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Empathy cannot be a substitute for prudence in agricultural policy

Is it possible to think of a programme which rewards individuals/communities for taking up environment friendly (but expensive) practices in farming through subsidised/preferential access to health and education? Imagine a government deciding to open better schools and primary health centres in villages, which adhere to cultivation of locally suited crops or self-regulate irrigation through tube wells.

analysis Updated: Jul 18, 2018 11:41 IST
Roshan Kishore
Roshan Kishore
Hindustan Times
Villagers stage a chakka jam on the Mhow- Neemuch highway with the body of Abhishek Patidar who was killed in police firing during a farmers’ protest, Mandsaur, June 7, 2017(Mujeeb Faruqui/ Hindustan Times)

Speaking in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, on the anniversary of last year’s police firing on protesting farmers, Congress president Rahul Gandhi promised a loan waiver for farmers within 10 days if the party is elected to power in the state. His comments are not surprising. Rural distress will be an important fault line in the battle for 2019. Gandhi’s rhetoric about the BJP being anti-farmer also gains some credibility from agricultural performance under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data shows that, since the 1980s, farm incomes grew at the highest pace between 2004 and 2005 and 2011 and 2012. The UPA government also enacted laws such as rural employment guarantee Act, forest rights bill and land acquisition Act, which brought additional incomes or security against denial or usurping of land rights to people living in rural areas.

The question which really needs to be asked, however, is the following: can ensuring a status quo ante (to the days of UPA) provide a sustainable solution to the systemic agrarian crisis in our country? It is extremely unlikely. This author had argued in these pages that the scope of providing relief to farmers via greater Minimum Support Prices is increasingly coming under pressure. Things are not different about other aspects of the farm policy, which the Congress, or, for that matter, all political parties, are championing.

Farm loan waivers can act as palliatives at best. The first UPA government had given a pan-India loan waiver just before the 2009 general elections. Less than a decade on, we are witnessing similar demands from across the country. This cannot be allowed to become a norm. Loan waivers are regressive in nature. One has to be a large farmer to be able to access formal sources of credits (banks). The poorest farmers have to depend on informal sources such as moneylenders. There is no way the government can verify and compensate those who are burdened with informal credit under farm loan waivers. Given the fact that the fiscal pool of resources is limited, all farm loan waivers end up eating into funds earmarked for other activities, especially production augmenting capital expenditure. Crudely speaking, loan waivers are the State’s way of kicking the can down the road in the more difficult challenge of evolving a holistic policy to deal with rural distress.

Issues such as land acquisition and other deep rooted conflicts between the farm and non-farm economy are even more difficult to handle. The 34-year-old communist government in West Bengal lost power when it ended up alienating the peasantry while trying to acquire highly fertile land for industrialisation in Singur and Nandigram. While political power changed hands, West Bengal continues to face an acute crisis as far as remunerative non-farm jobs are concerned. Precipitations around farm land acquisition are common across India. The conflict between farm and non-farm economy goes beyond the realm of land acquisition. As industrialisation and urbanisation continue to increase their demands on our already fragile ecosystem, sustainability of farming practices and rural habitats are increasingly coming under threat. At the same time, it is also true that rural workers need to move out of agriculture at a much greater pace than what we have been able to ensure. Any blanket policy position against agriculture or industry is likely to add to this problem rather than solve it.

Even the few commercially successful agricultural clusters in India are being forced to come to terms with the consequences of depleting water tables and worsening soil quality. It is very difficult to envisage a mainstream political party taking up positions against environmentally damaging farming practices — often encouraged by subsidised fertilisers and electricity — in India, as they fear a political backlash.

There could be ingenious ways of getting farmers to shift to better practices, though. The drain of wealth from villages to cities on account of expenditure on health and education has increased significantly in the post-reform period due to a huge supply-demand mismatch.

Is it possible to think of a programme which rewards individuals/communities for taking up environment-friendly (but expensive) practices in farming through subsidised/preferential access to health and education? Imagine a government deciding to open better schools and primary health centres in villages, which adhere to cultivation of locally suited crops or self-regulate irrigation through tube wells.

The fate of our battle against rural distress will depend on how our political class responds to these questions. And, empathy and prudence need not be substitutes in the battle against India’s agrarian distress.

roshan.kishore@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Jul 18, 2018 11:41 IST