Devinder Sharma writes:
For the past two years we have seen news reports and videos of distraught farmers throwing tomato, potato and onions on to the streets. Farmers are unable to recover even the harvesting and transportation cost in most cases – a well-established fact.
Farmers in Erode district in Tamil Nadu are a worried lot. The retail price of cabbage has crashed. Against a price of Rs 12/kg last year, farmers are getting on an average Re 1 per kg. In Chhattisgarh too, tomato prices have crashed leaving farmers in the lurch. Not fetching more than Rs 1 to 2 per kg, farmers have simply abandoned the tomato harvest. The deplorable price they are getting in the market is not even enough to meet the plucking and harvesting cost.
This is primarily because of higher production which enables the middlemen to form cartels and manipulate the prices often to the extent of exploitation.
This is the third year in a row when prices of almost all the agricultural commodities have crashed across the country. While the increase in production has brought cheers to the government, the drop-in prices has added to the misery of farmers.
Enhancing farm incomes has never been on the top of the economic agenda. Even when it comes to Minimum Support Price, the fact remains that only 6% farmers are able to sell at MSP. The remaining 94% farmers are dependent on the exploitative markets.
After 70 years of Independence, the average income of a farm family in 17 States, roughly half the country, is Rs 20,000 a year as the Economic survey 2016 has shown, the primary cause of the agrarian distress that prevails is before us. The 2016 NCRB data for farmer suicides has made this abundantly clear.
Sharma focuses on the reasons for high levels of farmer suicides: “There are of course a number of reasons that have been cited time and again but essentially everything boils down to the failure of the markets to assure a profitable income”.
He writes that the latest set of farmer suicide statistics compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau is a clear-cut pointer to the fact that much of the agrarian distress is primarily because farmers are unable to realise a remunerative price for his produce.
The general understanding is that suicides are high in India because roughly 60% of the crop lands do not have assured irrigation facilities.
But in Punjab, which has 98% assured irrigation; the NCRB recorded 271 farm suicides in 2016, an increase of 112% over the 2015 suicide toll of 124. In neighbouring Haryana, which has 82% of the cultivable area provided with assured irrigation; the suicide rate has jumped by 54%, from 162 in 2015 to 250 in 2016.
Another reason openly cited and largely agreed by Ministry of Agriculture, Niti Ayog and even the agricultural universities is that farmers are dying because of low crop productivity.
Higher the crop productivity, higher is the net farm income goes the refrain. But Punjab has the highest crop productivity in the world among cereal crops – wheat, rice and maize – and yet there is hardly a day when I don’t find news report of two, three or four farmers committing suicide. Crop productivity is very high in Haryana, often at the 2nd level after Punjab, and yet it seems farm suicides are increasing.
(Ed: As Ian Potter often reminds farmers, when exhorted to raise milk production, increased quantities on the market will actually be a factor leading to lower returns).
Policy planning is aimed at ensuring that food grain production registers an increase and it is the failure to assure a profitable income into the hands of farmers that has actually accentuated the agrarian crisis. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) that the government announces for 23 agricultural commodities every year is worked out keeping the consumer prices in mind. More often not, the MSP is lower than the cost of production a farmer entails. No wonder, when farmers undertake cultivation, they don’t realise that they are actually cultivating losses.
Sharma proposes the setting up of State Agricultural Prices Commissions, with the mandates to provide a higher income to farmers, similar to that in Karnataka, which ensures procurement of 14 crops at prices that are much higher than the MSP announced by Central Government.
In his book, AGRICULTURE & RURAL DEVELOPMENT: KARNATAKA – 2020 (extracts available), Dr.Sangappa.V. Mamanshetty, who was born in Karnataka, writes “The main objectives of food management are:
- procurement of food from farmers at remunerative prices,
- distribution of food to consumers, particularly the vulnerable sections of society,
- at affordable prices,
- and maintenance of food buffers for food security and price stability”.
Sharma summarises: “I am in favour of bringing more areas under irrigation as well as increasing crop productivity. But this must be accompanied by enhanced net income”.