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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 30, July 13, 2013

Farmers’ Crisis in India and Urgency of Remedial Action

Tuesday 16 July 2013, by Bharat Dogra

I. Introduction

Nearly two-thirds of the people in India are involved with agriculture and related liveli-hoods to a lesser or greater extent—either as cultivators of self-owned land, landowners, sharecroppers, landless farm labourers, tenants or in other ways. It is a matter of serious concern for the entire country that farmers are facing increasing difficulties and a crisis situation.

The crisis faced by farmers has been documented in the form of many reports of their increasing difficulties, distress sale or auction of land, agitations and protests, large areas remaining uncultivated particularly at times of low rainfall, high rates of distress migration and growing numbers of farmers’ suicides in some parts of the country.

The causes of the crisis of farmers must be clearly understood, as without such an under-standing no proper remedial action can be taken. Any distorted understanding of the problem can easily lead to wrong policy decisions which the nation can ill afford.

To understand the farmers’ crisis we must first understand some important characteristics of farmers in India.

II. Understanding Farmers and
Villages in India Today

Some essential characteristics of farmers in India can be generalised, despite the fact that there are many regional variations in a country as large and diverse as India.

• A significant proportion of rural households are landless (around 31 per cent, according to the NSSO data, although many of them are involved with agriculture as farm labourers and/or sharecroppers).

• About 49 per cent of the rural households own less than one hectare of land, while another 11 per cent own between one and two hectares of land. Hence the majority of owner-cultivators are also small farmers with a low resource base.

• In large parts of the country a big break with traditional knowledge and wisdom of agri-cultural practices took place when from 1964 onwards the government embarked on the strategy of ‘green revolution’ agriculture, growing exotic varieties with chemical fertilisers and pesticides while abandoning traditional seeds and allied practices. Since then one or two generations of farmers have been brought up whose link with the traditional wisdom of farming has been badly broken.

• Initially the government tried to fill the gap caused by the breaking down of the traditional wisdom links by promoting its own research, extension and seeds, but soon this role was handed over in large measure to the private sector including some giant multinational companies or their subsidiaries in India.

• Despite the existence of thousands of years of farming wisdom and traditional practices in India, today farmers have became badly dependent on the private corporates and their middlemen-traders to meet their essential needs of not only seeds and other inputs but also advice on farm technology. This has created a situation of great uncertainity and vulnerability for farmers who fall prey to the various strategies of corporates and middlemen to maximise their profits on the one hand and indulge in a lot of risky and hazardous experimentation on the other in pursuit of their wider, often global strategies.

• Villages today experience a mixed situation of traditional and modern influences. Farmers on the one hand have to meet their traditional obligations of wedding expenses and dowry etc., and on the other hand these and other social expenses are increasing due to the modern consumerist influences. The fast expansion of commercial culture exerts pressure to indulge in many non-essential social expenses at a time of heightening economic problems.

• The rapid spread of liquor vends and processed tobacco (gutka etc.) selling shops, not to mention drug-addiction in some parts, has also increased economic tensions and health problems.

• With the growing privatisation of the health and educaton sector, the necessity of spending more in these areas, particularly to meet medical needs, has increased.

• Although the government has several subsidies, credit-schemes and loan-waivers for farmers, these are prepared and implemented generally in an environment of alienation from the real needs of farmers. In addition, high levels of corruption and the role of middlemen also greatly dilute and distort the avialability of any real benefits to genuinely deserving people.

• Water is the single most important input for farmers, but public spending on irrigation has been marred by large-sacle wastage. Over the years water availability in rivers and tanks has decreased, while the water-table has gone down, creating a situation of serious water-stress. The water meant for villagers has been diverted to cities and industries while within villages, overexploitation by big farmers for commercial crops has left little for small farmers and staple food-crops.

• In these times of climate change the weather has become much more erratic and unpredictable. Due to this and other reasons the threat from droughts, floods and other disasters is increasing.

• The price farmers receive for these crops has not increased in proportion to expenses, at least in the case of small farmers who face several additional problems and constraints in marketing their crops due to their vulnerability and immediate need for cash, which enhances the possibility of distress sale. In many cases a significant share of the crops is meant specifically to pay the debt soon after the harvest.

• The green revolution strategy favoured by the government results in destruction of the natural fertility of the soil and loss of earth worms and micro-organisms in the soil due to excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as damage to other friendly insects and birds etc. Thus very soon the overall eco-system is disrupted and yield-rise then is minimal while expenses go on mounting.

III. Continuing Crisis of Farmers and Reasons for Extreme Crisis Situations

Thus it is clear that most farmers in India operate in a situation of almost continuing crisis when the overall production and consumption (including ceremonial) expenses are likely to be more than the earnings. There are likely to be only a few exceptions such as where at least one member of the farmer household manages to get a government or private job with a reliable good salary or other earnings.

In this situation the ability to face any adverse situation is very low. Any adversity can force farmers to borrow at a high interest rate, and then it becomes difficult to pay back the high interests, let alone the principal amount.

As farmers have frequent need for cash to meet their real needs as well as social obligations, they are vulnerable to the propaganda of traders and corporate interests selling seeds, chemicals and machinery of dubious merit. Often they become unsuspecting victims of companies making risky trials of their new varieties and technologies. At other times low quality or hazardous equipments and inputs are dumped on them. There are very few safeguards, warnings or protection for vulnerable farmers at a time when several risky technologies, such as GM crops, are being tried by corporate interests.

While the frequency and intensity of droughts as well as other disasters are increasing, the ability of the people to cope with disaster situations has decreased due to growing alienation from traditional wisdom, breakdown of village communities and reduction of greenery, trees and pastures. Another big factor in accentuating distress is the decline of the water-table and depletion of tanks and other water-sources even in normal times. All this leads to serious crisis situations all too often despite the presence of positive factors like employment guarantee schemes and various relief measures.

Due to rising medicare expenses of privatised medical care, any serious illness or accident (road accidents are particularly common) pushes a farmer’s family deep into debt.

Social compulsions force many farmers to spend beyond their means on marriages and other ceremonies, frequently leading to debts at high interest rates.

Projects, which cause partial or full displacement or create serious pollution problems and other ecological ruin in and around villages, often result in serious crisis situations for farmers.

IV. Suicides by Farmers and
Family Members

In this condition of continuing and aggravated crisis, sometimes several distress factors combine together to create extreme helplessness and hopelessness. In such situations there have
been many cases of farmers or family members commiting suicide. This is extremely tragic and the aggrieved families certainly deserve all help that can be provided to them by the government and NGOs. Longer-term needs should also be considered instead of providing only one-time help. This help should be extended with due consideration of self-respect of the concerned family.

While this help should be certainly provided, the main concern should be to prevent suicides by removing the causes of farmers’ crisis over a wide area. If there are two villages suffering from serious crisis situations but suicides take place in only one village, then equal help should be provided to check the crisis situation in both villages. Suicides should not be the only or even the main basis for deciding the distribution of resources and relief.

V. Remedial Action to reduce the Distress
of Farmers

1. Much Higher Priority for Agriculture and Rural Areas

Keeping in view climate change-related new threats, the government’s policies need a huge and significant shift (including budget allocation, overall thrust of governance and other aspects) in favour of the poorest and marginalised sections, small farmers, rural life and farming-based livelihoods (with their lower GHG emissions and importance for food security), environment protection and disaster prevention as well as better relief work at the time of disasters and adverse conditions. It can no longer be business as usual for the government as new threats bring new responsibilities. Budget allocations should shift very significantly in favour of agriculture and related activities, and environment protection.

2. Organic Farming

We need a change that strongly favours organic farming. In common parlance this means agriculture which does not use chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Various methods of composting and making better use of dung, leaves and other organic manure are now well-established. But while using these, some farmers still rely on chemical fertilisers. Due to the tremendous bias on fertiliser-intensive cropping in the course of the so-called green revolution, such trends may persist for some time.

Of course there is absolutely no question of forcing anything on farmers. In a process of trial and error that will probably stretch over a number of years, farmers of various categories will pick up their own selection and combination. What I wish to emphasise here is that the government’s policy-choice has to shift from encouraging farming based on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to a farming which uses environment-friendly methods of maintaining soil fertility and keeping away harmful insects or other pests. The financial, administrative, scientific and other resources which the government was earlier using for subsidising the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides need to be diverted entirely for directly helping, encouraging, rewarding those who are practising organic farmers or else are in the process of shifting to organic farming.

Several questions relating to organic farming need to be carefully examined as the context in which organic farming is propagated can differ significantly depending on who is propagating it and with what aims.

In the conditions of India’s villages, along with organic we need to strongly say, “as low-cost as possible” and “as self-reliant as possible”, these two aims being strongly inter-related. Our context is basically that of small farmers with a low resource-base. Dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides made them indebted. It is certainly not desirable that one dependance should be replaced with another dependance, for example, dependence on expensive market-purchased bio-fertilisers. So the entire emphasis should be based on making the best possible use of local resources (dung, crop-residues, leaves, cow-urine etc.) and farming practices like maintaining diversity, suitable rotations etc. to become as self-reliant as possible in preserving the fertility of land and in keeping away harmful insects and pests.

Secondly, a question that needs to be asked is whether the promotion of organic farming can be compatible with the green revolution’s seeds which were specifically aimed at being more fertiliser-responsive. Clearly there is a contradiction here and so we have to go back to the rich diversity of our traditional seeds as our basic treasure of genetic material on the basis of which farming can progress on a sustainable basis. So the existing system of production and distribution of seeds has to be changed as well.

Thirdly, it is very clear that we can’t look at organic farming in isolation; we also need to look at systems of water-and-moisture concentration, good green cover in the form of trees and pastures, and overall conducive conditions for animal husbandry to flourish. These are very important in themselves but these are also important to create conducive conditions in which organic, low-cost. self-reliant farming can be successful. Similarly crop and variety-diversity, crop-rotations which maintain fertility of land are integral to our understanding of organic farming.

Also, we need to assert that while exports are welcome as an additional source of income, our main emphasis on organic farming is to first fulfil the nutrition needs of local people and provide healthy food to them.

In making such recommendations we are conscious of the problems encountered initially when the land which has got ‘addicted’ to chemical fertilisers is diverted to organic farming. One way out is for the farmer to make this shift in stages. The government’s policy should encourage this shift with suitable help and reward, instead of squandering resources on subsidising chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

3. Policy-changes regarding mechanisation, energy and GHG emission
Earlier there were objections to the spread of combine harvestors on grounds of loss of livelihoods and wastage of fodder. There were objections to purchase of tractors by small farmers on grounds of the indebtedness this caused. There were objections to excessive extraction of groundwater using electricity and diesel as this lowered the water-table and hence damaged the sustainable aspects.

Now in the age of climate change all these objections to excessive, rapid and ill-suited mechanisation acquire further importance due to the need to reduce GHG emissions and curb the use of fossil fuels as much as possible.

On the other hand, renewable energy sources need to be encouraged. Innovations by rural innovators to realise improved tools and smaller machines relating to agriculture and crop processing should be encouraged. Innovations such as the Mangal turbine (the work of a village-based innovator of Lalitpur district, UP which helps to lift water without depending on diesel or electricity) should have a better spread. Improved bio-gas plants and stoves also need to spread more widely.

A decentralised system based on combining various renewable energy systems should be emphasised for rural areas.

4. Equality, Justice and Land Reforms

So far the land-reforms efforts have emphasised mainly three aspects—land consolidation, tenancy reform and land distribution among the rural poor. In our opinion, land reforms should concentrate mainly on the third aspect, that is, distribution of land among the rural poor.

The land-consolidation effort has been marred by large-scale corruption. This corruption has also led to injustice in the form of transfer of good quality land of the poor to rich and influential households. In addition essential agro-ecological needs relating to traditional water-sources and pastures could not be understood, appreciated or cared for by officials out to make a fast buck. Therefore as things stand today, it is better to stop the land-consolidation work till some truly beneficial alternatives can emerge and a better understanding of this work takes shape.

In the case of tenancy reforms, there can be a huge difference in what the law states and what actually exists. At places the law may have banned tenancy but all sorts of land-leasing arrangements exist on a significant scale as per the practical requirements of villages and the working of the existing power-structure. There are other complications arising from the phenomenon of reverse tenancy, or the tendency of the bigger landowners to lease-in the land of smaller, marginal farmers (who may go out to work as migrants), particularly as bigger farmers have increasing access to labour-displacing machinery. So the best option at present is to avoid too much interference in tenancy and land-leasing and instead concentrate on land distribution among the rural poor—the landless and those who have very marginal land holdings.

Land distribution among the poor should get very high priority, and optimum use of all the existing laws (including ceiling laws) and favourable administration orders should be made. In addition new laws and administrative guidelines may be needed. However, middle-level farmers should be assured that their land will not be touched. Recent laws and orders which have an adverse impact on the rights of the poor (for example, taking back the asami patta) should be immediately withdrawn. The SEZ Act should be withdrawn. Fertile farmland should be protected from diversion to other use. Corporate takeover of farmland—direct or indirect —should be firmly resisted. Displacement should be reduced as much as possible. Agriculture should be mainly based on small farmers. Landless farm workers, including particularly the Dalit-adivasi farm workers, should be helped such that small farmers make available at least two acres land to each landless family. Marginal farmers having just about one acre of land can also be given some additional land.

Those who have already received land but could not cultivate it should be helped to occupy and cultivate this land. All new allottees should get help for minor irrigation, soil and water conservation.

5. Water and Soil Conservation

Water and soil-conservation work is very useful and important but at present it is marred by large-scale corruption. There is huge scope for improving this work and its benefits. Watershed projects should be integrated with egalitarian objectives, land reforms and the need to help the poor on a priority basis. Cropping-patterns should be compatible with water-availability. Construction of new projects and expensive structures should be avoided for some years and concentration should be on better use of existing irrigation sources. The water-needs of agriculture and animal husbandry should get priority over the water-needs of industry. Farmers should be protected from the ill-effects of air and water pollution, emission of harmful gases etc.

6. Low-cost Farming

At all levels efforts should be made to reduce the costs of farmers and thereby reduce the chances of indebtedness. Loans at significantly reduced interest rates should reach farmers wherever these are actually needed, and relief from loan or interest should be provided at the right time in case of adverse weather. Loans should be on the basis of simple interest and not on the basis of compound interest. Self-help groups for self-reliance in meeting the small-credit needs should be encouraged and helped. Keeping in view the inadequacy of the previous loan-waiver, a second loan-waiver should be considered.

7. Price and Incentives

Farmers should get much higher prices for their crops which should be based on treating farming as highly skilled work.

Farmers’ needs should be evaluated keeping in view the realistic size of a farm family. Organic produce should get further encouragement and financial incentives. Direct links of farmers and consumers should be encouraged. Even while paying higher returns to consumers, the price of healthy, organic food can be kept within reasonable limits by reducing expensive
inputs and decreasing the share of exploitative middlemen. The dues of farmers should be paid promptly.

8. Food-first

In terms of crop-choices, the first priority should be for a diversity of local staple foods including cereals, millets, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, spices. The second priority can be given to crops for other local economic activities such as fodder for dairying, cotton for hand-spinning and handloom work.

9. Tree-farming

When the Forest Department wants to plant trees on its degraded or vacant land, this should be done with the help of landless or almost landless poor rural households, with special emphasis on tribals. Till the trees have not grown sufficiently, these families must be paid for their work for planting trees and also to care for them under the various poverty alleviation and afforestation schemes. Once the trees have grown adequately, these families will have full hereditary rights over the minor forest produce. These rights will not be disturbed till these families fulfil the responsibility for protecting trees. They can get additional remuneration for protecting wild life. The indigenous species of trees, which have good minor forest produce and good soil and water-conservation properties, should be planted. Efforts should be to approach conditions of natural forests as much as possible.

10. Farm Animals

A system of farming which integrates agriculture and animal husbandry should be adopted, with encouragement for care and concern for welfare of farm animals. Protection of cows and bullocks should be encouraged in big way in a secular sense so that everyone can be a part of this effort. Promotion of animal husbandry and welfare of farm animals should get high priority.

11. Women Farmers

The greatest possible encouragement should be given to women farmers. Their initiatives and independent identity should be recognised and encouraged. All land titles should be together in the name of the husband and wife. However, there should not be any insistence on division of land among all sons and daughters. Even sons should as far as possible work jointly instead of dividing land in every generation. But in case of single women, they should get the rightful share of land whenever they need it. When a marriage takes place, the bride’s name should be entered into the land records along with the husband’s name.

12. Genetic Engineering

Due to the high risks, hazards and uncertainities associated with genetically engineered crops, there should be a complete ban on the introduction of any genetically engineered crops.

13. Cottage Industry

Cottage and small-scale industrial activity should be encouraged in villages and small towns. The spirit of swadeshi and maximum possible self-reliance of village communities, as was emphasised by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom movement, must be revived to meet the contemporary needs. Growth of desi (indigenous) varieties of cotton can become the base of revival of hand-spinning and hand-weaving (khadi cloth). Cottage industry, like khadi/handloom, should get increasing strength from the emphasis on reducing GHG emissions and environment-friendly textiles. A wide range of cottage industries, related to agriculture, animal husbandry and minor forest produce, as well as other cottage-scale labour-intensive industries, can be started. The kind of small-scale industrial activity that doesn’t displace or threaten farmers but instead provides additional livelihoods to them should be encouraged.

14. Farm Research

Farm scientists should be completely free from corporate influence and should be guided by the interests of ordinary farmers, sustainability and environment protection. There should be a willingness to learn from traditional wisdom in agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation, water conservation and related issues.

15. Strengthening Public Health Care

If free or affordable medicare and medicines are easily available in rural areas in an improved and strengthened public healthcare system, then a big cause of aggravating the farmers’ crisis can be removed.

16. Curbs on Liquor and Intoxicants

Instead of setting up more and more liquor vends and encouraging the sale of liquor and intoxicants, the government should take up a balanced programme of reducing liquor and tobacco consumption in rural areas and also checking drug-abuse.

17. Social Reform Movements

These people’s movements with government support should stress on abolition of the dowry system and reduction of expenditure in marriages and all other ceremonial expenses.

The author is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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