Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Indian farmers-Between deep sea and the devil

India has been traditionally an agriculture oriented country with millions of farmers peacefully ploughing their land and growing a variety of crops as food as well as for cash generation. Though for centuries the bullock drawn ploughing "technology" has been in vogue, advent of tractors in a big way in the country made many farmers switch over to partially mechanized agriculture. But for millions of small farmers the bullock centric cultivation practice is still  inevitable as buying mechanized gadgets is unaffordable to them. Bullocks have a few advantages when it comes to rural environment though lately even these man-friendly beast is becoming exorbitantly costly to acquire and maintain. Why is that Indian farmers cannot modernize their agricultural practices in spite massive subsidization of this in the country?

The continuing saga of farmers is best reflected by the unceasing episodes of suicides in the rural area and according to governments own data, more than 10% of suicides in the country happen in the rural areas by farmers. Why should a happy farmers, as being claimed by the government, takes his own life, leaving his kith and kin in his family as destitute? Human psychologists are of the view that human being commit suicides for either of the two reasons. First he is driven to suicide by his compromised self respect, fearful of the humiliation in the society. Alternately desperate economic situation where he is heavily burdened by loans with exorbitant interests from local loan sharks who have a way of extortion and blackmailing to extract his pound of flesh. In spite of many progressive measures successive governments have been taking to "pamper" to the farmers, as many citizens feel, the benefits of economic growth have not touched a large number of farmers coming under the category of marginal farmers. There is a feeling that these benefits have been cornered by well to do, rich farmers with political connections! 

Look at the land holding pattern in the country where 70% of the population is engaged in agricultural and allied activities. Those holding less than one hectare of land constitute 62 % of the population while others with 1-2 hectares make up another 19%. In other words 81% of the agriculturists own major part of the agricultural landscape of the country. Under such a situation what one can expect from these unfortunate brethren of ours who work the whole day to eke out an existence for him and his family while raising about 71 kg of wheat and 80 kg of rice to every Indian citizen! In this process what is he getting back? A decent livelihood? No way! While the counterpart of Indian farmer in Australia raises 10.8 tons of rice per hectare, he is not able to produce even 3.5 tons per hectare from his land. As for wheat Indian grower produces 2.8 tons per hectare while his counterpart in the Netherlands enjoy a harvest of 9 tons per hectare. Chinese farmer produces about 3 tons of Chickpeas from each hectare of his land whereas in India the average yield is a measly 0.9 ton per hectare. Why is this happening in our country which was a food bowl of the world for centuries? Who is responsible for this shameful and pitiable condition of our farmers?  

With majority of farmers owning less than an hectare, what type of economic viability one can expect from their operations? Modern farming technology cannot be applied unless farm sizes are at least 10 hectares and above and no subsidies can change this situation to any significant extent. Unproductive farm land cannot be sold as per the country's law even if the farmer wants to sell it off! There will be no buyer because of the restrictive clauses that the buyer must be a farmer and his income from non-agricultural activities must not be above Rs 2 lack per year! Is it not interesting as to how politicians and bureaucrats earning millions per year have active farms all over the country in violation of these rules? Another interesting or say nauseating rule is that scheduled caste owners of land cannot sell their land unless permitted by a babu in the government! Another restriction is that a farmer is barred from renting his land to another person even if he is not able to cultivate it economically. In China such renting out is freely allowed for the sake of increased production. Can the Indian farmer have salvation ever? No unless government brings about massive relaxation of these restrictions immediately. 

Cooperative farming is touted  as a possible route for land consolidation and application of modern technology in such cooperative farms but this has been tried previously and given up as impractical under Indian conditions! Why? If Tibetan refugees can convert the 5 acre land lots allotted to them into a 5000 acre cooperative farm and help the state to become the top producer of maize in the country, why not Indians do the same? Here again the problem lies with the land regulations which do not permit any formal linkages of land lots through a cooperative society! The only one crop that can still be managed with small holdings is sugarcane because of the high minimum support price government offers and high productivity in some of the sugar belts in the country. A hectare of land, with adequate irrigation can produce as much as 100 tons fetching an income of Rs 2.5 lakhs though the input costs are very high with sugar cane cultivation. Unfortunately these fortunate farmers in the sugar belt also suffer because of delayed payments by the sugar mill barons under one pretext or the other putting them in great economic hardships frequently. 

One relevant question even a child in this country can ask is when are these farmers going to quit agriculture if the land they own does not bring adequate returns for them to lead a decent life with dignity? With more than 15000 farmers taking the painful route of committing suicide to escape from the harsh future faced by them and their families under the prevailing Indian conditions, what else can wake up the conscience of people and pressurize the government to address the situation on an emergency basis? More than 50% of the arable land in the country depends on rains for agriculture as irrigated water is restricted to only about 82 million hectares! Water scarcity is another challenge India is facing because of low progress in  irrigation projects and rapid drying of ground water resources. This can only aggravate the conditions of farmers in perennially drought hit areas in the country.

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