Tuesday, May 23

Punjab's farmer must think smart

Manraj Grewal writes in The Indian Express

Farming is "time-pass", he had said. It has been two years since Malkit Singh of Lehal Kalan village in the Sangrur district of Punjab said this to me but his words still gnaw. They sum up the general mood of despair among the farmers of a state that today shoulders a rural debt of Rs 24,000 crore, the highest in India. With eight months to go for assembly elections in Punjab, this is one statistic every Punjab politician - whether in or out of power - loves to flog. Recently, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh was at pains to tell his largely rural audience at Muktsar that even if all the farmers in the state were to give two years of agri-earnings to the moneylenders, it wouldn?t be able to shrug off the debt. His solution: a generous package from Congress's big daddies at the Centre to write it off.
Poised for polls, it is the mother of all sops that Punjab expects the Captain to swing, in order to garner all those village votes that normally go the Akali way. But would this help? The truth is that even if the CM makes good his promise, it would not really address the full-blown crisis in the now depleting granary of India. There is something rotten in the fields of Punjab and it has a lot to do with government policies. The Green Revolution that had Punjab sowing paddy has today left its water table falling dangerously at the rate of almost a foot every year - at certain places, the farmers have to spend almost a lakh a year on digging new borewells.
The soil too is in poor health. Ask any scientist at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), and he will unspool a long list of nutrients that it lacks. But worse, the Punjabi farmer has lost his sense of enterprise and can-do spirit that had once driven him to grow paddy in an area unsuited for it. Lulled by the comfort of minimum support price (MSP) and assured procurement for wheat and paddy, he got used to the wheat-paddy rotation. So what if the cost of inputs to wrench out a good crop from the soil has more than doubled over the past five years without any accompanying rise in the MSP?
It is not as if this problem has not been acknowledged by the state and academia. When Captain Amarinder cruised to power, he promised to implement, with a Rs 1,280 crore dole from the Centre of course, a plan floated by the former PAU vice-chancellor, S.S. Johl, who advocated giving a compensation to farmers to keep their land fallow instead of cultivating paddy. A year later- in 2003 - the CM unveiled his diversification doctrine, backed by several big corporate names. The doctrine fizzled out in its very first year when some companies refused to lift the crop. Worse, the firms introduced to the farmers by government bodies like Punjab Agro were the ones that defaulted. Some farmers in Machchiwara, for instance, found they were being made to grow maize that was not tested for Punjab. The contracts in English only added to misgivings. And, as always, the government lost interest.
It is not as if there is no hope. Templates of successful farming are waiting to be replicated. Diversification may have turned sour for the masses but a group of farmers near Sirhind are doing it successfully and without any help from the government. And guess how many crops they grow in a year? An impressive four - which include mint, potato and moong dal. Farming, they tell you, has to be run like a business. And no, a small landholding is no deterrent. A retired brigadier fashioned a turmeric machine which has earned him an invite from the Ugandan government. Some potato farmers of Jalandhar have taken to the commodity exchange - Ludhiana Stock Exchange (LSE) reported trading Rs 10.22 crore in April alone. True, unlike the average farmer in Punjab, these farmers are educated. But then there are uneducated ones like Bashir Mohammed of Malerkotla, who is reaping success from vegetables.
The Green Revolution may have sapped the soil of nutrients and water but there are simple and inexpensive antidotes as well. Who hasn't heard of vermicompost and water recharging? All it needs is grassroots awareness - the kind that took place when the state embarked on Green Revolution I. It's here that the government can act as a catalyst. The Punjabi farmer, anyone will tell you, will grow anything if you ensure its sale, preferably direct to the buyer and not to the middle man or commission agent, who has long been bleeding him. Corporates like Reliance India Limited, which has initiated a 'Farm to Fork' project in the state, and Bharti Cellular, now plan to bridge the gap by lifting the produce straight from the farmer, besides setting up processing units.
All this sounds great but what would be better still is to empower the farmer to market on his own. Why not get him to start food processing as well? What we need is an enterprising farmer with a businessman's sangfroid, not a votebank to be milked. As for burgeoning debt, it will take care of itself when farming becomes profitable.

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