A policy-caused crisis

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It is difficult to conceive a pan-Indian policy for agriculture that will cut across all regional specificities and peculiarities, says Dr. D Narasimha Reddy. In his view, a nature-friendly agricultural production is the only answer to the challenges brought in by climate change.

Farming has evolved over thousands of years with the farm as the basic unit of local community and culture. Its practice was shaped everywhere by geography and the creative skills of the farmer, to be optimally productive.

In India, agricultural sector has been facing increasing problems of resource constraints – geographical, human, natural and economical resources. At different periods, various factors mentioned above have surfaced in larger than expected form, and has hit the small and marginal farmers severely. The difference now could be the culmination of the failure of government departments, dealing with agricultural research and development, and extension services, in delivering their responsibility. All the efforts undertaken by the government have been post-event measures.

Government schemes failed to address issues of small and marginal farmers

It is worth quoting a very old document here. As per the new strategy in the 4th Five- Year Plan, “Agricultural development has suffered on account of incomplete planning, particularly at the local levels. The central fact to be kept in view is that agricultural production lies, almost entirely, in the private, unorganized sector. Agricultural production is, in consequence, primarily the result of individual planning or decision taken and effort put in by farmers who control the actual production process. An agricultural plan becomes a plan in the true sense of the term and targets acquire real meaning, validity and sanction, only if the national goals or broad targets are concretised into a set of specific programmes through village, block, and district plans, and are accepted by the farmers as their own and there is a joint commitment on the part of the farmers, their institutions (cooperatives and Panchayat Raj), the State governments and the Centre to play their respective roles.” (Planning Commission, 1966: 181)

The procession of Green, White, Blue and other revolutions has benefited only a few, rich, educated, and not the average farmer community. Fossil fuel based agricultural production is the source of trouble for farmers and agricultural production.

Number of landholdings is on the rise, and the size of most of the land-holdings is less than three acres. All the schemes of the government have failed in addressing the problems of inputs of these small and marginal farmers. Given the climate of ‘modernisation’ and the kind of institutional support (electrification, borewell irrigation, chemical fertiliser subsidies, hybridi-sation of seeds, etc.) provided by governmental agencies, farmers were also forced to shift their agricultural practices from low external inputs to high external inputs.

It is widely and reliably known that nature is unreliable as far as agriculture is concerned. Since ages farmers of these regions are managing the uncertainty of nature by following sound agricultural practices, which try to overcome such a dependency, that have evolved over a period of time. But with the changes introduced in the agricultural practices, through direct or indirect support of the government, the vulnerability of small and marginal farmers to natural phenomena increased manifold.

Impact of climate change

A recent Planning Commission document says, “climate change poses a vital challenge to natural resources. Through its direct and indirect impacts on crop yields, pests and diseases, land and water resources; climate change is expected to affect sustainable agriculture through multiple pathways, thereby having an effect on livelihoods and the overall food security situation in the country.”

The whole structure of agricultural institutions, departments, agencies and corporations has been established precisely to protect the farmers from the vagaries of nature. However, this institutional structure has grossly failed in delivering the goods, as their performance has been abysmal, bordering on negligence, apathy and indifference, steeped as they are in their own petty bureaucratic procedures, and inane programmes and policies.

The procession of Green, White, Blue and other revolutions has benefited only a few, rich, educated, and not the average farmer community. Fossil fuel-based agricultural production is the source of trouble for farmers and agricultural production. The environmental consequences of such production in terms of soil erosion, loss of green cover, loss of top soil, pesticide pollution, decrease in soil quality, increase in saline conditions, depletion and contamination of ground water, etc., have adversely affected the farmers.

The irrigation potential created after Independence, has been only one-third of what was done before, even going by the government statistics. Political considerations rather than the needs and requirements of the situation have governed irrigation investments. In fact, a former engineer has gone on record, saying that irrigation investments are governed by the jungle law: the stronger getting the larger share, if not entirely. It is clear that Indian agriculture is in a policy-caused crisis.

Need for policy changes

In the last 15 years, since liberalization, government has taken several policy measures with regard to regulation and control, fiscal policy, export and import, taxation, exchange and interest rate control, export promotion and incentives to high priority industries. Food processing and agro industries have been accorded high priority with a number of important relief and incentives. Wideranging fiscal policy changes have been introduced progressively. Excise and import duty rates have been reduced substantially. Many processed food items are totally exempt from excise duty. Custom duty rates have been substantially reduced on plant and equipments, as well as on raw materials and intermediates, especially for export production.

Many schemes have been launched. However, a regionally differentiated strategy, based on agro climatic regional planning which takes into account agronomic, climatic and environmental conditions, remains to be adopted to realise the potential of growth in every region of the country. The thrust of such a strategy should be on ecological, sustainable use of basic resources such as land, water and vegetation, in such a way that it serves the objectives of accelerated growth, employment and alleviation of hunger.

Allied sectors such as horticulture including fruit and vegetables, fisheries, livestock, and dairy are losing out with the decline in natural resource base. Effective control of animal diseases, declaration of disease-free zones, scientific management of genetic stock resources, breeding, quality feed and fodder, extension services, enhancement of production, productivity and profitability of livestock enterprise have to be taken up.

Other farming systems

Rural poverty largely exists among the landless and marginal farmers. Access to land, therefore, remains a key element of the anti-poverty strategy in rural areas. It was envisaged that the programme of action for land reform would include the following: detection as well as redistribution of ceiling surplus land; upgrading of land records on a regular basis; tenancy reforms to record the rights of tenants and share croppers; consolidation of holdings; prevention of the alienation of tribal lands; providing access to wastelands and common property resources to the poor on a group basis; leasing-in and leasing-out of land will be permitted within the ceiling limits; and preference to women in the distribution of ceiling surplus land and legal provisions for protecting their rights on land.

Animal husbandry, which includes dairy, piggery, poultry, goatery and sheep farming, is the major occupation of this group of population. The five farming systems mentioned above should be developed on the principle of resource-based planning, which includes land, water, agro-climate, labour inputs and financial capability of the disadvantaged community. Livestock farming has to look into all the above facts and more importantly into economic, environmental and social factors. Thus, the development of remunerative farming systems for improving their economic conditions and quality of life is most important in future.

A drastic restructuring of priorities for the farm sector is needed, including progressive integration of subsidies and regulation of the farm sector, greater crop diversification especially in the rainfed areas, and a relatively marketsensitive decentralised system of procurement and distribution of food grains. We must also offer incentives to invest in rural infrastructure, and make provision for research, extension, input supply and informational services to farmers that can be considered ‘public goods’, and which have remained grossly undersupplied so far. In making this transition an important focus of attention should be to increase the efficiency of institutions providing these services.

The farm sector can become globally competitive through appropriate policies and strategies to increase the farmer’s income, strengthen and improve the performance of the sector, by increasing productivity and reducing the cost of production.

Policies cut off from reality

India has failed to take advantage of even the existing provisions of the trade agreements to strengthen its position in world competition. While the opportunities for India offered by the various trade agreements lie in the future, their threats are immediate. A national consensus is needed on how these threats should be converted into opportunities, as well as a government with a political will to implement that consensus. This is the challenge of the hour.

In this context, a discussion on the National Foreign Trade Policy (NFTP) is definitely required. Unlike in the past, it was promised that this would be continuously updated, revised and improved, so as to reflect the needs of the Indian trade interests. While welcoming this initiative, which should be taken as a step in the right direction, one needs to be careful in endorsing it completely. There are number of issues which impinge on Indian foreign trade, which may not get a complete answer through the instrument of foreign trade policy, nor the institutions which have the primary responsibility to implement the foreign trade policy. Indian farming sector seasons have to be integrated into the NFTP, and the decisions on imports and exports. Agricultural production related foreign trade policy would definitely boost the confidence of Indian farmers.

Most policies are cut off from reality of climate change and declining role of farmers in decision-making. Seed policy needs to be revisited, with the aim of increasing control of farmers over seeds, and access to good quality seeds. A Soil Fertility Improvement Policy is required. Across the country, soil degradation is a major cause of concern and has been the prime factor in the decline of agricultural production and shift to commercial crops. Even though governments have recognised this long back, a proper and cogent policy and programme has not been evolved. The thrust should be on the scale and importance given to the infrastructure sector.

National Water Policy has not given enough concentration to the water shortages in many places. Irrigation is not a complete answer. Water availability needs to be combined with soil fertility and crop choices. Growth in cereal production is also a top priority. A nature-friendly agricultural production is the only answer to the challenges brought in by climate change.

Conclusion

Finally, it is still difficult to conceive a pan-Indian policy which will cut across all regional specificities and peculiarities. The agro-ecological diversity can never be ignored. Food security of millions is a top priority and no policy can afford to ignore this consideration. The long term perspective therefore should not be to import food from where it is cheapest, but rather the approach should be to shrug off dependence on import of food grains altogether. Or else, India’s long term development will be compromised and an all pervasive dependence will become a problem in itself.


Dr.-D-Narasimha-Reddy

Dr. D Narasimha Reddy

The writer has developed information and policy expertise on seed sector, cotton, sugarcane, sericulture and other related areas. He supports various initiatives on land and water issues. He is currently a Member of the Consultative Committee of Cotton Advisory Board, Ministry of Textiles.

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