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Time for a field day

With 60 per cent of India’s population directly engaged in farming, and another 20 per cent comprising landless workers, a real stimulus can come only from a robust agriculture, writes Devinder Sharma.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2009 22:18 IST

Buried under the whole array of angry reactions following the Mumbai terror attacks is yet another violent disaster. A shocking news that should have shaken up the country’s elite — that 16,632 farmers had committed suicide in 2007 — has been simply brushed aside.

The reason is obvious. They did not belong to the elite. While the serial death dance in the countryside continues unabated, with an estimated 182,936 farmers as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) taking the fatal route since 1997 to escape the humiliation that comes along with growing indebtedness, the government is on a bailout spree. Since September, the government has provided a fiscal stimulus of over $120 billion by way of liquidity and other budgetary provisions, mainly to sectors that blundered.

The guiding principle appears to appease different lobby groups keeping an eye on the forthcoming elections. Take the real estate sector for instance. Instead of providing sops by way of interest subsidies on EMI, the government should force the realty sector to drastically cut prices, jacked up by 450 per cent in the past four years. Reduce the prices, demand will automatically grow. Similarly, for exporters. They have twice received a stimulus package. First, when the rupee/dollar exchange rate had slumped to 37, and now when the world faces an economic meltdown.

Amid all gloom, the only sector that has shown resilience is agriculture. Whether we like it or not, agriculture remains the mainstay of the economy. Complete apathy and neglect of the farm sector has driven farmers to commit suicide, and also to quit farming. Facilitating the demise of agriculture are the government policies that are now forcibly acquiring land, and bringing in polices for corporate takeover.

With 60 per cent of India’s population directly engaged in farming, and another 20 per cent comprising landless workers, a real stimulus can come only from a robust agriculture. When I say agriculture, I don’t mean a bailout package for the tractor industry or the food-processing industry. Nor do I propose taking mobile telephony and computers to the villages. This would only help the service providers, and be counter-productive.

Regenerating agriculture should be the top priority, providing support for natural farming systems that can be locally sustained within a radius of 100 kms. Emphasis should be on restoring soil health, and on recharging groundwater. Club all subsidies on fertiliser, centrally sponsored schemes, watershed management, and the food security mission, and provide these directly to farmers enabling them to make an informed choice of shifting to sustainable farming.

In addition, a fixed monthly income based on the principle of direct income support is what the bleeding farming community desperately needs. The upper cap of 100 days employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (NREGA) should be removed. Rural workers too need to be given employment for 365 days, like all of us in urban centres. At the same time, the NREGA should be linked to agriculture. This, in turn, will generate demand that is expected to kick-start the economy.

Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst