Farmers’ agitations are back in national news. Angry protests against land acquisition for Tata Motors, in Singur taluka of West Bengal, are making great TV footage, never mind the irony that the communists lead the pro-industry lobby. Similar agitations are rocking Dadri in UP, and a host of villages in the periphery of Gurgaon, in Haryana, where Special Economic Zones (SEZs) look set to replace fertile fields.
The issue is politicised, perhaps legitimately so in a democracy, and the ‘save our lands’ slogan is threatening to spread to all the 18 states where the centre has given permission to set up 150 SEZs covering roughly 40,000 hectares of agricultural land. If the hardening of postures is any indication, a long-drawn-out war is imminent.
The last wave of farmers’ agitations was in the eighties when movements for remunerative prices were led by leaders like Mahendra Singh Tikait and Devi Lal in the North, Narayanswami Naidu in the South and Sharad Joshi in the West. Naidu and Joshi fought for low farm input costs and remunerative prices, Tikait demanded better terms of trade by asserting that the price of things like daughters’ marriages, children’s education and medical services were way too high when compared to the price of farm produce.
Raw deal to farmers
In the past 25 years, an average farm’s profitability has steadily declined and per capita farm and non-farm income ratios have worsened. A Planning Commission approach paper for the 11th Five Year Plan concedes that deceleration in agricultural growth from 3.2 per cent between 1980 and 1996-97 to 1.5 per cent subsequently, has adversely affected the landless, the marginal, the middle and the big farmers alike.
Farmers’ suicides, which were virtually unknown in the eighties, and which were once thought to be a regional disease of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, are now common in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. The farm input costs continue to rise but the output prices remain stagnant; debts are mounting but the support systems are nowhere to be seen.
High growth is the new mantra
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledges that a double digit GDP growth rate would forever elude India without a dramatic turnaround of the rural economy. The UPA government’s current aim is to raise the agricultural growth rate to 4 per cent from a worrisome one per cent, by reorganizing growth strategies in the light of the suggestions given by several high-powered committees of experts, including those headed by MS Swaminathan and RA Mashelkar.
Swaminathan’s recommendation that India needs to bridge the "knowledge deficit" in its farm sector is well received by the planning and policy circles. The box below contains excerpts of his recent presentation to the government.
Since Independence, India’s biggest achievement in the field of agriculture has been to avoid famines through self-reliance and a fair distribution system. But in the next three decades, we failed to move beyond the Green Revolution by expanding rural infrastructure and services. The task ahead is indeed daunting but the biggest positive pointer is that agriculture today is seen as a driver of high growth and not merely as an instrument of food security.