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Last year was in many ways the year of the angry farmer. The anger manifested itself in many ways – from protests in more than a dozen states, including Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, to voting patterns in Gujarat.
So severe and visible was the distress in agriculture sector, which is the source of livelihood for 60% Indians, that it became a rallying point in almost every state election fought last year.
As official figures suggest – Central Statistics Office has predicted farm sector growth to slow down to 2.1% for the current financial year – this anger is unlikely to subside in the coming days.
It is with this in mind perhaps that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who will deliver the final full Budget of the present Union government on February 1, announced agriculture to be “the top priority” in the Budget.
So what could Jaitley do to arrest the slump in agriculture sector (between 2016 and 2017 the sector grew at more than twice the rate – 4.9%) and reduce the number of farmer suicides?
News18 spoke to a number of people in the sector – former government consultants, thinktank chiefs, international experts, lawmakers, farmer leaders and union leaders, and farmers – to understand the crisis unfolding in the farm sector and to seek their suggestions.
These are the five subjects, broadly speaking, that they talked about.
There are clearly two schools of thought on this subject. One set of experts think loan waivers are ineffective and populist measures that only cripple farmers further. The other school claims this to be the departure point for farm sector reforms. Under the burden of mounting loans farmer suicides will only increase is the argument.
“I am absolutely against loan waivers. There should be no further announcement on this. What we do through loan waivers is take away the dignity of the famer, who works to earn his bread just like you and I do. Loan waiver policy should not be encouraged under any circumstance,” says RB Singh, a Padma Bhushan awardee and the current chancellor of Central Agricultural University in Imphal. Singh is also a former Assistant Director General of Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
On the other hand, Surjit Singh, a farmer based in Punjab, thinks that farm loan waiver is his most urgent necessity.
“I was looking forward to the loan waiver scheme when our Chief Minister announced it. Farming under growing debt is crushing. But the loan wavier scheme has turned out to be just a formality. We haven’t got anything so far. We want all our loans waived off immediately.”
This sentiment was echoed by Shiv Kumar Sharma, popularly known as Kakkaji, who led farmer protests in Madhya Pradesh in June last year during which five farmers were shot dead by police in Mandsaur.
“Most of the anger against government is about the pending loans. No reform in this sector is worth mentioning unless the government waives off all the loans of farmers in this country. After all farmers have been burdened with these loans because of the faulty initiatives of the government.”
Fixed monthly income
Experts in this sector have often argued that farmers’ incomes often are subject to several variables including market fluctuations and weather. This is why all measures to bolster farming – through expanding irrigation canals to providing credit – will fail unless farmers are assured a minimum monthly income.
“The crisis really has been of farmer incomes. Over last two years we have seen prices of all commodities falling. And this has happened across the board. The challenge therefore is how to get farmers a fixed working capital and source of sustenance. I have written to the Finance Minister, who himself has said that GDP growth is unjustifiable unless benefits reach farmers, recommending setting up of a commission to set fixed wages for farmers,” said Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst.
He has recommended that an existing commission ‘Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices’ be renamed to ‘Commission of Farmers’ Income and Welfare’ to find out ways of providing the minimum wage of Rs 18,000 to farmers.
Raju Shetty, an MP from Maharashtra, who recently broke ties with NDA claiming that NDA had not implemented the MS Swaminathan Commission report as promised, also spoke in favour of a fixed monthly income.
“One time loan waivers will not work. What we need to do for our farmers is provide them with fixed incomes. Unless they know that a fixed amount of money is getting credited to their accounts in following months, why should a farmer work under huge debts today?”