Sunday, May 10

Killing Fields

All agree that agriculture is in distress in state. Devinder Sharma, writing in Hardnews argues it always was; its just that we refused to see it.

At the height of the green revolution, the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) showcased a prosperous farmer in the outskirts of Ludhiana as the emerging face of agriculture. As a young reporter with the Indian Express, I remember visiting his farm a number of times, and every time I returned from his farm, I woke up with a heady hangover.

There was hardly an evening when Harmik Singh (name changed) would not empty a crate of Peter Scot, quite an expensive whisky those days. No wonder, scientists, industrialists, international visitors, journalists, writers and politicians lined up at his farm. As they devoured chicken with a never-ending flow of liquor, it looked as if farming had suddenly become economically viable; there was prosperity all around.

For 40 years now, ever since the green revolution began in 1966-67, the nation has eulogised the Punjab farmer. Newspapers have, over the years, reported about the visible prosperity ushered in through intensive agriculture. Magazine articles have featured the opulent life style of prosperous Punjabi farmers. It wasn't unusual to see cover stories of farmers driving a Maruti car and relaxing by the side of the pool in their sprawling farm houses.

Not many journalists tried to explore the reasons behind the new-found prosperity. Harmik Singh's rich lifestyle, for instance, had more to do with an agency of pick-up vehicles he had, and which he never talked about. Nor did we try to find out the source of the money flow. We believed what the mainline economists - who misled us all these years because of their own lack of grip over the ground realities - told us.

Punjab is now paying the price of such faulty projections. Agriculture is in distress. It always was. Punjab's underbelly was gradually caving in. We refused to see it. Agriculture not only became economically unviable but also highly unsustainable. Farmers were made to pump in more chemical inputs to maintain their crop harvests. Mining for water to artificially sustain a wheat-rice cropping pattern became a necessity. Intensive farming has finally destroyed the natural resource base.

The farm prosperity we were made to believe in has disappeared. Over the years, indebtedness began growing to phenomenal levels. A recent PAU study shows as many as 89 per cent of Punjab farm households reeling under debt. Debt per farm family today stands at a staggering Rs 1.78 lakh. In other words, for every hectare of land holding, the outstanding debt is Rs 50,140.

Forty years after the green revolution, isn't it a shame to learn that the average income of a Punjab farm family hovers around a mere Rs 3,200 a month? What happened to the rural prosperity that we all knew about? Aren't more and more Punjab farmers abandoning agriculture? Thousands have already committed suicide. With every passing year, more and more farmers are being pushed to the edge.

With non-farm job opportunities drying, escape from Punjab to greener pastures abroad by legitimate and illegitimate means has become a norm. Travel agencies promising jobs abroad are now the fastest growing service industry. Punjab farmers have in reality become a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country's heroes.

I see a similar trend now. There is excitement all around on a newfound prosperity in the rural areas. Bharat, they say, is now shining. Screaming headlines tell us of farmers finding new ways to prosperity. We hear of mini-agricultural revolutions taking place in every nook and corner of the country. We are told the next phase of growth is expected to come from rural markets and rural India accounting for almost half the domestic retail market, which is valued over $300 billion. The media is again full of success stories.

A higher minimum support price (MSP) since 2005, the Rs 71,000-crore loan waiver in 2008, and a step-up in public spending in agriculture is being held responsible for doubling the farm growth to around three per cent. Some even add that 100 days of assured employment under the NREGA has 'empowered' the rural landless. Isn't all this a measure of the new-found rural prosperity? Will it not propel the economy on a growth trajectory?

Planning Commission member and economist, Abhijit Sen, has this to say: "The idea that agricultural incomes were catching up with the rest is simply false. With overall GDP growth at more than 8 per cent since 2004-05, twice as fast as agriculture, people on the farms were, in fact, falling further behind the rest of the country."

Indeed, while the farm sector is lagging behind, hunger is growing. The 2006-07 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) brings out the stark truth.

What makes the alarming situation still worse is that ever since economic liberalisation was launched in 1991, the NSSO tells us that cereal consumption has been on a steady decline, with no corresponding increase in the intake of more nutritious eggs, vegetables, fruits and milk. It means hunger has been on a rise and is now more widespread and well-entrenched. And, of course, hunger does not reflect in the GDP. What jacks up the GDP is the sale of consumer and industrial goods.

Per capita cereal consumption per month in the rural areas across the country has fallen from 13.4 kg in 1993-94 to 11.7 kg in 2006-07. There has been a corresponding decrease in the urban areas, too. The decline has been sharper between the period 2004 and 2007 when in just three years, cereal consumption fell in rural areas from 12.1 kg to 11.7 kg.

There is no denying that over the past four years rice and wheat procurement prices have risen by 61 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively. Cotton procurement price has gone up from Rs 2,050 per kg in 2007-08 to Rs 3,000 per kg in 2008-09, as a result of which nearly 90 per cent of the crop has been bought by the government agencies. This is a temporary and welcome relief for a beleaguered farming community.

I wonder how can a few hundred more rupees in the pocket of rice, wheat and cotton farmers be construed as a sign of prosperity. More so, considering that the average monthly income of a farm family (as worked out by NSSO in 2003-04) did not exceed
Rs 2,115. Ironically, while a farmer earns barely Rs 2,000 every month, a peon in government service has been assured a monthly salary of Rs 15,000 under the Sixth Pay Commission.

What is more worrying is that instead of learning any lessons from the continuing farm debacle, the UPA regime has put the second green revolution on a fast track, which would not only compound the existing crisis but push farmers out of agriculture. Under the Indo-US Initiative in Agriculture Research, Education and Marketing (KIA), an agreement signed with the Bush administration, India is committed to privatisation of agriculture, and vertical integration of farming to promote "farm-to-fork" model wherein farmers are not required.

The Rs 1,000-crore KIA, formally launched by American President George Bush at Hyderabad on March 3, 2005, brings Indian agriculture under the direct control of US corporate houses. With Monsanto, Wal-Mart and ADM sitting on the board of KIA, India has already chosen the future pathway to ensure food security. No wonder, the prime minister has repeatedly talked of a population shift from the rural to the urban centres.

Farmers have to be moved out of agriculture. Economists tell us that there is no other way to growth. But no one tells us where will these farmers go? Which country in the world, including USA, can provide jobs to even 10 million people? Which company/industry in the world, in times of jobless growth, can promise jobs to even one million people? And, we in India are talking of displacing at least 50 per cent of the farming population, close to 250 million, in another 10-15 years. We must be mad.

(Devinder Sharma, a food policy analyst, author and columnist, blogs at Ground Reality)

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