Tuesday, May 21, 2024



~By Inderjit Badhwar

“Our cities are not India. India lives in her seven and a half lakh villages and the cities live upon the villages”—MK Gandhi. “It is very sad that farmers who are sustaining life on earth are forced to agitate for legitimate demands.”—MS Swaminathan.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan are both Fathers. One fathered the birth of independent India. The other, the emergence of a nation self-sufficient in food grain production following years of agricultural stagnation and famines.

Gandhi will forever be in the news so long as there is a world and there is an India. But today, the man hogging the headlines and entering into the daily conversation of peasants who may not even have heard his name before is the 1925-born nonagenarian Swaminathan.

Farmers’ protests have broken out across the land. Last week marked the anniversary of the death of six peasants felled and many wounded by police bullets during a kisan rally in Madhya Pradesh. The tillers of the soil are demanding more remunerative prices for their produce and freedom or waivers from billions of rupees of debt. Thousands of indebted farmers have chosen suicide as a way out of their penury.

What has now erupted as the most volatile political issue facing the nation has been in the making for decades. Despite more than half of India’s 1.3 billion population making their living from farming, their contribution to the overall economy has been diminishing, notwithstanding increases in output. This actually translates into a full-blown crisis and cannot be dismissed as what TV pundits and glib politicians are calling farmers’ “issues”. A national crisis is not just an “issue” but a cataclysmic phenomenon with drastic political and social consequences in which the very foundation of the economy can be devastated.

Actually, the Indian economy was in a shambles well into the late 1960s and ’70s because try as it might, the nation could not grow enough food to feed itself. Notwithstanding planned expenditures on irrigation and the use of modern fertilizers, farm production dwindled to the extent that India lived a ship-to-mouth existence depending on wheat imports from the US on concessional terms. No imports equalled starvation.

The highest import bill for India was food grains. Late into the 1960s, India used to spend as much as Rs 700 crore (a massive sum given exchange rates of those years and virtually no foreign exchange surpluses) only on import of food grains, this being the single largest outgo on foreign exchange.

Then came Swaminathan, or “MS”, as his friends called him. This genius—and agricultural scientist—wrought a virtual miracle called the “Green Revolution” by introducing high-yielding varieties of seeds which doubled and tripled and quadrupled production. “Basket case” India was soon to be transformed into a surplus country.

SWAMINATHAN REDUXWithout doubt, relative prosperity came to millions of farmers, many of whom moved into the consuming class and rural markets became a new area for economic penetration by small business and organised corporate sectors. Ironically, even as production has flourished, the lot of farmers, after the initial urge of relative well-being, has turned to misery.

And now they have “Swaminathan” on their minds. One of their main demands is the implementation of the “Swaminathan Commission Report”. This is a slogan that unites them all, whether or not they are aware of the contents of the report or even know who “MS” is.

For those who know him not, or have for the first time heard that his “report” exists, or why demands for its immediate implementation are being raised, here’s a brief sketch of this great man.

He is a living legend. Period. According to his official bio, his stated vision is “to rid the world of hunger and poverty”. Swaminathan is an advocate of moving India to sustainable development, especially using environmentally sustainable agriculture, sustainable food security and the preservation of biodiversity, which he calls an “evergreen revolution”.

From 1972 to 1979, he was director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. He was principal secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, from 1979 to 1980. He served as director general of the International Rice Research Institute (1982–88) and became president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1988.

In 1999, Time magazine placed him in the “Time 20” list of most influential Asian people of the 20th century. The revival of his name today on the roads of rural India is that he had foreseen an agrarian crisis—“farmers’ distress” as it is popularly called in today’s headlines—many, many moons ago.

He chaired the National Commission on Farmers, and submitted five reports between December 2004-October 2006. Following from the first four, the final report focussed on causes of farmer distresses and the rise in farmer suicides, and recommended addressing them through a holistic national policy for farmers. The findings and recommendations encompass issues of access to resources and social security entitlements. This was over 12 years ago. And most of what he predicted came true while his recommendations gathered dust! Today, leaders of agitating farmers’ organisations across the country have re-discovered these reports and are demanding execution of their recommendations.

How many people, including bureaucrats in the finance and agriculture ministries have actually read Swaminathan’s report or are even aware of the contents? For their edification, I reproduce below excerpts of a summary of the report which stressed constantly modernising farming methods and social protection for landless farmers through greater governmental involvement. Its focus was on faster and more inclusive growth. If only someone had been listening! The key issues were:

  • A medium-term strategy for food and nutrition security in the country in order to move towards the goal of universal food security over time; enhancing productivity, profitability, and sustainability of the major farming systems of the country; policy reforms to substantially increase flow of rural credit to all farmers; special programmes for dryland farming for farmers in the arid and semi-arid regions, as well as for farmers in hilly and coastal areas;
  • Enhancing the quality and cost competitiveness of farm commodities so as to make them globally competitive; protecting farmers from imports when international prices fall sharply; empowering elected local bodies to effectively conserve and improve the ecological foundations for sustainable agriculture.
  • More than a dozen years ago, Swaminathan actually used the term “farmers’ distress”. He wrote: “Agrarian distress has led farmers to commit suicide in recent years. The major causes of the agrarian crisis are: unfinished agenda in land reform, quantity and quality of water, technology fatigue, access, adequacy and timeliness of institutional credit, and opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing. Adverse meteorological factors add to these problems.
  • “Farmers need to have assured access and control over basic resources, which include land, water, bioresources, credit and insurance, technology and knowledge management, and markets. The NCF recommends that ‘Agriculture’ be inserted in the Concurrent List of the Constitution.”

Some of the main recommendations include:

  • Distribute ceiling-surplus and waste lands; prevent diversion of prime agricultural land and forest to corporate sector for non-agricultural purposes. Ensure grazing rights and seasonal access to forests to tribals and pastoralists, and access to common property resources; establish a National Land Use Advisory Service, which would have the capacity to link land use decisions with ecological, meteorological and marketing factors on a location and season specific basis. Set up a mechanism to regulate the sale of agricultural land, based on quantum of land, nature of proposed use and category of buyer.
  • Out of the gross sown area of 192 million hectares, rain-fed agriculture contributes to 60 percent of the gross cropped area and 45 percent of the total agricultural output. The report recommended a comprehensive set of reforms to enable farmers to have sustained and equitable access to water. Increase water supply through rainwater harvesting and recharge of the aquifer should become mandatory. “Million Wells Recharge” programme, specifically targeted at private wells, should be launched.
  • Substantial increase in investment in irrigation sector under the 11th Five Year Plan apportioned between large surface water systems; minor irrigation and new schemes for groundwater recharge.
  • Apart from the size of holding, the productivity levels primarily determine the income of the farmers. However, the per unit area productivity of Indian agriculture is much lower than other major crop-producing countries.
  • Substantial increase in public investment in agriculture-related infrastructure, particularly in irrigation, drainage, land development, water conservation, research development and road connectivity. A national network of advanced soil testing laboratories with facilities for detection of micronutrient deficiencies. Promotion of conservation farming, which will help farm families to conserve and improve soil health, water quantity and quality and biodiversity.
  • Timely and adequate supply of credit is a basic requirement of small farm families. Expand the outreach of the formal credit system to reach the really poor and needy. Reduce rate of interest for crop loans to 4 percent simple, with government support.
  • Moratorium on debt recovery, including loans from non-institutional sources, and waiver of interest on loans in distress hotspots and during calamities, till capability is restored. Establish an Agriculture Risk Fund to provide relief to farmers in the aftermath of successive natural calamities. Issue Kisan Credit Cards to women farmers, with joint pattas as collateral.
  • Develop an integrated credit-cum-crop-livestock-human health insurance package. Expand crop insurance cover to the entire country and all crops, with reduced premiums and create a Rural Insurance Development Fund to take up development work for spreading rural insurance.
  • Promote sustainable livelihoods for the poor by improving (i) financial services (ii) infrastructure (iii) investments in human development, agriculture and business development services (including productivity enhancement, local value addition, and alternate market linkages) and (iv) institutional development services (forming and strengthening producers’ organisations such as self-help groups and water user associations).
  • The mid-term appraisal of the 10th Plan revealed that India is lagging behind in achieving the Millennium Development Goals of halving hunger by 2015. Therefore, the decline in per capita food grain availability and its unequal distribution have serious implications for food security in both rural and urban areas. Several studies have shown that the poverty is concentrated and food deprivation is acute in predominantly rural areas with limited resources such as rain-fed agricultural areas.
  • Implement a universal public distribution system. The NCF pointed out that the total subsidy required for this would be one per cent of the Gross Domestic Product. Reorganise the delivery of nutrition support programmes on a life-cycle basis with the participation of panchayats and local bodies. Eliminate micronutrient deficiency induced hidden hunger through an integrated food cum fortification approach.
  • Promote the establishment of Community Food and Water Banks operated by Women Self-help Groups (SHG), based on the principle “Store Grain and Water Everywhere”. Help small and marginal farmers to improve the productivity, quality and profitability of farm enterprises and organise a Rural Non-Farm Livelihood Initiative. Formulate a National Food Guarantee Act continuing the useful features of the Food for Work and Employment Guarantee programmes. By increasing demand for food grains as a result of increased consumption by the poor, the economic conditions essential for further agricultural progress can be created.
  • In the last few years, a large number of farmers have committed suicide. Cases of suicides have been reported from states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The NCF has underlined the need to address the farmer suicide problem on a priority basis.
  • Provide affordable health insurance and revitalise primary healthcare centres. The National Rural Health Mission should be extended to suicide hotspot locations on priority basis. Set up state-level Farmers’ Commission with representation of farmers for ensuring dynamic government response to their problems. Restructure microfinance policies to serve as Livelihood Finance, i.e. credit coupled with support services in the areas of technology, management and markets.
  • Cover all crops by crop insurance with the village and not block as the unit for assessment. Provide for a social security net with provision for old age support and health insurance. Promote aquifer recharge and rainwater conservation. Decentralise water use planning and every village should aim at Jal Swaraj with gram sabhas serving as pani Ensure availability of quality seed and other inputs at affordable costs and at the right time and place. Recommend low-risk and low-cost technologies which can help to provide maximum income to farmers because they cannot cope with the shock of crop failure, particularly those associated with high-cost technologies like Bt cotton.
  • Need for focused Market Intervention Schemes (MIS) in the case of life-saving crops, such as cumin in arid areas. Have a Price Stabilisation Fund in place to protect the farmers from price fluctuations. Need swift action on import duties to protect farmers from international price. Set up Village Knowledge Centres (VKCs) or Gyan Chaupals in the farmers’ distress hotspots. These can provide dynamic and demand-driven information on all aspects of agricultural and non-farm livelihoods and also serve as guidance centres.
  • Public awareness campaigns to make people identify early signs of suicidal behaviour.
  • Promotion of commodity-based farmers’ organisations, such as Small Cotton Farmers’ Estates to combine decentralised production with centralised services, such as post-harvest management, value addition and marketing, for leveraging institutional support and facilitating direct farmer-consumer linkage.
  • Improvement in implementation of Minimum Support Price (MSP). Arrangements for MSP need to be put in place for crops other than paddy and wheat. Also, millets and other nutritious cereals should be permanently included in the PDS.
  • MSP should be at least 50 percent more than the weighted average cost of production.
  • Availability of data about spot and future prices of commodities through the Multi Commodity Exchange (MCD) and the NCDEX and the APMC electronic networks covering 93 commodities through 6,000 terminals and 430 towns and cities.
  • State Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Acts [APMC Acts] relating to marketing, storage and processing of agriculture produce need to shift to one that promotes grading, branding, packaging and development of domestic and international markets for local produce, and move towards a Single Indian Market.