nation is straightforward, nationalism is a much complex phenomenon that presents us with multiple strings to pull. One shouldn’t at the outset, confuse nationalism with patriotism. Patriotism is simple, unfazed love for one’s country. Nationalism, according to me is patriotism with a side serving of national agenda, mostly political.
A relatively new concept, nationalism is an emotion that places one’s nation at the top with the concept of superiority ingrained into it. For me, it is the undying love for my country coupled with the desire to work towards the holistic development of my nation, in the interest of all its citizens. Nationalism, in my opinion, is one’s love for his country, is the democratic right to freedom of expression, and is devoid of blind faith towards any particular ethnicity, sect, state, or political entity.
The Agrarian India – Farm Bills 2020 and the current state of affairs
With the 10th largest arable lands in the world, multiple agro-climatic regions and a huge variety of soil types, India’s agrarian potential runs prime. It holds the topmost producer positions for food grains, pulses, milk, fruits, and vegetables, with an approximated Gross Value Added of US $ 275 billion and an estimated 4% growth in Financial Year 2020.
Having a yearly food-grain produce capacity of 300 million tonnes, India is one of the top five agro-produce exporters of the world. With approximately 60% of the Indian population dependant on agriculture for livelihood and the agro sector contributing roughly 17% to India’s GDP, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that India is an agrarian economy still, sic, Krishi-pradhan Desh!
Despite these promising statistics, Rural India, engaged primarily in agriculture struggles to survive. With inflation biting away farmer wage gains and savings, farmer incomes have been on a steady decline, thanks to the steadily rising price of seeds, fertilizers, and associated services, and the slow decline in the MVPs of the harvested crops.
“In 2017, a government committee reported that incomes for farmers would need to grow by 10.4% each year from 2015 for them to double by 2022. That’s not been happening.” 
How should we be proud of our agrarian identity if the farmers are the ones who are left at the mercy of market forces exploiting them for their mutual gain? The high levels of debt have led to farmer suicides skyrocketing in our country in the last few years.
“An official government survey carried out in 2016 by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, found that in the three years up to this point, the average amount of debt that farmers were liable for had more than doubled.” 
Multiple direct-cash-transfer schemes have been rolled out by both central and state governments, however, their efficiency is under question in the absence of any solid data proof. As such, will the farm bills do any good? At this juncture, there are more questions than there are solutions.
APMC Mandis vs Contract Farming
Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) is synonymous with agriculture in India. Guided by state laws, the APMCs overlook procurement of agro-produce from farmers by providing them with prices above the government notified Minimum Support Prices (MSP). And since the last few decades, these APMCs have been instrumental tools for the government to buy produce from farmers. However, things aren’t that smooth with all APMCs.
As with the incident mentioned at the start of this piece, these APMCs which were originally designed to protect the farmer’s interest by offering them the MSP have now become tools of oppression against farmers. With the middleman culture rolling in, farmers have mostly been left at the mercy of these crooks who tip the balance off to their side, leaving the farmers to fend for themselves. Clearly, in the absence of any legislature that oversees the administration of MSPs to the farmers, the APMC structure is failing because of routine exploitation.
Many states (like Kerala, Sikkim and Mizoram) never adopted APMCs, and Bihar opted out in 2006. And with about 60-65% of produce being sold outside APMC control in India, doubts about its efficiency runs deep. States like Punjab and Haryana vehemently opposes the APMC Bypass bill because the Mandi network is strong in there, and the states could reap the benefits of the Green Revolution only because of the strong state-owned infrastructure network of 150+ principal yards, 275+ sub yards, approx. 1500 purchase mandis and innumerable storage points and transport network built over sixty years!
The commissions that the state government earns from these mandis are in turn used for developing rural roads and transportation to facilitate ease of procurement of produce in return. The opposition against the bills is strong because the local politicians and the middlemen stand to lose out on most if these bills ills are implemented, and thus the protests are mobilised in full swing. So, while Punjab and Haryana are right in their opposition, it isn’t the same with the rest of India.
Contract farming comes off as a better alternative at the initial face-value for exploited farmers in many parts of India. It is a hassle-free, safe and assured way of farming for smallholders in states where the market forces compel them to sell at major personal losses.
The bond of the contract between the farmer and the buyer ensures him a stable return month ahead in time, with advance credit covering his initial expenses. More often than not, such an arrangement ensures a good variety of seeds, new technology, expert help and handholding for the farmers, empowering them with new skills to stay market relevant. Perks such as pre-insured risk coverage in case of failures also mean that the farmer is well-protected against failures and erratic markets.
Tamil Nadu in 2019, became the first state in India to pass a dedicated law on contract farming. Named the Agricultural Produce and Livestock Contract Farming and Services (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, it is supposed to safeguard farmer interests in times of price fluctuation or overproduction leading to the price drop.
The potato farmers from the districts of Hooghly, Bardhaman, Birbhum, and Howrah have benefited exponentially from contractual farming with PepsiCo as the sponsor. In exchange for assured pre-harvest help and credit, the absence of post-harvest hassles and assurance of steady returns have ensured that these farmers stay in contract, and stay profitable, satisfied, and happy. And perhaps the biggest success story is Dr. Verghese Kurien’s GCMMF Co-operative led AMUL model of cooperative dairy-farming. Such is the success and trust on this model that many businesses now rely on this model to stay afloat, and give farmers their rightful demand.
So, why the protests?
Opinions are divided with The Farm Bills 2020. Many believe these bills to be a watershed moment for Indian Agriculture, whereas, many believe that this is a nail to the coffin for the farmers. In the face of it, these bills appear progressive, so, why are they being contested so harshly?
Agriculture being on the State List of subjects, the Centre doesn’t have jurisdictional authority to pass legislation on the same except in some specific cases. It is a direct abuse of the autonomy of the State legislatures. With this, it is imperative to note that proper procedures haven’t been adopted while getting these bills passed in both the Lower and the Upper House of Representatives.
Along with these, the universal apprehension regarding crony privatization of agricultural industry is present – the provisions of all the three bills combined paves way for the corporate giants to establish a market monopoly in the long run. This means the slow death for small-scale agri-businesses, cooperatives, and fringe elements which now are a majority in this realm. Along with this, the bills specifically deny farmers the right to legal support in case of conflicts, something that Article 32 of the Indian Constitution guarantees. These are the primary causes of concern.
The three sides of the coin – the Positive, the Negative and the Trade-off
Everything in this world has a plus, a minus and a thin zone of grey uncertainty, much like a coin. The two circular lamina represents the positive and the negative, and the circular ring lamina representing the trade-off. It is this trade-off that’s most important. A section of the farmers is protesting because they believe it is unfair, ad maligns their interests.
On the other hand, another section supports it because it assures them better returns. In the end, it boils down to personal income after a successful harvest. And that is why these bills should act like mandated guidelines for all states to formulate their own set of updated policy interventions that suit the interests of their farmers. That is the essential trade-off. That a land as diverse as India should have only one central agro-policy is authoritarianism at its best, and the third side of the coin calls for the Centre and the State to hold hands on this one, doing what’s best for the farmers first, the agro-businesses next, and themselves at last.
Nation Building – hopes and prospects for Indian Agro
As discussed previously, agriculture is India’s joker on the deck to maintain an international strategic foothold. Be it the heavy reliance of Indians on the agro-economy for survival, or our huge amount of exports, cashing in on agriculture is perhaps our strongest bet to maintain our charts on the global leader board. And if one remembers, even during the lockdown, the agro-industry managed to maintain relative stability, thus displaying its resiliency in the face of adversity.
This reinforces the fact that agro is a bankable sector for India, especially in its path towards economic recovery from the pandemic. Building India on agriculture is a sustainable choice, economically as well as functionally. Apart from the huge money, it gets the government, food is something that will be in need for as long as we humans manage to survive.
The question is, how to enable this growth, and more importantly, sustain it.
Pre-harvest vs Post-harvest: the debate that should be
With all the fire around related to the farm bills, I wonder, at times, about the underlying motives of the people, and the government that the people elected.
As a nation, we are facing a crisis that will be the bottleneck for all other parameters – population boom. With our population, all set to stabilize by 2050, is the Food Corporation of India confident of India’s present and future food security? With India lagging behind global averages in the production of major crops, I silently wonder why pre-harvest discussions and policies aren’t getting any importance as opposed to post-harvest policies that deal mainly in marketing the produce.
According to the crop yield data placed before the House, India’s rice yield was 2191 kg/hectare, while the global average stood at 3026 kg/hectare, while wheat is 2750 kg/hectare as against the world average yield of 3289 kg/hectare. 
With India lagging behind the USA, France, Brazil, and China in per-hectare yield, it is time that the government focuses on pre-harvest policies and interventions to ensure our yields increase. With the current scenario, it only feels a hollow attempt towards mobilizing our dwindling produces to get the maximum benefits off it, that too with the corporate giants getting an upper hand.
The question stands – how to do it? We aren’t technologically advanced enough to adopt state-of-the-art methods of cultivation, and yet, the necessity is paramount. As such, our focus must be on strengthening our human resources to enable this growth.
And with our yields charted to slip down owing to climatic instability and unsustainable farming methods (that are causing out environmental burnout), our focus should actively be on sustainably ramping up our yields to a far better figure than the present, and maintaining a hold at it.
Problems that lie within
Let us now look at the roadblocks that the farmers of India face before we can finally look at suggestions that will ensure long-term sustenance and growth of the Indian agro-industry.
- Lack of market research – With our lands producing what grows best and sells best, we have invested pretty little in getting to know, understand and analyze our market forces.
- Lack of technology – The alarming fact that we haven’t integrated new tech into our farming processes is a red flag.
- Lack of Machinery – Save few parts of the country, cultivation is still majorly dependent on small tools and animals, bringing down efficiency by vast margins.
- Fragmentation of land – The small landholdings make farming expensive and inefficient. This, in the future, adds to the problem when lands get divided to follow inheritance laws.
- Depleting land quality – Extensive farming using unsustainable means has exhausted soil quality and broken down the natural soil fabric, pushing down the yield.
- Increased reliance on chemicals – With depleting soil quality, fertilizer and pesticide use has shot up, reducing the soil pH, and depleting natural biomass further.
- Poor seed quality means extra effort to get a good harvest out of it.
- Erratic monsoons and climatic uncertainty have heavily affected the farmers as crop yield fluctuates immensely with these variations.
- Insufficient irrigation investment has led to vast areas relying solely on nature for water, which has been a major cause of concern.
- A sizeable chunk of the crop is lost in-transit owing to inefficient transportation and storage and poor supply-chain links, pulling the per-hectare yield down.
Need to strengthen pre-harvest & immediate post-harvest foundations
The major problems with Indian agriculture lie while the crop is on the field. As such, it is the onus of the authority to concentrate on policy formulations enabling farmers to increase their yield. While achieving best-of-the-world yield is a long shot for us, even pushing these numbers to above the global averages will get us to harvest enough to satisfy both the private and the public players.
- Consumer-focused farming is essential. As a nation, we need to produce crops that are high in demand.
- Integrating IoT concepts and smart technologies into the cultivation timeline will enable easier farmland management, judicious use of chemicals, and optimal harvest times, thus saving big on time and money.
- Increasing levels of mechanization are paramount to reducing harvest times and losses.
- Investment in advanced agricultural research is essential for coming up with new methods of sustainable farming, better GMO seeds, and for promoting concepts like Zero Budget Natural Farming and bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides.
- Investing in creating a climate and disaster-resilient supply chains is mandatory. Setting up efficient storage hubs, building end-to-end logistics and distribution channels and building process capabilities are essential towards maintaining benchmark standards.
- Investing in a nation-wide irrigation network infrastructure will in the long run prove beneficial as this will reduce reliance on natural monsoons for water, thus pulling our farmers out of the mercy of local climatic factors.
- Mobilizing our people into coming together as cooperatives and mass-scale training to inculcate new farming techniques is perhaps a priority one. India as a country has always regarded its human resources highly, and empowering our farmers with knowledge is perhaps the greatest gift in their journey towards self-sufficiency.
Price Control – the dual nature of MSPs and MOPs
With the deregulation of agro-industry and opening the field up to major private players, two aspects strike me as important.
- Price control – ensuring good return for farmers, and reasonable prices for customers.
- Preventing small scale businesses from gradual dry-outs.
Considering that the ‘farmer’ produces the ‘produce’, which is then picked up by ‘value adding stakeholders’ (private players or public-owned APMCs) and is moved through the ‘supply chain’ to the ‘customer’, price regulation is mandatory at both the ends:
- Farmer’s end – where produce is picked.
- Customer/Consumer’s end – where produce is dumped.
As such, upon brainstorming, I could assimilate that there is a dual nature to price regulators – the MSP and the MOP. At the Farmer’s end:
- MSP or Minimum Support Price ensures that the farmer gets his bare minimum to stay viable and continue his job.
- MOP or Maximum Offer Price to ensure that the corporate giants don’t exploit prices (by banking on their capital padding) to pick up the maximum produce, leaving the smaller bootstrapped businesses to dry out. Though trying to limit payable price to farmers is somehow utopian, but is essential to eliminate unfair competition by bigger corporates.
At the Customer’s end:
- MSP or Maximum Selling Price to ensure that no business can rip customers off by charging more than the rational maximum.
- MOP or Minimum Offer Price to ensure that the businesses don’t go bankrupt while trying to survive the competition. This again is the barrier against unfair competition, ensuring that no business needs to try to stay afloat by pushing their profit margins to abnormally low limits.
The Farmer’s MSP complements the Customer’s MOP, and the Customer’s MSP allows stakeholders to afford the Farmer’s MOP. This concept allows a specific range of economic padding on both ends of the Supply Chain, something that can be termed as Optimum Price Variation Allowance (OPVA).
It is important to note that these parameters will vary from state to state, and the onus of fixing the OPVA at the start of every harvest season for every crop lies strictly on the State Government(s) involved. Without regulation, this fragile, yet empowering system will fail.
C-P-P Model of agriculture – Cooperatives are the future
Our future lies in bringing our farmers together. Punjab and Haryana have seen roaring success because they understood the benefits of #farmersunited decades before, and look where they are at present. If a hundred farmers come together with their lands and agree to crop it together, it becomes much more efficient and cost-effective, allowing for mechanization and technology to step in. In comparison, the marginal farmers of the Central and East India struggle to stay profitable with the fragmented farmlands that they till with their bullock carts, sow with hands, and harvest using the sickle.
Coming together as agricultural cooperatives in the face of rising atrocities against the farmers is a viable solution – it provides them with the benefits that Punjab has enjoyed since the Green Revolution, and also gives them a strong bargaining stage. When a hundred farmer sings in unison via a cooperative, the demands are bound to be met.
Perhaps that is why the might be a way forward. There are two ways of looking at it – Cooperative Public Partnership, or Cooperative Private Partnership, whichever suits the bill for the stakeholders.
If the produce at hand is surplus with minimal harm to the environment, selling wouldn’t be a big hurdle. All the government needs to do is create an exhaustive list of crops produced in the country and create regional parameter-based MSPs. The onus of selling to the government or corporates lie on the farmer cooperatives then, a decision that wouldn’t be too hard to take.
At this juncture, I would like to end by quoting on this issue –
“This is especially important because at a time when much of the developed world is re-evaluating the sustainability of their agrifood supply chains, India, as a nation of smallholders, has an opportunity to create a model of agriculture that at its core strengthens collective farmer organizations and small and medium-scale local enterprises, as opposed to behemoths that control entire supply chains.”
The Third Alternative – Farmer sells his produce.
Can a farmer sell his produce directly to the customer? Why not? Also, why should he not? Though this proposal sounds ideal and good, there are some prime barriers to it.
- The political interference will be too high, with middlemen meddling in affairs as they won’t get the cuts.
- Quite often, the market sits far from the field, and it might not be feasible for a farmer to ell his produce.
But, in the off chance that both these barriers are eliminated, either through government intervention, or location advantage, a farmer selling his produce himself has multiple benefits. A Govt. of India report published in 2007 categorically stated that farmers selling their produce directly to customers make about 15-40% more than the mandi rates, and the customer also gets the produce at almost 20-30% cheaper than standard retail prices.
If seen from this p.o.v., farmer markets seem to be a good option. And these have been part of the rural fabric for very long – the weekly marketplaces called haats are all producer markets. For the urban population, while these are still relatively unknown, it’s a chance to stock up on the week’s supplies at much lower prices.
Tamil Nadu’s flagship Uzhavar Sandhai scheme allowed farmer markets to pop up in the state, with the markets being maintained by the TN State Agricultural Marketing Board. Similarly, Raitu Bazar is becoming increasingly popular in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana for obvious reasons.
With each state regulating the purchase of agricultural products according to their laws, the overall scenario has become highly unequal, fragmented, and thus, hard to regulate. Attempts to unify these volatile state-wise markets led the government to propose the Electronic National Agricultural Market (E-NAM) in April 2016.
The goal was to create a One-Nation-One-Market, and it aimed to reduce injustice on farmers by bypassing the local APMCs and procuring goods directly from the farmers.
The Farm Bills 2020 seeks to propose procurement on some similar lines; the high level of reliance on private players to act as supply chain mediators and facilitators compels on to think of the advantages the corporates will gain out of it, and what percentage of this gain would go directly to farmers and towards their welfare. But how is this to be achieved? Surprisingly, these bills fail to clarify this.
Summarising the argument – the future of Agrarian India
To sum up, this rather long article, let us take, in pointers, a sequential set of steps that will primarily aim to strengthen the foundations of agriculture in this country pre-harvest! As I have already said, post-harvest isn’t a concern in the long term when our yields drop in the face of a booming population to feed.
- Shift of focus from marketing produces to enabling better pre-harvest standards.
- Active investment in agricultural technology, R&D in GMO seeds, non-invasive agro-chemicals, smart technologies for improving agricultural output.
- Reduce climate dependency by investing hugely in a nationwide irrigation system.
- Strengthen the individual – invest in policy to aggregate smallholders into cooperatives and Farmer-Producer-Organizations, thus easing into cultivation costs and providing them with bargaining leverage in the market.
- Subsiding the agro-machinery sector heavily to enable these cooperatives to procure large scale equipment.
- Making the MSP framework extensive, covering all crops in all states an implementing policy to regulating the implementation of this MSP nationwide.
- Presenting robust post-harvest selling machinery to ensure that both public and private entities can bid fairly for procuring the produce from farmers.
- Presenting cooperatives and FPOs with a fair chance to decide whom to sell their produce.
- Investing in post-harvest infrastructure – creating resilient supply chains, warehouses, cold storages and assorted networks to ensure optimal storage of the produce.
- Reduce crop loss and in-transit loss of harvest by investing in the aforementioned facilities.
At the heart of everything lies empowering the farmer and the producer. Everything that leads to farmer welfare is primary. Everything else is secondary.
Agro-Nationalism – is that even a thing?
Yes, it is. It’s when a nation decides to empower itself by turning around on its heels with agriculture as the major yardstick. It’s when we the citizens of India decide to give farmers their due when the government stops using vote-bank phrases like “double farmer income by 2022” and starts implementing policies that will solidify the bases of Indian agriculture. Nationalism is all about action, and it’s high time we, the citizens take heed and start to act in the interest of our farmers. Because a civilization that hasn’t given its anna-data his due is no civilization of humans at all, much less a country as inclusive, secular, and sacred like (the idea of) India.
– Shubhayan Modak
The author, Shubhayan Modak, Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) is the winner of 5th National Essay Writing Competition on Nation and Nationalism 2021.
- The Logical Indian Crew; UP Farmer Dumps 10 Quintals of Cauliflower on Road After Traders Offer ₹1 Per Kg; Available Here
- Shubhayan Modak; Architecture and Nation Building – Integrating Regional Sentiments into a National Identity; Available Here
- Shruti Menon; India farmer protests: How rural incomes have struggled to keep up; Available Here
- PTI Feed; India’s crop yields lower than US, Europe and China; Available Here
- Sudha Narayanan; The Three Farm Bills – Is This the Market Reform Indian Agriculture Needs; Available Here
Keywords: Farmer welfare, Farm laws 2020, Indian agro-industry, Agricultural Produce Market Committee, Farmer suicides, Agrarian India, Minimum Support Price, One Nation One Market, E-NAM, Pre-harvest policy, Post-harvest policy, Consumer-focused farming, Market & Consumer demand research, Mechanization, Nationwide Irrigation Network, Cooperative Public Partnership, Cooperative Private Partnership, Green Revolution, Agro Nationalism.