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India has always been an agricultural country. The primary sector has historically been one of the most important sectors, not just because it provides the most essential services but also in terms of GDP contribution. However, of late, the sector has shrunk (secondary and tertiary sectors have grown) and so has the attention given to it. Farmers agitations and protests are not new to us anymore. While there is a lot of talks, change doesn’t seem to be near.
A long list of problems
Firstly, there is the fundamental issue of irrigation. Water scarcity is a huge obstacle faced by farmers – monsoon in India is highly unpredictable and India lacks the infrastructure for proper irrigation facilities. A report by the Times of India, dated May 1, 2015, says that 40% of the population is still dependent on monsoons for a good season. Only 46% of India’s net sown area is irrigated – the remaining 54% is unirrigated and dependent on monsoons.1 A bad monsoon, delay in arrival, or extremely heavy rainfall – all of this can potentially destroy crops. Agriculture is a long and arduous process with very little returns – and water is fundamental to it.
Problems are bigger for smaller farmers. They lack access to basic facilities such as good quality seeds and fertilizers and manure. They are at the mercy of the big farmers and traders when it comes to selling their crops and are often given unfair prices. The farmers are facing a “scissors crisis” – a rise in the costs of inputs without a commensurate rise in output price.2
Politicians use farmers as vote banks. Promises are made but never kept. A recent example of this is the issue of MSP or Minimum Support Price. The present government had promised a higher MSP in their 2014 election manifesto and was introduced in the 2018 budget – a minimum support price that is 50% higher than the farmer’s cost of production. However, it has been reported by multiple parties that the announcement was, in fact, misleading. The Minimum Support Price for eligible crops is announced by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). As per the CACP, there are three different definitions of production costs – A2 (actual paid out cost), A2+FL ( actual paid out cost plus the imputed value of family labor) and C2 (comprehensive cost including imputed rent and interest on owned land and capital). It is clear that C2 > A2+FL > A2. However, there have been no clarifications from the government as to which calculation they will use. The farmers stand to benefit only if C2 is used, since, reportedly, the MSP for most crops was already higher than A2+FL by more than 50%.3
Another issue plaguing the farmers is that of the seeds that they use. Recently, this issue came up for a lot of debate when reports of usage of an unapproved variety of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds surfaced. These seeds were developed by the biotech company called Monsanto. There have been disputes relating to royalty between the government and Monsanto, due to which it withdrew its application seeking approval for the latest variety. The Union environmental ministry had said that planting these seeds violated the Environmental Protection Act, and the farmers who were doing so were risking potential jail terms. But GM seeds, as per multiple reports, are cheaper ( they can cut costs by ₹ 10,000 an acre) and better than others which are outdated.4
However, not all seems lost. In 2016, a 0.5% cess – Krishi Kalyan Cess – was introduced to support a drought-hit farm sector. The money collected through this cess will be used on important schemes such as crop insurance and interest subsidy on crop loans. In 2016-17, the cess helped pay 27% of the ₹13,240 crore spent on the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. Other schemes covered by this cess include the interest subsidy offered on short-term crop loans.5 There is a caveat here, though. While official figures look bright, it is hard to determine how much of this money actually reaches the farmers.
There is no simple way to understand our farmers’ conditions. The Centre – regardless of who’s in power – says that they are doing all they can for the farmers; news of new schemes and loan waivers aren’t new anymore. Yet the ground reality doesn’t seem to be changing. Even if the Centre is taking affirmative action, there is a long distance between the Centre and the farmers. Money gets lost quite easily in those long winding lanes. Farmer suicides are on the rise – according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 5,650 farmers committed suicide in 2014. The number rose to 8,007 in 2015.6 Latest records aren’t available but news of farmers protesting is becoming increasingly common. Elections are around the corner so it’s time for more promises. Will they ever be fulfilled? Only time will tell.
– Sakshi Shivpuri
St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
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