Rs 1,700 not enough to even feed a cow, how can a farmer-family survive on it?: Devinder Sharma

Biggest Farmer Issues: The country is witnessing a drastic fall in the agriculture development rate. Food and export policy expert Devinder Sharma shares his views on the plight of farmers in India, their low incomes and zero-budget farming

Arvind ShuklaArvind Shukla   14 Sep 2019 7:45 AM GMT

Rs 1,700 not enough to even feed a cow, how can a farmer-family survive on it?: Devinder Sharma

With the rising input costs and failure to get a suitable price for the crops, about 50% of farmers are resolving to drop farming. The country is witnessing a drastic fall in the agriculture development rate. Excerpts from the conversation between country's renowned food and export policy expert Devinder Sharma and deputy news editor Gaon Connection, Arvind Shukla concerning agriculture and the farmer crisis.

Be it India or the US, which is the root cause of agriculture and farmers crisis?

While understanding the worldwide agricultural crisis one can easily discern a fact that everywhere the governments have knowingly kept the farmers at a disadvantage in terms of their income. Farmers did not get a fair price for their crops. This only caused the current crisis.In order to understand the situation, we will have to know about the economic design and cycles of India and other countries. We may compare the agriculture in the 1960s and present times in the US to find that the real income of the farmers has gone down. This is admitted by the Chief Economic Advisor of the US Agricultural Department.

In 2018, the average income of the US farmers has fallen not for the first time, but for the sixth year in a row. This is the state of the US which we look up to in matters of technological advancements and policies.

India too suffers from a similar crisis. Our governments have deliberately kept farmers away from better incomes to discourage agriculture because it is believed that economic transformation would only be realized upon agriculture's fall. Economists of India and elsewhere are of the opinion that people be pulled to the cities to provide cheaper labour for the industries. Industries require cheap raw materials in order to thrive. This is why the agriculture crisis is existent.

The Indian Economic Survey 2016 informs that in 17 states or we can say half of India, farmer family's average annual income is Rs 20,000 which is Rs1,700 per month. Such an amount cannot even support a cow's upkeep. Now imagine how would a farmer family be managing on such a pittance?

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A large portion of Indian population is directly engaged with agriculture. Is such a sizeable population then constantly being overlooked?

The NITI Aayog had, in one of its reports, mentioned that for the past two years the farmers' real income rise was zero. In the five years prior to this, the real income of the farmer families had only increased by a mere half per cent. I know the exact figure to be 0.44%.

Let us go back a little further in the past. A research revealed that for the period 1985-2005, the farm-get price (the price which a farmer receives) remained frozen. Keeping in mind the inflation, one would notice that the price which farmers got in 2005 was the same as that in 1995, rising input costs notwithstanding. It means that for over 20 years the prices remained constant.

We can understand better with the help of another report. As per a report of Organization for Economic Co-ordination and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (OECD-ICRIER), the farmers suffered a loss of Rs 45 lakh crore during the period 2000-2017 due to not getting a fair price for their produce.

So, you can well understand the agriculture crisis where the farmer is made to survive on the same income for the past 40 years. Had the same happened to any of us, we would have long committed suicide or left the business for good. There is a need to view this crisis in terms of income versus expenditure. But instead, such a scenario was created that farming isn't economically viable because of poor yield to the farmer. This notion is false.

But isn't it generally said that the farmers are disappointed over poor yield?

I agree that many crops fall short at the national level, but even more important is to know what will be done of a better yield. Is it to be found dumped by the farmers on the roads due to lack of fair pricing or resulting in farmers' suicide? This means that the problems lies elsewhere and we are looking for it somewhere else.

Take for example the situation in Punjab. With 98% of the area in Punjab well irrigated, there would hardly be a single field without access to water. Punjab leads the world in paddy and wheat crops output. Better irrigation, better crop output and still Punjab shocks the world by the frequent cases of farmers' suicides. In the past 10 years, more than 10 thousand farmers have ended their lives in Punjab.

This shows amply that the crisis is not due to lack of irrigation or production because even in the regions having an abundance of both farmers are still resorting to suicides. Somewhere the policymakers, governments and politicians will have to really look and think what is actually wrong and find means to resolve it. It should not be that for an Indian problem we look into Europe and the US for finding the solution. Many times, we have taken the wrong lessons from foreign nations and have paid dearly for it. So, I say that we should seriously deliberate to find a localized solution.

A big concern for the farmers is their input cost. The government now talks of zero budget natural farming. Tell us more about it.

I believe that the term 'zero- budget' has sent across the message that we need not invest anything during farming and that the farmers needn't put in much. If the policymakers believe that a decrease in the cost of production will translate into an increase in the income then such a formula of zero budget is problematic.

India has had a long tradition of natural methods and low-cost production. Even you at some point been asked what is in a name. Once I was told by the famous writer Khushwant Singh that his record-breaking novel was rejected by over 20 publishers before he renamed it as Train to Pakistan. Zero budget, therefore, seems an obvious escapist move to absolve a government of its responsibility.

The RBI date for the period 2011-2016-17 reveals that the total agricultural investment in the country was a mere 0.4% of the GDP while the sector supports 50% of the population. It means that one isn't inclined to invest for 50%. So, following the 0.4% investment, the zero-budget formula of the NITI Aayog seems but natural.

I believe zero-budget farming technique to be sound, it just needs the addition of agro-ecological or needs to be kept nature and environment-friendly. Many people in India have worked on natural farming—Narayan Reddy in Karnataka, Bhaskar Salve in Gujarat and Naamalvar in Tamil Nadu had taught people to cultivate without pesticides. With these three long gone, there are still many who are dedicated to promoting natural farming at their own level. Farming should involve minimum external input, whatever is available in fields or home must be used for farming.

Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitaramanan had begun a new chapter by mentioning it (zero budget farming). This needed to be vocalized because the world has finally understood that it is better to keep harmful pesticides at bay. India started a dialogue when such issues are already taken up in the US and Europe.

Does it mean that the developed nations are considering a revisioning of existing agricultural practices?

A few days ago, there came up a report of a commission in Britain (food farming and countryside commission) advocating several major changes. The report warned that the path of intensive farming that we currently follow is not correct. People's health has suffered, the soil has suffered, input costs have risen, environment adversely affected, water drained out and even climatic changes have all been attributed to the intensive farming system which called for intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides.

They say that Britain must undergo a transitional period towards agroecological systems by adopting nature-based farming.If Britain thinks on these lines that this is the right opportunity for India as we had adopted their modern farming practices and methods before. So, if they are changing so we must. All nature-based processes are beneficial. Whether organic farming or zero-budget natural farming or home therapy or bio-dynamics—we must promote and adopt them judiciously. Some process would more effective in Punjab than Karnataka, a technique used successfully in Rajasthan may not be as effective in Kerala. Therefore, varied techniques must be brought into use. We would have to show the farmers the way to resolve their woes. Pesticides anyway are poisons and their use in any crop is bound to have its ill-effects.

Also Read: Zero budget farming is a long shot. Need to implement minimum budget farming first: Experts
Also Read: Climate change: Organic pesticides are a Brahmastra for farmers
Also Read: To beat the ill effects of climate change, farmers are going back in time

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