Gathering Storm


High food prices is only the tip of a looming agricultural disaster. A huge paradigm shift is needed, but minister sharad pawar isn’t listening. Ajit Sahi and Rana Ayyub report

Photo: Vijay Pandey

UNLESS THE prices of vegetables skyrocket and become a scandal — as they have over several weeks now, or as did the price of sugar last year — little in the out-of-sight world of Indian agriculture excites the imagination of the city folks, who influence, rather disproportionately, everything from government policies to newspaper content. Few of those who enjoy a hearty meal and wax lovingly on their favourite dishes can tell their rabi from their kharif. Except perhaps for the agriculture scientists, economists and activists, everyone sidesteps jargon — like WTO, cash crops, support price, PDS, food sovereignty and monoculture. Lesser seems the public’s interest in the continuing news of farmers killing themselves, up from a few hundred over a decade ago to two lakh at the last count.

But we can refuse to engage with the scandalous and heart-rending story of Indian agriculture only at our peril and that of our children’s. Increasingly, all shades of expert opinion are concurring that Indian agriculture is hurtling towards doom, and that if we don’t alter our basic approach and policies towards agriculture, we will be staring — in not-too-distant a future — at widespread hunger triggered by massive food shortages and high prices, as also at horrific destitution of hundreds of millions of our farmers from failed soil and crops.

Clarion Call Farmers across India have despaired of the failure of Pawar’s ministry to support them through subsidies and farm inputs like seeds and irrigation
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Still not compelling news? Then read what geneticist-cum-agricultural expert Suman Sahai, a critic of the government’s management of agriculture, says: “There was no Naxalism in Jharkhand when I began working there 10 years ago. I know many of these angry young boys and they don’t want to overthrow the State. They only want to farm. But so many of them are convinced that the government has abandoned them.” Farmers in Jharkhand today have virtually no water for their crops. Last season, many got the seeds from the government three months too late. Hardly anyone hopes to grow enough to feed his family. “Even farmers with 10 acres of land prefer migrating to the cities to pedal a cycle rickshaw or become a peon than continue in farming,” Sahai adds.

WHILE INDIAN agriculture had been on an accelerated decline since the 1990s, the man who has singularly presided over its misfortune for the last six years is the dapper Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, arguably India’s most inscrutable politician and also one of its most powerful. A farmer’s son, who built his politics in Maharashtra around the entrenched sugar cooperatives, Pawar is an acknowledged encyclopaedia not just of Indian but also global agriculture. When he took the job in the summer of 2004, many had hoped Pawar would use his vast knowledge to reform policy to begin pulling farmers out of poverty, while keeping prices down with lasting food stocks without increasing imports.

But for six years the Indian Agriculture Ministry under Pawar — who the media has chronicled far more for his exploits in the management of cricket than agriculture — has pursued policies that have done little to mitigate the misery of the poor farmers, or to better manage food stocks. Instead, his ministry has batted for a demand-and-supply market economy, for big business, for higher imports, and for water- and other resource-intensive crops such as rice, wheat and sugarcane. “Pawar has used his tremendous knowledge of agriculture for manipulation and not for management,” says his long-term critic Kumar Ketkar, a veteran journalist in Mumbai. This has necessarily had its turbulent impact.


Talking Points

Farmers are desolate that the government has abandoned them. In Jharkhand, farmers do not hope to grow enough food even to feed own families

Pawar favours cash crops that have high input costs over coarse cereals that can feed the hungry millions as also provide livelihood to farmers

Pawar has also backed lower import tariffs on items such as cotton and oilseeds forcing Indian farmers to sell cheap in the domestic markets

The sugarcane lobby gets institutional subsidies and good prices, while the poor farmers are denied irrigation and sustainable livelihood


As food prices rose through February and this month, Pawar tried his best to shrug his responsibility as agriculture minister, going to the extent of suggesting that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to blame as well, before hurriedly clarifying that he did not mean what it was taken to be. One day, the Opposition walked out of the Lok Sabha in the middle of his speech. That the usually unflappable veteran minister was clearly rattled was evident on March 16, when he forced the Congress party to sack a spokesman who, unbeknownst to him, was caught on camera abusing the minister over agricultural policies. (Both Pawar and the sacked spokesman, Satyavrat Chaturvedi, refused to comment when contacted by TEHELKA.)

Of course, Pawar defends his policies because of which, he says, Indian agriculture grew by 3.2 percent in the first two years of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12), compared with just 2 percent growth across much of the 1990s, under Manmohan Singh’s predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. These and other glowing statistics are part of the mid-term review of the Plan that Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia will be presenting the prime minister later this week. Pawar also cites the massive increase in crop loans to farmers and the launch of various schemes, such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, and the various missions, such as for horticulture, to stress his focus on agriculture.

‘Pawar has used his tremendous knowledge to manipulate rather than manage agriculture’

But experts are convinced that Pawar’s policies are already making Indian agriculture unstable and dangerous, and further institutionalising poverty and hunger. “Importing food is importing unemployment,” says food policy analyst Devinder Sharma, who blames the current agrarian crisis on the country’s pro- West, pro-business, pro-cash crops and pro-import agriculture policies. He calls it a “criminal neglect” of Indian agriculture by the entire policy-making community, including ministers, bureaucrats, technocrats, scientists, economists and experts, all the way since the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

Grim Reality Market-driven policies have increased rural distress through indebtedness
Photo: Vijay Pandey

When Pawar had taken charge as agriculture minister in 2004, several things clearly needed doing. One, the prices of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides that had been shooting through the roof needed containing. At the same time, with prices of agricultural produce stagnating, farmers’ incomes were increasingly negative. An official survey in 2004 placed the average earning of a farmer’s household at less than Rs 2,200 a month. This needed attention.

Yet, Pawar stunningly supported drastic cuts in import duties on foreign agricultural produce, from oilseeds to cotton, even as farmers struggled to sell. Pawar’s rather untenable argument, made to TEHELKA is that if he pushes for a hike in the import duties now, then those countries might themselves hike the import duties against Indian agricultural produce in the future.

“While our cotton farmers commit suicide we import cotton at a duty of only 10 percent,” fumes ND Patil, veteran leader of the Peasants & Workers Party in Maharashtra. Patil says that under the WTO, the international platform for negotiating import tariffs, India can charge up to 150 percent duty on imported cotton. According to analyst Sharma, the low duty on imported cotton is especially absurd as the US and the European Union,heavily subsidised their farmers, including being directly given cash. “They get a cheque sitting at home,” says Sharma. “Ours should, too.” Suman Sahai remembers a farmer’s family she lived next to in Germany that sold its cows to each other only to pocket the government’s cash subsidies.

Even those who don’t necessarily criticise Pawar’s policies are baffled by his import logic. “We have about 20 million tonnes of wheat reserves,” says Milind Murugkar, an agriculture policy researcher in Nashik town of north Maharashtra. “And yet, we are importing wheat at the rate of Rs 15 a kg. Why?” Murugkar says it makes no sense that Pawar has not released the stocks at home.

Westward Ho Pawar has pushed lower import duties that benefit US farmers
Photo: AFP

Veteran agricultural economist and former Union minister YK Alagh strongly warns against cutting down the import duties. Recently he has submitted the findings of a government committee he headed to formulate a position on import tariffs. “We said the government must cover the costs of the efficient farmer,” Alagh told TEHELKA. “To allow imports at lower tariffs is to subsidise the foreign farmers.” One year, he says, the import duties on oilseeds were brought down to zero. “So we were subsidising Malaysian and American farmers,” he says. “It was completely haywire. It was Alice in Wonderland.”

EQUALLY BAFFLING is Pawar’s failure to address the crying need for irrigation. Astonishingly, since the launch of the Green Revolution over four decades ago, government policy has always skewed in favour of just 40 percent of farmland, in a handful of states, providing them extensive irrigation through tube-wells and canals.

Virtually no attention was ever given to the other 60 percent, which is known as “dry land”, is entirely dependent on rain, and grows what are known as “drought-hardy” crops such as the oilseeds, pulses and the coarse cereals, including jowar and bajra. (Jharkhand, one of the states where Sahai’s NGO Gene Campaign works, is one such dry-land state.) Were the Indian government to encourage the cultivation of these crops, it would provide a livelihood to hundreds of millions of poor farmers, and cheap food to hundreds of millions of the hungry poor, 80 percent of who anyway live in the “dry-lands”.

Rightwingers All Farmer suicides that began during Vajpayee’s regime have continued under UPA
Photo: Reuters

The government’s neglect of the “dryland” poor is unforgivable, according to Vipul Mudgal, who works on rural livelihoods with the New Delhi-based think tank, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The government gives an average subsidy of Rs 1.3 lakh per hectare to the “irrigated” areas of the Green Revolution vintage, including to the water-guzzling areas that grow sugarcane in Pawar’s backyard of western Maharashtra. In comparison, subsidised support to the “dry-land” regions is barely Rs 5,000 per hectare. “Nobody has thought of a separate irrigation policy for these areas,” Mudgal says. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee made a beginning in his 2010 Union Budget but has put down only Rs 4 crore. But that, Mudgal says, is “nothing”.

WATER MANAGEMENT will, most likely, play a crucial role in the battle to save Indian agriculture from utter ruin, says Planning Commission member Mihir Shah, who lived for two decades in the villages of Madhya Pradesh before the prime minister asked him to join the plan panel. In 1998, Shah wrote a book India’s Drylands, detailing how the Green Revolution messed up in pushing a one-size-fits-all option of drilling tube-wells everywhere.

Shah explains that most of India’s dry lands are underlain with rocks that formed ages ago, when volcanoes erupted after the Indian subcontinent broke off the African continent. Basically, the groundwater in such dry lands had seeped down the little spaces in between these rocks over thousands of years. “To grow sugarcane in the dry land areas of Maharashtra is a travesty of the basic principles of ecology and management of water tables,” rues Shah. “In the last 30 years we have literally mined that water and now there is very little left.” It is also “arrogant” to sow rice in Punjab in June. Through such practices, water tables have fallen dangerously low everywhere.

Shah says India should learn from countries like Singapore, which is providing recycled water including to industries such as semiconductor manufacturing that require very high quality of water. “In fact,” he adds, “we need to build capacities of the local people to manage water.”

Of course, it is widely known that Pawar’s entire politics spins around the powerful sugarcane growers and sugarproducing cooperatives of Maharashtra. BG Kolse-Patil, a former Bombay High Court judge who resigned his judgeship to take to full-time activism 20 years ago, is unsparing in his criticism of Pawar. He accuses the minister of playing politics with agriculture, and actually conniving with traders to create shortage through hoarding. “Traders have told me that Pawar asks them to buy sugarcane at a price higher than the government rate, so that there is a shortage,” Kolse-Patil told TEHELKA from Pune. “Then the traders sell to the government at a much higher rate.”

‘While India’s cotton farmers are committing suicide, we import cotton at a duty of only 10 percent’

Kolse-Patil, who for years has kept a very public hawk’s eye on Pawar’s myriad political, agricultural and business activities, claims that Pawar controls an overwhelming majority of Maharashtra’s 200-odd sugar cooperatives through proxy leadership. “He had many of these cooperatives declared sick, which made them eligible for massive loans. Pawar or his henchmen get that money.” (Pawar has always denied such allegations.)

Another of Pawar’s trenchant critics is Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, a former eightterm Lok Sabha MP who was a Union Industry Ministry under Vajpayee. Pawar had learnt the ropes of the cooperative business at a cooperative run by Vikhe-Patil more than 40 years ago. Vikhe-Patil is stunned that while Pawar is getting so many sugar cooperatives declared sick, he is starting two sugar factories in Pune. “If the cooperatives are sick,” he asks, “then how will the companies flourish?” Vikhe-Patil also points that Pawar’s only interest in the “dry-land” crops has been in subsidising factories that make liquor out of bajra and jowar. “These are Pawar’s pro-farmer policies,” Vikhe-Patil told TEHELKA in Nashik.

Or take the issue of Indian soil, which has been ruined from decades of intense cultivation, worsened by an overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. No less devastating has been the practice of “monoculture”, which is growing only one or two crops. Traditionally, Indian farmers rotated cultivation between different crops, and this kept the soil ever organic and fertile. Thanks to monoculture, this soil is now alarmingly infertile. Even Pawar rues monoculture in the interview with TEHELKA. But then, his approach towards agriculture is what the market wants and not what the stomach needs. And this necessarily pushes for more, not less monoculture, because cash crops — grown for money and not for feeding stomachs — alone can meet market demands. Pawar has thus favoured a massive push to viticulture (the cultivation of grapes) for winemaking and for horticulture, to sell internationally.

Mother India Just last week, 16 farmers in Vidarbha committed suicide, unable to bear the burden of indebtedness. In 12 years, over two lakh have killed themselves
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Pawar has been widely criticised for never visiting any of the families of the tens of thousands of farmers who have committed suicide in the Vidarbha region in eastern Maharashtra, except, of course, once when he was forced to go with the prime minister in June 2006. This makes Magsaysay Award winning veteran journalist P Sainath livid. “Pawar was making statements that suicides have come down,” Sainath says. “Actually, Maharashtra is always the worst.” In his Independence Day speech that year, Manmohan Singh said that the “plight of the farmers” had made a “deep impact” on him. “Around the same time,” recalls Sainath, “Pawar was talking about the safety of the Indian cricket team visiting Sri Lanka.”

OF COURSE, as is widely known, Pawar has created a model of agricultural paradise in his own home area and former Lok Sabha constituency of Baramati that now his daughter, Supriya Sule, represents. According to Bhavdeep Kang, a New Delhi-based journalist who has followed Indian agriculture under Pawar for years, the minister has never really articulated his vision for the farm sector as a whole but “judging by Baramati”, he believes the prosperity of farmers is predicated on irrigation, high-yielding inputs, post-harvest management and agri-processing infrastructure. One example is the milk cooperatives. “From credit for purchase of milch cattle, to milk collection centres, to chilling plants, to the Britannia factory — there are no gaps in the system,” she says. The thriving grape exports to the European Union — yes, there is a variety called “Sharad seedless” — from Maharashtra account for a massive 80 percent of India’s total grape exports. Incidentally, Baramati is also home to India’s first winery.

There is no doubt that Pawar’s powerpacked technology-intensive business model — widely referred to as “scientific management of agricultural production and processing” — has succeeded tremendously in Baramati, transforming it from a drought-prone, low-income area to one of India’s most prosperous, well-irrigated and industrialised. But, of course, Baramati is a pampered example that can hardly be replicated across the country. So what would work?

“New agriculture,” says analyst Devinder Sharma. This is a model in place in 21 of the 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh, where three lakh farmers cultivate crops without the use of pesticides and fertilisers. “There has been no drop in the yield and the insect attacks have reduced,” says Sharma. “Every farmer is saving 40 percent on health costs.” Last year, farmer incomes reported an across-the-board increase. The farmers have already started a self-help group through their own financing. “Can you imagine it has a corpus of Rs 5,000 crore,” says Sharma.

Started by NGOs, the project — Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture — has been taken over by the Andhra Pradesh government. Now, even the World Bank is forced to support it. “This new agriculture does not destroy natural resources, soil health, water tables and livelihoods,” Sharma says. “It does not add to global warming.”

Of course, this new agriculture does not add to the “GDP”, because it involves no big businesses. Hardly the stuff Pawar will be interested in.


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