by Vivek Prasad
For the past many decades, India has been trying hard to fix the crisis facing her agricultural sector but with negligible results. Many of the solutions proposed by experts to address the crisis, such as subsidies, have spawned newer problems rather than addressing the core issues.
One need not be an expert to realise the fact that for the past several decades, the agricultural sector has become direction-less. So who is going to be the messiah of the beleaguered Indian farmer? This is a million dollar question, and answers are hard to come by. Perhaps, it is time for all to wake up from the slumber of ignorance and realize that the market forces are so powerful that the only solution is to submit to market-based solutions.
The socialistic idea of solving farmers’ woes by simply throwing good money at bad solutions never worked. India’s standard response to farm distress — to provide monetary sops without paying any serious attention to the intransigent problems — only exacerbated them. There was hardly a real political leadership to solve problems, and this is where the present government must seize the opportunity and co-opt like-minded political parties to show some new direction. This is where market-based solutions will come into play.
Dynamic practices such as organic farming and poly farming should be propagated among the farming community. Students also should be made aware so that the youth get hooked on to the idea with zeal. Methods should also be considered to incorporate cutting edge technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence into the farming sector.
Without a broad political consensus, far-sighted solutions will only prove to be a pipe dream. Anyone serious about solving farmers’ problems must understand that it will take a decade or longer for any solution to show results, which means that all political parties must come together to pledge that they will not tinker with the previous government’s interventions when they come to power.
The Modi government can start the exercise by first getting rid of the Minister of Agriculture, and inducting a “agrocrat” to lead the Ministry. He should give farmers total freedom to grow whatever crop they find remunerative, even at the cost of foregoing food crops. If that upsets food security, so be it, for that will only jolt the market to behave in a way that it will be forced to pay remunerative prices.
Also, the Minister can:
- Bring into existence a single market for all farmers across the nation. Any subsidy must be paid directly to the individual farmer’s bank account through Direct Benefit Transfer scheme.
- Offer affordable crop insurance on the condition that all payments should be made statutorily within one month of crop loss. Only nationalized banks must disburse farmer loans, with the government acting as the sole guarantor. Private moneylenders must be declared illegal.
- The State governments should be entrusted with the responsibility of managing agriculture. The stewardship has been neglected for way too long as the State has abandoned agricultural extension work. Agricultural education and extension must be restored to their past glory in the face of new technologies that need sound knowledge for management on or off the field. All of this will take more money, and that has to come from the Central government, which will have to increase its budget even at the cost of other superfluous programmes.
- Increase investments in the sector in a steady manner. This is one area where the NDA government has to show bold leadership. In fact, Prime Minister Modi must directly communicate with the nation about the state of agriculture. The nation will support him even if the Opposition doesn’t.
- Unscientific and incompetent farming must be weeded out. Small time farmers who till less than a hectare of land must be weaned away from farming and alternative livelihoods must be provided for them. This might take a couple of generations, but can be achieved if all political parties understand the problem and commit themselves to long-lasting solutions.
- Economics of scale are critical for profitability. The idea that there will be no sustainable farming unless it is economically viable must be the grounding principle of any future agricultural policy. Top bodies such as ICAR should be drastically reformed, thus making them self reliant in finding the resources for high-level agricultural research. And for this to happen, such agricultural bodies need to have enterprising leaders so that the desired results can be achieved in a time-bound manner.
Finally, the Indian farmer must learn to take the best out of modern and western scientific methods of farming and should train himself to treat agriculture as a business and get into the habit of making hard-nosed decisions like seasoned CEOs. At the end of the day, agriculture must be treated as a business and not charity to help the farmer come out of the rut he is in.
Will the Modi government be successful in turning agriculture into a profitable vocation for the hard working Indian farmer? Time alone can answer this million dollar question.