Farm laws, farmer unrest, MSP… Does that sum up Indian agriculture?

Manoj Pandey*

Farm laws, farmer unrest, MSP… Does that sum up Indian agriculture?

Yes, farm laws, farm unrest, MSP, government assurances, and all related stuff that keeps coming up in papers, TV channels and the web is important. If such news is a matter of livelihood for farmers, it concerns the pocket and convenience of urban news guzzlers. It becomes engaging, if not always entertaining, having been spiced by modern-day news purveyors. It also is important for civil services aspirants – less because they are concerned with the challenges they might face when they join the government, more because coaching institutes say, these would yield good marks in current affairs and interview. 

But that is not what Indian agriculture is – even for farmers themselves. 

In this article, I am going to tell what is known to us all educated Indians. But the idea is to refresh the obvious, so that we do not lose sight of it in the melee of headlines. Allow me to do so, starting [and ending!] with some commonplace arguments.

Agriculture goes beyond wheat, rice and sugarcane.

When an urban Indian (who has no link with a farm) lazily thinks of agriculture, the first things that come to his mind are the staple foods: foodgrains and some more. 

Foodgrains are indeed important. They give food security to individuals and the nation. When India gained independence, she had to import (or get as donation) wheat from abroad. The green revolution brought food self-sufficiency to India quickly and has still been helping India produce enough foodgrains to feed its ever-growing population. 

What actually was India’s green revolution?

Let us start from outcomes and go backwards: it raised India’s food production quickly, so much so that India became self-sufficient in foodgrain production in a few years. 

That happened in some pockets (mostly in Punjab, Haryana, western UP) and only a few foodgrain crops (mostly rice and wheat).

How was it done? By concentrating favourable resources and actions in potential areas: farmers amenable to change, availability of vast land patches, assurance of irrigation, introduction of high yielding varieties that also matured early to allow for more crop seasons in a year, copious use of fertilizers and pesticides, some farm mechanization. 

What has sustained it? Farmers do not find better alternatives than growing rice, wheat and sugarcane due to constant churning of new varieties, subsidies, assurance of remunerative prices through MSP, procurement by government agencies, greater farm mechanization, availability of water even if by overexploitation of resources, etc.

It is true that the traditional form of agriculture, in which farmers produced local varieties of local crops (coarse grains, pulses, oilseeds, fibre crops, seasonal vegetables) using traditional technologies and inputs, was not able to produce enough food. That also was responsible for a significant proportion of population depending on agriculture for their livelihood. 

Starting from the early days (1970’s), the harms of ‘monoculture’ of a few crops were discussed among scientists and policymakers, and a few crops (including non-food crops such as cotton, soybean, onion) and some regions (Maharashtra, Gujarat) started assuming importance, the dominance of a few crops and regions continues. 

But agriculture is not just farming, leave alone growing wheat, rice and sugarcane. It includes numerous allied activities relating to rearing of animals (and that includes freshwater and marine animals), processing the produce, dealing with the stuff that is used in and created by farming activities, and so on.

India grows plants that range from staple foods to nuts and spices, fruits and vegetables, fodder and fibre, and forest produce. Rich in climatic diversity, India can naturally grow plants that are suited to very low to high temperatures and very dry to submerged soils.

Among food crops too, there is so much variety that one farmer’s practices and his/ her economy could look alien to the other. Consider a farmer in Punjab, growing rice and wheat. Can you compare it with a Kerala farmer growing coconut or banana or spices? Or with an apple producer in Kashmir? Or with the one growing onion in Maharashtra, or potato in West Bengal, or…

Agriculture is an economic activity craving for a balance

Agriculture is not just farmers growing their crops or rearing animals or casting nets in the water, and selling the produce in the market. The production, transportation, processing and sale – and why not include consumption – of farm produce is an expansive, yet balanced, economic system. 

This system permeates not just villages but the entire nation; it covers not just farmers and others directly involved in dealing with the produce, but everybody as a consumer. 

Agricultural economy, in its narrow sense – the economic activity of the producer and others directly depending on it – is risk-prone. There is risk caused by climate and weather, also due to perishable nature of the produce. These lead to big fluctuations in demand and supply of inputs and produce, leading to natural as well as exploitative price manipulations. The ones with weaker economic muscle – small farmers (who do not have enough surplus to demand fair price, or facility of storage of produce, or economic strength to procure next crop’s inputs without distress sale, etc), share-croppers and farm labourers (who lose employment), and small transporters, shopkeepers and traders (who solely depend on farm activity and rural purchasing power) are usually the biggest losers while those with economic muscle (intermediaries, big traders, big food processing companies, etc) tend to make windfall gains. 

The farming community on the whole happens to be the biggest consumer of farming produce, and it also consumes a significant portion of other goods (due to big numbers, even though individuals’ buying capacity is low). 

Farming employs a large population, and much of the [family] labour is supportive, not even counted as employment. Interventions of the recent years (such as free or highly subsidized foodgrains, and local labour through MNREGA) have led to a churn in the rural socio-political environment, especially the availability of labour for farming.   

The balance in this economy is dynamic, and prone to disruptions. When imbalances occur, the consequences do not stop at the farmer’s door and are not geographically isolated. Governments have to enforce market interventions – which lead to further distorting the natural course of economy, consumer behaviour changes in the short term, industries may face shortage of raw material, and so on.  

Agriculture is an ecosystem

At ecological level, farming is an ecosystem, and ecosystems need even greater levels of balance than the economy. In all ecosystems, when their health is affected due to over-exploitation, introduction of harmful elements, constant stress, etc, these become unsustainable and eventually break down. Extinction of many plants and animals, even human civilizations, are attributable to unbearable attacks on ecosystems. 

While sudden extinction is recorded, and sometimes made to look iconic (We know about the dodo and Indian cheetah, don’t we?), slow decays go unnoticed. The green and white revolutions are supposed to be contributing greatly to this, aided now with the introduction of genetically modified varieties. Though there has been a parallel scientific move to conserve germplasm of local varieties/ strains, and recently a push to promote local cattle breeds, these perhaps does not substitute the natural abundance of local germplasm. 

The practices adopted in commercial agriculture (ironically, the one credited with making the country food-surplus) take away the richness of the traditional ecosystem. Though agriculture itself upsets the natural ecosystem in a big way, the traditional system of farming was much less ecologically exploitative than the modern agriculture. Dominance of a few lab-made varieties/ breeds over large areas makes these high-yielding strains vulnerable to large-scale diseases and obligatory use of specific inputs (recall the need for irrigation and pesticides in GM cotton crops, leading to excessive input costs and consequent farmer deaths in Maharashtra in some recent years). Fertilizers are responsible for pollution of water bodies to a toxic level in many north-Indian states in Indo-Gangetic plains. Pesticides and herbicides lead to many human and animal diseases among direct users as well as consumers. These kill plants and animals that have been an integral part of local ecosystems. Though harmful-looking plants and animals (e.g. rat snakes) that are killed due to these chemicals may have a hidden useful role in the ecosystem, killing of some obviously-useful ones (e.g. honeybees, bumblebees – responsible for pollination in many crops) can immediately harm human welfare.

Indian realities are complex, granular, delicate

Also consider that India is not a land of just a couple of climatic entities. As said earlier, we cannot think of agriculture in Rajasthan the way we’d look at agriculture in Ladakh or West Bengal or the Andamans. 

India is not like many western nations where large pockets of lands, or large animal and aquaculture farms, are held by a few people. The farmers (farming entrepreneurs) have powerful lobbies and do farming purely as a commercial activity. In India, more than 80% of farmers own lands smaller than two hectares and cannot use modern farming practices. On top of that, most of these patches depend fully on the rains for irrigation. A significant number of milch cattle produce unsustainably low levels of milk, and the majority of fishermen still depend on traditional boats and gear. A majority of small farmers do not produce enough even to feed their families, forget selling their produce in the market. For buying inputs or for meeting consumption needs, they have to borrow money from traditional lenders at very high rates of interest. Growing population – and lack of employment opportunities – add to the burden on the available tiny land. Many other local and recurring problems (e.g. health issues and non-availability of medical facilities) beset such farmers.

Indian agriculture is not IN a mess, it IS a mess

The above arguments do not make headlines. They do, but only when a large-scale calamity occurs (floods, droughts, large locust attacks, etc) or a farmer’s tragedies are dramatic enough to be picked up by the media. Most of the time, the effort by the media is to make the event ‘viral’ and to lambast the system or a scapegoat. Then the drama stops; headlines disappear.

So, the overall scenario is that farming in India is in great stress. Governments are failing farmers. Farmers are perpetually in debt as the cost of inputs has been going up while returns are falling or are stagnant. In the name of reforms, half-baked measures are introduced. Wrong policies and wrong implementation of whatever policies has led to a situation where farmers routinely commit suicide, and this trend will exacerbate in future due to onslaught of corporate bodies and climate change.

This is not my inference. Farmer organizations protesting the recent farm laws have said it and documented it in detail. Many researchers have found it in their studies. 

Let me introduce here a fifth argument. Not for balancing this morose stance, but because the other reality too does not make headlines.

Let’s not ignore that a lot is being done, and a lot is being achieved

It is not that government, institutions and entrepreneurs have done nothing to improve the lot of Indian agriculture. Agriculture is a significant part of Union and State budgets. Many old and new initiatives – with varying levels of impact –  can be listed in  a series: expansion of farm credit, introduction of kisan credit cards and soil health cards, farm insurance, promotion of organic farming, creation of online marketplace for farm produce, developing storage infrastructure, and so on. 

Many inputs are subsidized, new technologies are promoted with minikits and field demonstrations, some crops are procured at remunerative prices, and market interventions are made for some others, and so on. Food processing industries have come up in a big way and private enterprise is partnering with farmers – especially in the case of horticulture, dairying, marine aquaculture and ethanol production. Progressive farmers experiment with new crops, inputs and technologies, and often succeed much beyond traditional farmers. Farmers’ or farmer-producer organizations have come up in a big way. 

Many other activities supported by governments, which do not come under agriculture – such as construction of rural roads, directly or indirectly support agriculture.

Even if we heavily discount the intent and effort of government institutions, the vast network of farm research and extension bodies and universities does support agriculture and allied activities in a big way. 

I have given just a glimpse of what good is being done, and achieved, in Indian agriculture.  The list of public and private sector support, and success stories, is much longer. 

At the macro level, these have resulted in constant high production of major food items and animal products, and drought-proofing of a large part of the country. Farm credit has been growing year after year. Farm exports have also seen good growth in recent years… 

However, we would do grave injustice to our intelligence if we are swayed by rosy figures of achievements of Indian agriculture – seen in headlines often pushed by governments. Statistics is prone to getting absurdly high values due to multiplication (because the number of farm holdings and farmers is very large – this results in a large area under irrigation and so on), averaging (e.g. If a farmer earns 10= a day and another farmer earns 10000=, the average earning comes to much more than over 5000=, which does not capture the poverty of the first farmer), aggregation (e.g. India’s foodgrain production comes from a small number of farmers in a few states while the rest of the farmers and states grow much less). 

My two cents

This highly complex and all-pervading sector perhaps needs a holistic national vision, customized local interventions, and an integrated approach that joins the local with regional and national frameworks.  

Policies are aplenty, but is there really a robust framework worth being called a policy?

Governments at Union and State levels have brought out voluminous documents on what needs to be achieved, and how, in different sectors of agriculture. All their actions are supposed to focus on farmers as much as on technical and economic aspects. Even if partly for optics, the Union government now calls its agriculture ministry as Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare. 

There are plenty of arguments in favour or against any policy actions that any government takes, and any law or reform that is proposed. The interests of those exploiting the system and of those wanting to exploit it come into play. The goals of different sectors of economy are difficult to reconcile even at the level of sister ministries. Agriculture’s being a state subject further complicates the matter. 

Such factors do not allow for a robust holistic policy on farming, rural development, land use and other allied areas. A policy that takes into consideration consumption, industrial use and exports. A policy that looks into areas not perceived as urgent but can have a deep impact, such as environment and future-proofing the sector against climate change. 

The way the recent farm laws were enacted and its aftermath are likely to make national level consensus-building and reforms more difficult.

Local to regional to national: easier said than done

Customized local interventions are planned in national and state level farm conferences year after year, but do not fulfil the stated objectives. At the same time, farmers – small and big – have shown that they are ready to adopt modern technologies and tools with some handholding, risk insurance and assured market.

Since there always is a gap in policy as well as implementation, gross market realities, vested interests and economic muscle take the forefront. That leads to concentration of wealth in the hands of powerful farmers, intermediaries, traders and firms, at the cost of overall health of the farming sector. Generally speaking, government agencies meant to break monopolies, open a level-playing field and help the needy themselves become partners in this game of exploitation. 

So, beyond the headlines, there is a lot more in agriculture. Agriculture might be a mess, but is not a morass. On the other hand, some data that looks so bright does have shades of grey. A layman’s contribution perhaps lies in properly understanding this reality and supporting any sincere action that is taken by government(s), organizations and individuals for a better health of this vital sector. 

Further reading

*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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