Hit by freak weather, the farmers of Punjab and Haryana are in extreme distress. Crop damage, financial strain, chaos in procurement, forecast of below-normal monsoon –bad news just does not seem to be ending. HT assistant editor Navneet Sharma talked to Padma Bhushan awardee agricultural scientist and former Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) director general RS Paroda, who also headed Haryana Kisan Ayog for four years, about his views on the current agricultural crisis and farmer suicides etc. Excerpts:
HT: How do you view the current crisis in agriculture?
Paroda: We always had weather-related uncertainties in agriculture. Farmers have had to adapt to those; but there is a need for proper policies and contingency planning to take care of these risks. There should be proper mechanism for weather forecasting, not just short-range but also medium- and long-range, with coordination and convergence between different ministries and the Centre and the states. Weather forecast technologies are available but the challenge lies in creating systems for extending this knowledge to farmers to be better prepared.
There are reports of farmers’ suicides or shock deaths in different states, but the governments are in denial. What can be done to prevent this?
The farmers do not have any other source of income. If they invest in crop by taking credit and it suffers damage, they face an extremely difficult situation. Therefore, we have been insisting on credit for agricultural input at low interest rates. They should get credit at reasonable rates for even social commitments. There are crop insurance schemes but most farmers are not interested. These schemes have to be improved with proper weather forecast systems. The effort should be to increase agricultural income to make the farmer achieve some level of financial stability.
What should the governments do to achieve that?
Farmer is dependent on credit. If he takes a loan from the market (read arhtiyas or commission agents), it is linked with the mandi. Why should farmer have to go to mandi? It’s an old system. We need to amend the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act. Our suggestion to the Haryana government was to relax it for flower, vegetable and fruit crops. The authorities want their levies but nobody cares how much money the farmers lose.
The government can start by exempting perishable items. The effort should be to create farmers’ markets, weekly bazaars and cold storages. Outside-the-box thinking is required with consistency in policies. What happens is that you allow export one year and then you stop it the next year.
Since the crop damage assessment mechanism is antiquated, is there any way the state governments can compensate the farmers quickly?
Macro assessment can be done quickly through satellite imagery, weather data etc. Let’s say there is crop damage in Jind district due to unseasonal rain or flood. The administration could do quick assessment of damage, pay part of the compensation, and do a detailed survey within the next eight to 10 days to release the remaining amount. Currently, the authorities first do the survey using the old methods and then distribute compensation. Also, we need systems to protect farmers from losses on account of huge price fluctuations. We have only been firefighting instead of doing advance planning. When farmer commit suicide, only then we take action.
Another problem is chaos in procurement in due to shift in crop priorities in other states, poor lifting and the resultant lack of storage. What should be done?
Punjab and Haryana will continue to be among major contributors of foodgrains to the national pool. Besides creating additional storage capacity on priority, the procurement agencies will need to bring in more transparency and efficiency. But it is also time to get serious about diversification. Soya bean and maize are two alternatives for rice and wheat. For maize, we will have to ensure good-quality hybrid seed and crop procurement. Maize production has doubled in the past 10 years through single-crop hybrid technology, yet there is a tremendous scope. However, the farmers will need assured procurement and good price. In Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, soya bean finds buyers as well as a good price. Why can’t we have similar processing plants here?
What are your views on the value-cut formula given by the Centre for procurement?
If the quality has been affected, it is not farmer’s fault. The damage is because of weather variation. Why cut his price? The government needs to take quick decisions to retain the farmer’s interest and keep the (agriculture) sector going.