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HindustanTimes Fri,29 Aug 2014

Farmers' income panel can be game-changer

Devinder Sharma, Hindustan Times   February 23, 2013
First Published: 09:39 IST(23/2/2013) | Last Updated: 09:41 IST(23/2/2013)

Karnataka recently announced the setting up of a Farmers' Income Commission. The terms and conditions have yet to be formulated. If implemented properly, and followed up in Punjab, it can be the game-changer for the state's agriculture, which is reeling under a terrible agrarian distress.

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Noted agricultural scientist Dr MS Swaminathan sees merit in this. Thanking me for persuading the Karnataka government to establish the commission, he wrote in a personal communication: "The National Policy for Farmers calls for a paradigm shift from measuring agricultural progress in terms of production to measuring progress by the real rate in the growth of the farmers income… This is the need of the hour."

Six years after I first demanded the need to provide farmers with an assured monthly income, the nation is gradually waking up to the desperate need for such a body to address the fundamental issue of income security among the country's exasperated farming community. By providing income in the hands of farmers, the mainstay of the economy, we are actually providing the real stimulus to kickstart the economy.

In my opinion, modern farming leads to two kinds of agriculture. First, the highly subsidised agriculture in Western countries. Second, the subsistence agriculture being witnessed in the developing world. The only way to bail out subsistence farmers is to provide them with direct income support, as is being done in rich and industrialised countries.

At a time when all-out efforts are to launch the 2nd Green Revolution, buoyed with genetically-modified crops, and stricter intellectual property rights (IPR) laws that will shift the control over seed into the hands of private agri-business companies, the market structure being laid out   contract farming, food retail, commodity exchanges and future trading   all aimed at making farmers economically viable, will actually allow companies to walk away with more profits and leave farmers with empty pockets.

If all this was workable, and was bringing income to farmers, there is no reason why the US and European Union (EU) governments, for instance, would be providing huge subsidies, much of it in the form of direct income support or income transfer in one form or the other, to their minuscule population of farmers.

For 45 years, the dominant breed of bureaucrats and technocrats have been telling farmers that the more they produce the more will be their income. By saying so, they were actually not helping farmers, but promoting commercial interests of fertiliser, pesticide, seed and mechanical equipment companies. No wonder, the average monthly income of a farming family in 2003-04, which includes five family members plus two head of cattle, had been worked out by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) at a paltry Rs. 2,115. The NSSO has since stopped measuring farm income.

Under the 6th Pay Commission, a peon (chaprasi) in government service gets a minimum monthly salary of Rs. 15,000. A farming family earns less than Rs. 2,115 (in terms of prevalent prices, it would be around Rs. 2,400 a month). Can't we as a nation even think of providing farmers with an income that equals what a peon gets?

If Rs. 2,115 is the monthly income of a farming family (in Punjab, it hovers around Rs. 3,200) shouldn't we hang our heads in shame? If agriculture was indeed profitable, I see no reason why rural despair would increasingly drive farmers to take their lives. More than 2.9 lakh farmers have committed suicide across the country in the past 15 years. In Punjab, two farmers are taking their lives every day. According to the NSSO, 42% farmers want to quit agriculture if given an alternative.

Farmers were made to believe that putting more inputs would bring them more profits. They are now being told that free markets   commodity exchange, future trading and food retail   will make farming profitable and economically viable. What is not being said is that it didn't work in the US and the EU. And it will, therefore, not work in India.

Look at the way such a flawed approach is being aggressively promoted in India. The beneficiaries of future trading and commodity exchange are not farmers but speculators, consultancy firms and rating agencies. And again, this is being done in the name of farmers. On the other hand, farmers' unions have been only asking for a higher minimum support price (MSP).

None of them has visualised that there are barely 35 to 40% farmers in the country who ultimately get the benefit of procurement prices since they have some surplus to sell in mandis.

The rest of the farming community, which is in majority, also produces food.

Even if they hardly have anything to sell, they at least produce food. If they were not to produce food for themselves, the country would be importing that quantity of food. In other words, they produce economic wealth. Therefore, they, too, need to be adequately compensated for the economic wealth they produce for the country.

The writer, a food security expert, can be contacted at hunger55@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal

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