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Budget And Farm Blues

Declining soil fertility, rampant suicides, unfair terms of trade make farmers’ case for a reprieve and redemption in the Budget a crying need of the hour, writes Abid Shah

Abid Shah
Publish Date: Feb 20 2016 6:43PM | Updated Date: Feb 20 2016 7:30PM

Budget And Farm Bluesphoto : Hrishikesh bhatt

Once again it is soon going to be the Budget time. Yet, many Indians are indifferent to what Union Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, may have for them in his Budget bag. This is more so right from a little beyond the confines of Delhi and unto quite far and deep inside the country. And the reason for this being so is that the better or a quite bigger part of India is made of villages strewn with vast farmlands and dotted by non-descript and modest dwellings often made of mud and thatch. Those living in these tenuous preserves may form the majority of countrymen and women but sadly neither they nor even the relatively better off among the villagers who may have stray pucca houses have the kind of voice that can force any Finance Minister, not to say Jaitley alone, to shift his focus onto them, or their plight to be more fair.

 

Hugely unfair quite a few governments in the past have been to them as the focus of powers-that-be has shifted from progress to growth. Governments for a quarter of century or so now have believed in moving ahead through growth-driven economy and its slow, tardy and often tricky trickle down effect to tackle issues like poverty, squalor and deprivation rampant and afflicting those in the unorganised sector that includes farmhands whether land owners or landless labourers.

 

It does not call for a leftward overdrive to know the appalling state of the farm sector since the very stagnation India has been caught in since independence and which it is still struggling to break has its roots in the neglect of its villages, agriculture and rural economy, courtesy a pro-urban bias of the elite whether from the right or the Left. At best or at worst there could have only been a bit of difference of extent or of a few degrees between the two in this callous complacency that has been pushing not only villages but alongwith them the whole country deeper into a vicious morass.

 

An inkling of turning away face from rural realities can best be gleaned through what had happened a few years ago vis-a-vis the minimum support price or MSP that Government declares for procurement of cereals like wheat from farmers to fill its Food Corporation of India or FCI godowns to create stocks or buffer for lean times. The MSP sets a benchmark vis-a-vis wheat price at least which in turn determines the market price of wheat. Timely revision of MSP for wheat helps farmer to beat inflation and higher MSP serves as an incentive to farmers to produce more, Somehow, after two successive rabi harvests in 2006 and 2007 a few foreign or multinational corporations moved in and started buying wheat from grain markets like Ludhiana and elsewhere in Punjab and also Madhya Pradesh. They offered at least Rs 100 a quintal more than the Government’s MSP for wheat at that time which then ranged between Rs 650 and Rs 750 a quintal.

 

These companies were mainly Australian Wheat Corporation, Hindustan Livers and interestingly a US-base food giant called Cargill – it is pronounced back home as Kargil in Himalayas. And this was as or even more silent an intrusion by these companies in domestic market as was that of neighbouring county’s armed hot heads in Kargil heights on the North-Western front in 1999. These companies bought lakhs of tons of wheat from Indian grain markets, turning Government procurement short of its estimates.

 

This shortage soon led to price hike in the retail market forcing the Government to import food again from countries like Australia. The imported wheat turned out to be poor in quality and was often pest ridden. This sad episode of first sale to companies from abroad and then import of wheat from their countries was told about in January 2010 to the writer of these lines by Yudhvir Singh, the South India Coordinator for Spain-based La Via Compesina, an international body of farmers with nearly 70 member countries.

 

In the wake of such mysterious purchase, shipment and import Singh had led a farmers’ delegation in 2007 to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who listened to the farmers story quite patiently. The very next day the Government banned the buying of wheat by foreign companies and the MSP was fixed at Rs 1000 a quintal. In 2009 a bonus of Rs 80 a quintal was given to the farmers by the Government.

 

But the bulk buying by the foreign companies in the previous year that lasted until 2007 triggered off speculative forward trading of grain stocks where domestic players took over the role played by foreign food giants in 2006 to 2007 and thus wheat prices went up to Rs 1700 to 1800 a quintal for consumers.

 

After such a sordid tinkering with wheat trade, courtesy pot bellied Banias or trade sharks of varying hues from here to Australia and elsewhere in the world, the woes of poor Indian wheat producer and many more poor consumers spread over both rural and urban parts of the country vis-a-vis the ever rising wheat prices have only been becoming from bad to worse. Farmers say they don’t benefit by rising wheat price in the market since traders pocket the hike; and landless consumers tell that prices that go up once never return to normal.

 

And, yet, unrelentingly goes this sad saga of Indian farmer and his local consumer with the result that India is shelling out its precious dollars every year for import of either wheat, or onions, or lentils, or sugar to meet shortages and assuage heating up of prices of these essential commodities in retail market.

 

The change of governments has not changed it. This is in sharp contrast to what had happened in the times of the late Lal Bahadur Shastri in whose brief tenure the foundations for a green revolution was laid down after the late Eisenhower had expressed his discomfiture to shipping wheat all the time to India to meet its huge food requirements. Soon the late Indira Gandhi could accomplish the dream of her predecessor through sheer grit. Her Government invested in the farm sector heavily by offering upto 50 percent subsidy to farmers for tube wells to turn thousands of hectares of land into fully irrigated farms in a matter of few years through the late sixties and the early seventies. India started producing more than what it could consume and the food prices became not only affordable but was subsidised at ration shops for poor, needy and deserving buyers.

 

Yet, the green revolution of the seventies was the last intervention by the Central Government to rev up the farm sector. Ever since the Government has largely preferred to look away from the vast farmlands of the country, leaving it and those dependent on it to their fate. There has been the talk of a second green revolution but it has been confined to lone voices like that of MS Swaminathan who is thought to be the father, originator and prime mover of the first and only green revolution that the country could ever see.

 

Unlike the apathy of the policy markers back home, the foreign corporations have been active to eke out their bit and more from the Indian farming community. Agriculture has increasingly been becoming dependent on imports of fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides. Most of them are imported. Their overuse has often degraded soil and it has been becoming heavily dependent on overdose of chemicals to maintain yield.

 

For evidence of this farmers representatives like Yudhvir Singh point to the loss of earthworms from the soil of most farms in the country. He says that now certain foreign outfits have been exhorting techniques for Vermiculture to bring back earthworms that are credited to not only maintain but also augment fertility of the soil for ages. Farmers also point to the introduction of new pests through what is called genetically improved seeds and crops being raised in certain parts of the country on experimental level through foreign help and collaboration.

 

As silent sufferers most farmers point to rising numbers of suicide in their ranks as their myriad problems are attaining malignancy. So the Budget can be one of the instruments that can well cut some of this and show the farmer a way out from the morass that has been drowning away all hope of redemption of the farm sector. Is the Finance Minister or anybody in the North Block listening?