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Reforming Agriculture

There is much said about the ‘agrarian crisis’ in India, but the concern does not extend beyond election time. The ‘solution’, as happened in the case of the assembly elections in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, is seen to be waiving of farmer’s loans and, then, letting things slide till the next polls. Considering that agriculture for the politicians amounts to ‘farmhouses’ used to launder money, there is no real thought being given to a comprehensive understanding of the problem.
Given that the monsoon is expected to be 15 percent deficient this year, the need to come up with solutions becomes more urgent. It is not just the ‘deficiency’ of the monsoon – increasing parts of India are losing the capacity to ‘retain’ the water it delivers. Drought is no longer an occasional condition, it is acquiring permanence in many parts, giving rise to increased poverty and forced migration of large populations. This also results in the loss of overall farmland availability in the country.
India has missed the bus too many times in giving agriculture a sustainable base through implementation of comprehensive policies. Even though scientific and technological intervention helped in the primary task of ensuring self-reliance in food production, the next stage was not taken up with the necessary vigour and locally developed innovations did not happen. At the present, agriculture science is caught up between bureaucratised institutions and the market expansion of multi-national corporations. Things are made more complicated by the interventions of luddites seeking to reintroduce practices that freeze the village communities in a time capsule.
First and foremost is required an understanding of farming economics and human behaviour. Those who promote a ‘subsistence’ approach would like farmers to remain peasants, happy with their bucolic lifestyle and not aspire for more. The need actually is for a ‘transfer’ of population, with the poor exiting as soon as possible from what is basically a loss making activity, and the entry of institutions and individuals who undertake farming for reasons other than keeping body and soul together. (This would require a more extensive explanation than possible in this column.) Basically, agriculture has to be directly linked to larger value chains so that it does not have to exist on a stand-alone basis. For instance, a chain of restaurants would be willing to pay higher prices for good quality organic vegetables if the producers abide by its norms. Other producers could also be similarly linked directly to end-users, thereby turning the ‘loss’ incurred in agriculture to just an overall cost input. The crops produced for mass consumption could be brought under the umbrella of ‘corporatised’ farming undertaken by village based cooperatives, as many experts advise. Unviable independent land-holdings should be discouraged and owners trained in other marketable skills. These are just a few of the initiatives suggested by experts, but solutions require the decision makers to come out of the ‘mai-baap’ mindset of the past. But as long as ‘loan waivers’ continue to get votes, there is little chance of that happening.