Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Challenge of Agrarian Distress

Challenge of Agrarian Distress

Everything else can wait but agriculture cannot, said Jawaharlal Nehru. This should have been the talisman for India’s progress. Yet, successive governments have failed to accord agriculture the priority it deserves. The tragic suicide of a farmer during an Aam Aadmi Party rally in New Delhi has brought to the fore the agrarian crisis facing India. 

Official records reveal that more than 2.96 lakh farmers have ended their lives over the last two decades. This year has been particularly bad because of damage to the rabi crop caused by rain and hailstorms. Extensive damage to cash crops and horticulture has brought even some prosperous farmers to the brink of ruin. 

Despite the adverse impact of climate change, non-remunerative prices, lack of adequate irrigation facilities, absence of assured income and paucity of crop insurance, Indian farmers have brought the country up to the ranks of the top global producers of rice, wheat, vegetables, fruits and milk. Some 85 per cent of India’s farmers are small and marginal, and 65 per cent of farming is rain-fed. 

But high input costs, low returns, the consequent inability to repay farm loans, and general neglect have made agriculture unviable for the small and marginal farmer. Government spending here has dwindled over the years to 14.7 per cent, and the private sector has demurred, citing lack of rural infrastructure and modernisation.

For all its assertions, the Narendra Modi government has yet to come up with a clear strategy on this front. Barely a few months in power, it came up with some controversial amendments to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, doing away with the provisions for obtaining consent from landowners and for social impact assessment ahead of acquisition. 

The government’s insistence that the changes would facilitate ease of business and speed up its development agenda has not convinced the Opposition parties. Its handling of the impact of unseasonal rain on farmers, slippages in keeping its promise to raise the support price for major crops, and tardy payments to sugarcane growers have given rise to a perception that the government is not farmer-friendly. 

A majority of farmers are in the clutches of private moneylenders who double up as sellers of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs. A failed crop pushes growers into deeper debt, from which it is not easy to escape. The forecast of a deficient southwest monsoon for the second year in a row adds to the worries. 

In such a situation, the Central government must display political will and come up with urgent measures that will bring the promised “achche din” to farmers. Leaving the task to the States won’t help.

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