Amon Singh Kevat, 70, a small farmer in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, spent three long days in April waiting for his harvest to be picked up from an open plot that served as a mandi (procurement centre for agricultural produce). In need of money for a marriage in the family, Kevat didn’t even go home for meals. But before he could sell his produce, the strain of the endless wait in the scorching heat proved too much for his frail, old body and he breathed his last with his harvest by his side. Even as his body was lying in a corner of the plot, the officials weighed his crop and kept it aside.
Interestingly, Vidisha is the Assembly constituency of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the Lok Sabha constituency of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Even though Kevat’s death, precipitated by the nexus of commission agents and officials at procurement centres, occurred during the furore created by Rajasthan farmer Gajendra Singh’s suicide at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, almost no one noticed it.
Seven decades after Independence, even as the majority of the population continues to depend on agriculture for a living, India has failed to formulate a policy that could make farming a viable and sustainable option. In his first speech in Parliament’s Central Hall, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Yeh sarkar kisanon ki sarkar hai (This is pro-farmer government),” but little of what the government has done since then gives any signal that it is ready to bring about a holistic change in our agrarian policy to make agriculture remunerative for farmers.
Instead, stalwarts of the Modi regime have repeatedly claimed that a vast section of farmers, especially the younger generation, is desperate to move on to other professions. “Today no farmer wants his son to be in agriculture,” said Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu recently.
But what has bred this distaste for farming among the farmers? What role have our agrarian policies played in this?
The long wait that killed Kevat is an experience shared by most farmers across the country. Unnecessary delays at the procurement centres serve the interests of commission agents and the officials collude in the practice. In a majority of cases, the centres are far away from the farms, forcing farmers to rent a tractor or some other vehicle to transport their harvest. This makes many farmers opt out of government channels of procurement and sell their produce through commission agents for much less than the government’s minimum support price (MSP).
In Punjab and Haryana, which contributed 70 percent of the total wheat procurement so far in fy 2014-15, there are state laws that do not permit the government to buy the produce directly from farmers and the procurement is done through arhatiyas (middlemen). “The middlemen bid for our crops and usually we have to sell it much below the MSP,” says Rajesh Dagar, a farmer from Jhajjar in Haryana who owns 16 acres. “While the farmer spends money on cleaning and transporting the crop to the mandi, the arhatiyas earn an additional 2 to 3 percent commission on the MSP from the procuring agencies such as the Food Corporation of India. I sold my crop for Rs 100 below the MSP of Rs 1,450 per quintal of wheat.”
In a lean farming season, the farmer bears losses both because of the lesser yield and the poor quality of the crop that forces him to sell it at a lower price. In a good season, too, the farmer loses out because the market is flooded with crops, which brings down the prices.
Even though the MSP was conceived as a key tool in the hands of the government to ensure that farmers get a remunerative price for their produce, in reality, especially in the case of cash crops, it often does not even cover the cost of production.
Apart from the MSP, another issue that impacts the well-being of farmers is the cost of agricultural inputs. Increasing dependence on fertilisers and their rising cost has turned out to be a big burden on them. India is the world’s second biggest consumer of fertilisers and its biggest importer. Forced to import around 40 percent of the chemicals used to manufacture fertilisers, the public sector fertiliser companies spent Rs 1,400 crore in 2010 on producing three key fertilisers — urea, DAP (diammonium phosphate) and MoP (muriate of potash). In 2014-15, India imported 8.75 million metric tonne (mt) of urea, which makes up 59 percent of the country’s fertiliser requirement. The figure for 2008-09 was 56.6 million mt, which went up to 80.44 million mt in 2012-13 — an increase of more than 41 percent.
The gap in demand and supply of urea is projected to rise to 11 million mt by fy 2016-17, industry body Fertiliser Association of India has said. This only means that the burden on the State and the farmers will only increase in the years ahead.
While the dependence on fertiliser imports predates the Modi government, it has added its bit to weakening domestic production by withdrawing subsidy for naphtha-based urea production, leading to the closure of some factories.
The malaise is not confined to production alone but also affects the distribution channels. Scarcity of fertilisers has led to incidents of violence in many parts of the country. In Haryana, scarcity of urea led to a riot-like situation in January, spreading panic among farmers and eventually forcing the administration to distribute urea through police stations. In a similar incident in Bihar’s Madhepura district in February, farmers looted trucks carrying urea in broad daylight. Behind these desperate situations is the bitter truth that small farmers take their first loan to buy fertilisers from the open market and are devastated when they find there are no stocks.
Thus the agrarian crisis is experienced by farmers both while buying agricultural inputs and while selling their produce. And when disaster strikes, there is no safety net for them. Serious lacunae in the crop insurance policy prevents it from helping the farmers tide over the crisis. A farmer is eligible for compensation only when the whole village or block is deemed affected as per the different criteria set by various state governments. To see this in perspective, imagine that your car is damaged in an accident and the insurance company tells you that your claim can be approved only if all the cars in your neighbourhood have met the same fate.
In 2004, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led nda government had introduced a pilot project that focussed on losses of individual farms. Under this scheme, the expected yield was estimated at the time of paying the premium and then, in case the yield falls short due to unforeseen circumstances, the farmer was paid the difference. However, the scheme was soon discontinued.
Moreover, the amount that can be claimed depends solely on the decision of the patwari (local revenue official) who inspects the damaged crops. Rampant corruption has led to the failure of this system.
The farmer’s ordeal doesn’t end there. Sometimes, even when the claims are acknowledged, they are given laughable amounts as compensation. For instance, some farmers in eastern Uttar Pradesh were recently handed over cheques for amounts as small as 100 for their damaged crops.
In 2013, the Agriculture Insurance Company of India Ltd, the biggest player in crop insurance, introduced the Community-Based Individual Farm Insurance Scheme. Under the scheme, a local representative from the village community, called the ‘anchor’, is provided with a hand-held device to capture data from the field and transmit it to the processing centre. This scheme was aimed at making sure that the right amount of compensation is provided to farmers who genuinely need it.
Another major limitation of the existing crop insurance schemes is that they do not cover landless farmers who cultivate land taken on lease. According to a report brought out by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), 14 percent of the farmers in India are landless and 60 percent are those whose landholdings are too small to provide enough for them to make ends meet.
Besides working as agricultural labour, the landless and small-scale farmers also cultivate land taken on rent. “Our family owns 11 acres,” says Abhijeet Kumar, a landowner from Jharkhand’s Deoghar district. “For the past three-four decades, we have been employing others to farm our land and share the harvest with them. Our farm, their labour and equal risk for both: that is the thumb rule.”
In the sharecropping system known as batai in eastern India, the expenses incurred and the harvest is equally shared between the landowner and the sharecropper, while all the labour is put in by the latter. There is another system in which the tiller pays a fixed sum in cash or crop-share to the landowner irrespective of the yield and thus runs a greater risk of getting entangled in a debt trap in case of crop failure.
As 79 percent of the tillers have no other source of livelihood and 45 percent live below the poverty line, crop failure is bound to create havoc. No wonder 40 percent of the farmers don’t wish to continue with agriculture, according to data compiled by the National Sample Survey Organisation, and 73 percent would opt out if given a chance as per the csds report.
Yet, contrary to the grim picture on the ground, the government boasts of its achievements in terms of new schemes, budgetary allocation and the number of beneficiaries. This includes projects such as ‘Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India’, introduced by the UPA in 2010, and the technology- driven ‘Second Green Revolution’ launched by the Modi government. Meanwhile, farmers such as Kevat are left to die, waging a hopeless battle against heavy odds.