Stuck in dead alley on farm sector

The farmer’s stir in parts of the country seems to be petering out. On Monday, under pressure from the producers of milk and vegetables, the leaders of the farmers’ unions in Punjab spearheading the protest decided to call it off. They faced the wrath of the vegetable growers and dairy farm owners and vendors who all feared loss of incomes as a result of the ill-considered and politically-motivated stir. Not all farmers’ unions were party to the protest.

The protests were sporadic in a few States but attracted tremendous media notice. The Congress Party was behind the stir. It was exposed in Delhi when a handful of its workers poured huge jars of milk for the benefit of television news cameras and were caught out by alert news persons who pointed out the absence of actual farmers in the protesting crowd. Besides, vendors in the vegetable market and consumers together vent their ire against the party for its wanting to so blatantly exploit the on-going agrarian crisis for partisan ends while pushing up vegetable and milk prices in the process. In Rajasthan too, the strike by farmers was partial, with protesters physically preventing vehicles carrying milk and vegetables to the markets. In some places, the producers of milk and vegetables, unable to take the perishable commodities to the market, set up temporary stalls to prevent loss of income and to ease the shortages in the market.

In Maharashtra, there was a lack of unity among the farmers’ unions. On the fourth day of the stir, leaders of the farmers’ unions in the State distanced themselves from the protests, alleging a conspiracy behind it. Timed to mark the first anniversary of the farmers’ protests in Madhya Pradesh in which a number of them had lost their lives, there was no mistaking the Congress hand behind the stir. The party had an eye on the Assembly poll in the State due later this year. But its failure to enlist the support of major farmers’ unions, including those in Punjab where it is in power, was the main cause for its failure. There is no denying the farm sector distress for several years. Factors are many. Successive governments have failed to minimise the role of the middlemen in marketing agriculture produce.

It is relatively easy to eliminate. Of course, this is for the respective state governments to break the near- monopolistic grip of the agriculture produce market committees which can help lessen the difference between the retail price of the farm produce and the actual yield to the growers. Even the minimum support price fixed for various crops by state governments often proves un- remunerative to the farmers. Besides, the vagaries of an erratic weather, costlier inputs, shrinking land holdings, uncertain market conditions caused also by glut of certain commodities add to the farmers’ woes. Farmers’ ignorance about modern practices of cultivation, too, is an important factor.

Loan waivers for the farm sector are no solution to what is a systemic crisis of agriculture. Indian farm sector continues to be labour-intensive while elsewhere advances in agriculture and automation have greatly helped cut costs and improve yields. In other words, governments can only do so much to improve the conditions of farmers; they, too, must adapt with the times. Raising minimum support price with every crop season is not possible as consumers are directly affected. Also, it is inflationary. Opening up the food sector for cold storage chains so that excess produce does not go waste, and can be marketed in a poor crop season, and encouraging food processing industry near the farm clusters was talked about as a major solution to the crisis. Despite allowing 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the food retail business two years ago, if nothing came of it, it was due to stringent conditions. The fear of an adverse reaction from the very people behind the failed farmers’ stir seemed to have prevented the government to address the genuine misgivings of the potential investors in the sector. Pragmatism in the farm sector, as also in any other sector of the economy, remains hostage to low-grade partisan politics. Unless governments adopt bold polices and neutralise the influence of vested interests, crisis of Indian agriculture will persist.

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