In the last 20 years, according to the government’s statistics, more than three lakh farmers have committed suicide in India. The situation of the farmers was never very good to begin with, but has been steadily declining and has reached its nadir right now. Earlier spontaneous agitations by farmers are getting organised and now, a coordinated all-India farmers’ movement is beginning to take shape which promises to be the beginning of one of the most significant farmers’ movement in the history of this country.
Root causes of agrarian crisis:
- The intense pressure of population on land.
Demographic pressure has pushed down the land: man ratio to less than 0.2 hectares of cultivable land per head of rural population. It has also progressively pushed down the size structure of landholdings. Around 83% of rural households are either entirely landless or own less than 1 hectare of land. Another 14% own less than 3 hectares.
The burgeoning growth of landless or marginal farmer households is the consequence of decades of land fragmentation as family plots are divided and passed on from one generation to the next, especially male children.
- The shortage of money.
Landless or marginal farmers lack the resources to either buy or lease more land or invest in farm infrastructure—irrigation, power, farm machinery, etc.—to compensate for the scarcity of land. As land scarcity intensifies with population growth, farming progressively becomes a less viable source of livelihood.
Despite subsidies on power, fertilizers, etc., input costs have been rising faster than sale prices, further squeezing the meagre income of the small farmers and driving them into debt. About 52% of agricultural households are estimated to be in debt, and the average size of household debt is Rs47,000. If small farmers are subjected to any of the production or marketing shocks, it knocks the bottom out of their precarious existence. There is a strong correlation between crop failure and the incidence of farmer suicides
- The barrage of risks to which a farmer is constantly exposed.
The first risk is the weather. The large majority of small farmers are dependent on the rains. A weak monsoon or even a delayed monsoon—timing matters—means a significant loss of output. Aggravated by the fact that rain-fed agriculture accounts for two-thirds of India’s total cultivable area.
The next risk is weak soil fertility, pests and plant diseases.
The third risk is price. Even a good harvest can be bad news for the small farmer, placing him at the mercy of the trader. The better the crop the lower would be the price. Net income sometimes collapses if there is a very good crop of perishables. The highly distorted and exploitative product market is a major factor responsible for the misery of the small farmer.
- Green revolution: as root cause of crisis
The Green Revolution led agriculture towards chemical fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation through large dams and massive irrigation projects.
- With chemical fertilisers and hybrid seeds came the problems of resistance in pests and that led to the wider use of pesticides and also of higher potency.
- This infused poison in the food — especially for farmers, who also inhale the pesticides and, therefore, the higher incidence of cancer and other diseases.
- The chemical fertilisers added only a few chemicals like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to the soil without replenishing it with micro-nutrients and the pesticides kill even the soil bacteria. Eventually, the productivity started coming down and with greater use of pesticides, the input cost began to increase.
- Simultaneously, canals and canal irrigation led to water-logging and a substantial part of the land became wasteland. In areas which were not irrigated by canals, there was a rise in the unregulated and unsustainable usage of tubewells to mine groundwater, leading its levels to fall rapidly. This led to even deeper tubewells, adding once again to the input costs for the farmers.
Issues with MSP:
- For food grains like rice and wheat, government procurement at the minimum support price is supposed to protect the farmer. But it mainly benefits the large traders who sell grain to the government.
- Small farmers typically do not have enough marketable surplus to justify the cost of transporting the crop to government corporations in the towns. Their crop is usually sold to traders at rock bottom post-harvest prices in the village itself or the nearest mandi.
- Also the government has fixed minimum support prices (MSP) for just wheat and rice, not for other crops.
- The MSP so fixed is just about adequate for farmers to meet their costs without giving even minimum wages for their own labour.
- In the case of other crops, Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), which were supposed to protect the farmer, have had the opposite effect. Farmers have to sell their produce through auctions in regulated markets controlled by cartels of licensed traders, whose licences give them oligopolistic market power. These cartels fix low purchase prices, extract large commissions, delay payments, etc.
Solving the agrarian crisis:
Increasing land scarcity and the marginalization of farmers cannot be easily reversed. But cooperative farming can help contain the adverse consequences of such marginalization.
There are several variants of cooperation ranging from collective action in accessing credit, acquiring inputs and marketing to production cooperatives that also include land pooling; labour pooling; joint investment, joint water management and joint production.
The advantages of aggregating small farms into larger, voluntary, cooperatives include:
- Greater capacity to undertake lumpy investment in irrigation and farm machinery.
- More efficient farming practices.
- Greater bargaining power and better terms in the purchase or leasing of land, access to credit, purchase of inputs and the sale of produce.
The cooperative approach also has its problems, such as internal conflict, free riding, etc., but farming communities have also found institutional solutions to these problems.
The conditions for success of such cooperative approaches include voluntariness, cooperative units of small groups, relative socioeconomic homogeneity of cooperating households, transparent and participatory decision-making, checks and penalties against free riding, and group control over the fair distribution of returns.
Successful cooperatives in past:
- The Amul milk cooperative in Gujarat.
- The Kudumbashree programme in Kerala.
- The Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty programme in Andhra Pradesh.
The Swaminathan Commission recommendations needs to be implemented:
The committee had gone into this issue of MSP and had recommended that it should be extended to all crops and should be at least 50 per cent above the average cost price of farmers in each state.
If farmers are to be rescued from this crisis we desperately need to change the whole agriculture policy. Move towards organic farming, irrigation by rain-water harvesting and micro-water irrigation, shifting from chemical to organic fertilisers, which will also use less pesticides.
In India, 50 per cent of the people are still dependent, directly or indirectly, on farming. Though agriculture now accounts for less than 15% of gross domestic product (GDP), it is still the main source of livelihood for nearly half our population. We cannot ignore their plight anymore. Agriculture is still the core of our food security. With over 1.3 billion mouths to feed, imports will not solve our problem if there is a severe drought and food shortage.