by N.S. Venkataraman 5 October 2018
Indian Agriculture sector employs more than 50% of the total workforce in India and contributes 17 to 18 % of the country’s GDP. 70 percent of its rural households still depends primarily on agriculture for their survival.
India has been witnessing repeated scenes of thousands of farmers organizing themselves and marching on the streets protesting against the ” injustice meted out to them” and sometimes indulging in violent activities demanding loan waivers, the rise in the level of minimum support price, etc.
Traditionally, farmers are held in high esteem in India, though this scenario may not have benefited the farming community economically. When the farmers protest, a large section of countrymen tends to support them emotionally, as farming is considered as the noblest profession in India. No government in India can afford to displease the farming community when the demands are raised, as agriculture is regarded as ` the soul of India. Whatever the agitational approach adopted by the farmers, if any government would criticize them, certainly that government would be voted out of power.
However, as the farmers’ agitations have become too frequent, and farmers indulge in all forms of protest such as pouring thousands of liters of milk on the streets, throwing tons of potatoes and tomatoes on the road, it is high time to introspect as to whether the farmers’ protests are justified, and their agitational approach is needed.
During the farmers’ agitation, it is now common to hear that the recommendations of Swaminathan Commission on agricultural reforms, which was submitted in the form of five reports between 2004 and 2006 ( more than ten years back) should be implemented in letter and spirit.
Swaminathan Commission has made many suggestions relating to land reform, irrigation reform, productivity growth, etc.
The fact is that the governments during the last several years have been striving to implement various meaningful measures to strengthen the agriculture sector. Most of the proactive measures initiated by the governments broadly follow the recommendations made by Swaminathan Commission.
Many schemes implemented by the governments to support the farming community include the issue of Kisan card, crop insurance, free electricity for conducting agricultural operations, promotion of e-commerce to enable smooth Agri products marketing and eliminate the middlemen, providing fund support for agri related diversified activities such as goat rearing, etc. In a vast country like India where millions of farmers are involved, it certainly takes time to implement proactive measures to the satisfaction of all concerned. Indeed, it is work in progress with benefits steadily reaching the farmers, though not with the speed that the farmers expect.
Of course, there are some suggestions relating to land reforms, where Swaminathan Commission has said that top 10% of the farmers hold 54% of the land ownership and the commission wanted the land ownership in the country to be redistributed in favor of the poor farmers. Such suggestions are hard to implement in practice. A few decades back, when Kerala government tried to implement land reforms to shift the ownership pattern in favor of the agricultural workers by adopting coercive methods when E.M.S. Namboodripad was the Chief Minister, it only resulted in violence and heartburn leading to further class conflicts and bitterness in the agricultural farms and the society.
Who are the farmers?
While discussing the farmer’s protests, one has to think as to which segment of the farmers are protesting and agitating. Today, the farmers can be divided into three sections namely absentee land owners who are employed elsewhere and give their agriculture land on lease ; the other type of farmers who operate labour and never physically work themselves on the field and the third segment of agricultural workers who are known as the tillers and mostly unskilled and consist of both men and women who physically work in the Agri field getting daily wages and without job security or any long-term benefits.
The most depressed section of the farming community are the tillers and not the agri landowners. These tillers are certainly not insignificant number amongst the crowd of protesting farmers, and such tillers are millions in number, and no one talks about their grievances during the farmers’ agitation.
Why farmers’ suicides ?
The entire country writhes in agony when news spread about the suicides by farmers due to distress conditions. Many investigations have led to the conclusion that farmers are driven to commit suicides mostly due to debt burden and harassment by private money lenders.
The fact is that there are many government schemes to provide loans to the farmers for agricultural operations at very low-interest rate. In most cases, farmers take a loan from private money lenders at exorbitant interest rates not to meet their need of money for farming operations but for other reasons such as may be towards medical treatment, education for their children, expenses on social functions, etc. for which, the loans are not available from commercial banks.
While farmers’ suicides are regrettable and shake the conscience of the nation, the fact is that hundreds of suicides from those who are not involved in farming activity have also been taking place all over India.
If economic distress could be considered as adequate justification for committing suicides, then not only farmers but hundreds of other people belonging to other areas of activities can be included in this category.
When farmers protest, the governments become panicky, and in a knee-jerk reaction, it concedes several of their demands including massive loan waivers, increasing the minimum support price, etc. without analyzing the financial implications for the government and national economy, in its anxiety to buy peace with the farmers.
Of course, the farmers are adopting the same strategies and tactics as adopted by the central and state government employees, bank staff and others and even government teachers, who agitate frequently and bring the government to its knees and get their demands met, though they are all much better off than the farmers. Farmers ask that when the government treats its employees with kid glove, why not it extend similar treatment to the farmers also.
Need fundamental solutions
No doubt, the farming community is vulnerable to several factors beyond their control such as excess rainfall or drought conditions, pest attacks, etc.
The farmers do have a genuine grievance that unlike the much-pampered government employees, bank staff and other organized employees, who have assured income and regular increments irrespective of their efficiency and performance, the farmers are left to themselves to suffer. Most crucial role of farming community in the economy and welfare of the country should be duly recognized, appreciated and rewarded. But, then, to achieve this end, meaningful and fundamental solutions are called for.
Realizing the importance of the agriculture sector, Prime Minister Modi has announced that the government would strive to double the income of the farmers by 2022.
While the Prime Minister has taken several initiatives, farmers seem to be skeptical whether their income would double by 2022.
Several suggestions made by the Swaminathan Commission are appropriate, and many recommendations have been implemented earnestly by the governments. Of course, there are pitfalls due to reduced efficiency and corruption in the government machinery, exploitation of them, etc.
It is high time that Prof. M.S.Swaminathan should be requested to revisit the recommendations of Swaminathan commission submitted more than ten years back review the progress and modify and improve the recommendations in tune with the trend in the present days and rising expectations amongst a cross-section of people in India.