Farmers Income

The demand for setting up a Farmers Income Commission, on line with the Pay Commission for government employees, is now gaining strength. I am happy to find noted agricultural scientist Dr M S Swaminathan also endorsing the need for such a body to address the fundamental issue of income security among country’s exasperated farming community.

Speaking at an inter-disciplinary dialogue yesterday at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, Dr Swaminathan stated this (See the full report at http://www.thehindu.com/2009/03/15/stories/2009031554040500.htm). I remember that it was some years back that Dr Swaminathan had asked me for a set of suggestions for policy actions, that I thought were required, to address the issue of farmer suicides. Direct Income Support to farmers was one of them.

In my opinion, based on my understanding of the global agriculture, modern farming leads to two kinds of agriculture. First, is the highly subsidised agriculture in the western countries. And second, it results in subsistence agriculture, as is being witnessed in the developing world. The only way to bail out subsistence farmers is to provide them with direct income support, as is being done in the OECD countries. Withdraw the direct income support from the rich and industrialised countries, and you will see that agriculture would collapse like a house of cards in those countries.

The problem therefore is in the kind of farming system that the world has been forced to adopt. The 1st Green Revolution ushered in an industrial farming system which has led to the crisis that we are witnessing today. It destroyed soil fertility, added to malnutrition, mined groundwater, and played havoc with human health and environment. Instead of learning any lessons, we are fast moving to the 2nd Green Revolution, which would only compound the existing crisis, and as planned and designed by the World Bank/IMF/WTO, push farmers out of agriculture.

The 2nd Green Revolution is buoyed with GM crops, and stricter IPR laws that will shift the control over seed into the hands of private agribusiness companies. At the same time, the market structure that is being laid out — contract farming, food retail, commodity exchanges, and future trading — all aimed at making farmers economically viable, is actually allowing the companies to rob the farmers of whatever is left in their pockets. If all this was workable, and was bringing income to farmers, there is no reason why the US government for instance should be providing huge subsidies, much of it direct income support or income transfer in one form or the other, to their miniscule population of farmers.

What pains me is to find the same failed model of agriculture being pushed aggressively into India. I sometimes wonder whether those agricultural scientists, economists and planners who swear in the name of this actually know what they are doing?

We as a nation always end up blaming the politicians. For this nation, politicians are our favourite whipping boys. We treat the Agricultural and Food Secretaries, Science & Technology, Biotechnology (both in the Centre and in the States), the joint secretaries, the directors, the vice-chancellors, planning commission members, the heads of departments in universities as holy cows. We have never tried to measure the damage done by these officials and that too (you will often find) for small monetary gains or consultancies or even foreign trips. Not all of them were like that. Those who stood up and questioned, have been very conveniently marginalised.

It is time we take a closer look at the games being played in the name of improving agriculture, you will find out where the blame lies.

For 40 years, this breed of bureucrats and technocrats, have been telling farmers that the more they produce the more will be their income. For 40 years (Green Revolution has completed 40 years) they went on misguiding the farmers, and the reason is simple. They were actually not helping farmers, but under the garb of farmers promoting the commercial interests of fertiliser, pesticides, seed and mechanical equipment companies. No wonder, after 40 years, the average monthly income of a farming family, which includes five members of a family plus two cattle, has been worked out by NSSO at a paltry Rs 2115 (around US $ 40).

If this is the monthly income of a farming family shouldn’t the bureaucracy and the technocrats hang their head in shame? If they are not doing it, shouldn’t we force them to accept their mistake? Think of those agricultural economists who have been telling us, and repeating this folly through innumerable desertations, studies, analysis, that modern agriculture is profitable. Where are they now? Why shouldn’t they be taken to task? After all, their faulty analysis has played havoc with the lives of millions of small and marginal farmers. Farmers were misguided all these years, and made to believe that putting more inputs would bring them more profits. They did it, and eventually have been pushed deeper and deeper into a chakravyuah.

It doesn’t stop here. These economists, scientists and bureaucrats are now clamouring for free markets — commodity exchange, future trading and food retail — as the way to turn farming economically viable. It didn’t work in the US and the European Union. But look at the way it is being aggressively promoted in India. The beneficiaries of future trading and commodity exchange are not the farmers but speculators, the consultancy firms and rating agencies, and the business. And again, this is being done in the name of farmers.

I had requested a few distinguished economists to work out a mechanism to provide direct income support to farmers, and after some time they finally expressed their inability. The reason they cited was that it doesn’t get into their frame of thinking. Quite obvioulsy, the mindset is fixed, and we think by providing farmers with a higher support price, farmer’s would become economically viable.

The tragedy is that farmer leaders too have been saying the same. Some NGO leaders, and I don’t want to name them, have also refused to look beyond procurement prices. None of them have visualised that there are hardly 35 to 40 per cent farmers who ultimately get the benefit of procurement prices. The rest of the farming community, which is in a majority, also produces food. Even if they hardly have anything to sell, they at least produce food. If they were not to produce food for themselevs, the country would be importing that quantity of food. In other words, they produce economic wealth. Therefore they too need to be adequately compensated for the economic wealth they produce for the country.

At several places, senior bureaucrats have asked me this question. At other events, even farmer leaders have asked me where would the money come from. No one however has ever questioned as to where would the money for the 6th Pay Commission come from. We have all been made to believe that higher income is the birth right of only employees. Farmers don’t deserve a fixed income, they should simply live on credit.

It is time to break through the rotten mindset. The sooner you do, the better it would be for the country’s sovereignty.

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