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india Updated: Jan 06, 2007 02:19 IST
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End farmers’ distress to boost agri economy
Though 70 per cent of the population is engaged in the farm sector in Madhya Pradesh, it has only contributed 27 per cent to the State’s economic output in 2004-05. This shows that the State’s agrarian economy is under duress. One of its manifestations is the low growth rate of agriculture. While industry and services grew at 5.68 per cent and 5.52 per cent respectively during 1993-94 and 2004-05, the farm sector grew at 1.13 per cent — much lower than the State’s average annual population growth of 2.43 per cent!

Two, according to the results of the 59th round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) study published in 2005, around 51 per cent of the State’s farmers are indebted indicating the agrarian crisis. Three, the proportion of farmers ending lives to the total number of suicides was 24 per cent in the State— higher than the all-India average of 15 per cent, and, that of farm suicide-ridden states of Karnataka (20.24 per cent), Maharashtra (19.40 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh (17.02 per cent). State-wise statistics on farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2003 were placed before the Rajya Sabha by Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar..

What are the causes of this farm distress?
One, with only 30 per cent of the total cropped area in the State having irrigation cover, farming is highly dependent on vagaries of the monsoon. For instance, in 2005, while 10 districts were affected by excess rains, another 10 faced acute scarcity of rainfall. In 2006, 24 districts received above normal precipitation – even excess fall in many areas — and it was below normal in 16 districts  – scanty in some areas.

Unpredictable and irregular rains result in crop failure, causing hardships to farmers. Two, globalisation of farm trade has adversely affected agriculturists. For instance, a bumper soyabean crop in the US and China led to a crash in its prices in 2004. Consequently, the State’s soyabean farmers suffered losses, with processors offering them much lower prices.

In recent times garlic prices in the State plummeted from about Rs 4000 to Rs 1000 per quintal due to a surge in imports. Or, take the onion crisis of 2006. Lured by easing of restrictions on export, farmers switched to onion production but excess rains damaged the crop, rendering it unsuitable for trade.

Three, increasing exposure to untested and hazardous technology such as GM crops harmed farmers. For instance, in four years— from 2002-03 to 2005-06— the area under Bt cotton has increased from 1500 hectares to 135000 hectares in MP. In 2005-06 alone, farmers lost hundreds of crores as nearly half the Bt cotton crop wilted.

Of course, by holding a Kisan Panchayat- the first of its kind— and appointing Dr Sompal, a renowned farm expert, as Deputy Chairman of the State Planning Board, the BJP government in the State has demonstrated its concern for the farm sector. But more needs to be done.

The State Government’s strategy should be two-pronged – immediate relief to the farmer and boosting agricultural growth. Regarding relief to the farmer, three things need to be done. One, the State should undertake a debt survey and declare a moratorium on debt recovery from farmers by government agencies. It should announce an interest waiver on farm loans in areas affected by drought, flood, pest attack and hazardous crop technology.

Two, disregarding political implications, the government must conduct a census of farmers’ suicides and urge the Centre to add MP to the list of four states for which a special three-year relief package of Rs 16978 crores was announced by the Prime Minister recently. 

Three, the State Government should constitute a Farm Relief Authority which would ensure that administration reaches out to farmers in distress situations like flood, drought, pest attack etc. The government must set aside a corpus of money and food grain for the authority; it could seek Central assistance and impose a surcharge on state taxes to finance the initiative.

On the strategy to boost farm sector growth, the government must concentrate on four areas. One, in a state where educational backwardness is widespread in the countryside, agriculture education and extension activities acquire importance.

There is a need to strengthen the Jawahar Lal Nehru Krishi Viswavidyalay (JNKVV), Jabalpur, and involve it in extension activities. The government should establish another two agriculture colleges – one each in Malwa and Bundelkhand – and urge the Prasar Bharti corporation to start a 12-hour farm news channel with two hours devoted to MP-specific programmes through
regional kendras.

Two, assured water supply for irrigation holds the key to farmers’ wellbeing. The government must focus on stepping up irrigated area. Since laying of canals is difficult in MP because of its undulating topography, the government should concentrate on replenishing groundwater (even today 66 per cent of irrigation in the State is done through wells and tube wells) by promoting innovative technologies like cloud seeding, re-afforestation programmes and then harvesting the rainwater through people’s participation.

Three, with the State’s abundant agro-diversity especially in fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, aromatic plants, spices and flowers, there is huge potential in terms of business opportunities across the agricultural value chain.
In 2002, the then chief minister Digvijay Singh had kick-started a coalition of rural enterprises, the private sector and the government by launching agro-based products under the `Vindhya Valley’ tag.

Owned by the Madhya Pradesh Khadi and Village Industries Board (MPKVIB) and marketed by the Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL), the Vindhya Valley brand sought to create a market and promote value addition to agricultural produces of small and marginal farmer groups.

The government should revive and expand the Vindhya Valley brand to cover newer products like Malwa’s potato chips and wafers, paan or betel leaves of Chhatarpur and Panna, banana chips of Khandwa, Sharbatti and durum aata or flour. If the Vindhya Valley brand takes off, it could mean a big income-generating opportunity for the State’s agriculture and
allied sectors.

Finally, by promoting organic farming of crops like cotton and vegetables, the State could earn some export revenues and encourage environmentally sustainable farm practices.

(The writer teaches at the National Law Institute University, Bhopal )