At the receiving end!

Small Farmers

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Small farmers are the pride of India and need to be given attention. This was stated by Prime Minister Modi during his Independence Day address. However, various projects undertaken by the government in recent years have benefited mostly the big farmers and, to a certain extent, medium farmers in select States. Plus, the ongoing farmers’ agitation puts a question mark on how seriously should the farmer take Modi’s word as the government so far is unwilling to yield. At the same time, there can be no denying that the agriculture sector has achieved a lot as is manifest from recent figures.

In 2020-21, the country produced an all-time high 308 million tonnes of foodgrains, which was 3.7 per cent higher than the output in previous year, the Union Agriculture Ministry informed. It noted that all major crops in the foodgrains basket – paddy, wheat, maize and gram – and oilseeds logged record outputs in the crop year. Output of oilseeds recorded an increase of over 9 per cent and output of pulses recorded an increase of over 8 per cent in sync with the government’s priority to focus on these crops, as per the fourth advance estimates of production of major agricultural crops for 2020-21 (July-June cycle).

In the current Budget, the efforts towards digitisation of the agriculture sector or the expansion of the Agri Infrastructure Fund are initiates that should augur well for the country’s farmers and the farming sector as such over the medium and long term. Mandi digitisation should help facilitate technological interventions, leading to greater efficiency. Credit needs in the sector has been a long standing problem and the question arises whether agri credit reaches all sections of farmers.

This calls for involvement of panchayats and also civil society organisations in ensuring whether the credit needs to the small farmers are being met. However, Modi did not mention anything in this regard or there is no government plan of reaching out to the poorest farmers, specially in the backward districts of the country.

It also goes without saying that more than traditional agriculture, there is need for diversification. In this connection KPMG found that the increased agricultural credit target at Rs 16.5 lakh crore is expected to yield results though increased credit flows to animal husbandry, dairy and fisheries, specially with newer planned investments in the development of modern fishing harbours and fish landing centres.

Delving into the subject, Census 2011 indicated that 2000 farmers have been giving up farming everyday even though agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the majority of the Indian population. At the all-India level, marginal and small farmers, who operate less than or equal to two hectares of land, together comprise 87 per cent of all farmers.

Needless to mention here that farmers are enumerated based on the land they operate, which is different from the land they own. Interestingly, there exists a wide inter-State variation in the distribution of farmers under marginal and small farm categories. This section of farmers is forced to sell their product immediately, after the harvest quite often to the creditor, probably at a pre-arranged price and pre-arranged quantities.

Most farmers do not have the resources to hold on to their produce and get enhanced price, which is obviously the market price. Being debtors, they are bound to give away their produce to the middlemen, who have given them the debt, and the state agencies do not have any role in this regard. Thus, the condition of farmers is not improving as years pass by as credit needs of big and middle level farmers are taken care of.

The recent accusation that the government is facing may be summed up in the words of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who recently alleged that the Prime Minister was conspiring to hand over Rs 40 lakh crore agricultural trade to his capitalist friends. According to him, “the farmers have realised this; every citizen should understand the nature of the threat and join them”. An important statistic dished out by him questioned: “How does (the Finance Minister) explain that 85 per cent of Indians suffered income losses during the lockdown while India’s billionaires became richer by 35 per cent?”

There has been consistent public support in favour of the farmers’ agitation due to the fact that the entry of private parties, whose credentials are not very clean, may not augur well for small and marginal farmers. The party is yet to realise the implications of such an agitation, now transformed into a national movement, and its effects on the rural masses, the recent municipal elections in Punjab and the coming Assembly elections Uttar Pradesh bear testimony to such coordinated movement.

Thus, it is clearly manifest that the protests have given the Congress, which is often charged with lacking ideological clarity, into adopting a sharper left populist rhetoric. A key challenge now is for the Opposition parties to integrate their diagnosis of the farmer crisis with their larger thesis on economic prosperity, joblessness and farm development. One may recall that some of the largest agitations of peasant castes in recent years – the Patidars in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Jats in Haryana — have been on the issue of jobs and farm crisis.

As things stand, India has announced its intention of achieving the ambitious goal of doubling farm income by 2022. Though this may not be possible to achieve in the coming two years or so, the sector is expected to gather momentum due to increased investments in agricultural infrastructure as irrigation facilities, warehousing and cold storages. But the most important thing that needs to be given special attention is to focus on the small farmer and solve his problems from credit needs to ensuring irrigation facilities and/or boosting dry land farming, wherever possible.

The whole focus should not be on the big players but on the needs of the small and marginal farmers who face diverse problems in carrying out their daily functions. It would be better if a technical committee is formulated with representatives of farmers’ unions to find out how small farmers could be helped, say over the next five years. Apart from educating them on modernisation cultivation techniques, credit needs, water availability, wherever needed, could also be looked into. If the government means well, then it must act accordingly. — INFA