By Nantoo Banerjee
How long will the country mutely witness thousands of its debt-stricken small farmers committing suicides year after year, no matter which political party is in power at the Centre or states? With 67 per cent of India’s farmland held by marginal farmers and continuous shrinkage of acreage under their control provide an alarming picture of the future of those poor farmers and India’s agriculture. Unfortunately, political parties do not seem to be concerned about addressing the real issue of making agriculture scientifically sustainable without such political doles as writing-off poor farmers’ bank-debts and certain farm subsidies that indirectly benefit industrial producers of power, fertilisers and pesticides more than their direct users.
By its geographical size, India is the world’s most populated country. A continuously unremunerative domestic agriculture can ruin its all other economic advantages. It is another matter that financially-sick farmers across the country may someday organise themselves to revolt against the government or administration, instead of cheaply ending life by committing suicide. Also, if the crisis persists, India may have to live substantially on food imports in due course.
It is high time that both the central and state governments take a serious view of the last agricultural census to address the situation through legal and social measures. The government’s own official statement puts “the average size of the (farm) holding at 1.15 hectare. And, the size of these holdings has shown a steady declining trend since 1970-71.” The large holdings of 10 hectares and above account for less than one par cent of the country’s farmland.
Few will disagree that the small and marginal farmers should have been induced and incentivised by the government to go for cooperative farming instead of playing politics on their plight. Cooperatives are meant to help such marginal farmers benefit from economies of scale. They could lower their costs of inputs, cultivation, storage and transport. Such cooperatives could enable farmers to improve production, service quality and reduce financial risks. Marginal farmers would not have been marginalised to become victims of lenders, private loan-shirks, middleman and market. They would have also probably kept at bay those political parties and leaders who have long been converting farmers’ distress and suicides into votes during state and parliamentary elections.
Cooperative farming witnessed a grand success in China, the world’s most populous country, and also in highly industrialised nations such as the UK, Germany, France and Sweden. Advantages of cooperative farming are many. They include consolidation of small units of land; liberal use of mechanisation; adequate and timely use of inputs like fertilisers and pesticides; technical guidance to improve skills and productivity; secure fair price of products; and build brotherhood among members to help each other to pull their resources and promote common interests. The cooperative farming movement is not new to India. It made a tremendous success in Gujarat, parts of Maharashtra and a few other states contributing substantially to the production of milk and sugar among others. There is no reason why it should not be an equal success in agriculture.
Despite a rapid growth of India’s services sector since the 1992 economic reform, it is still largely an agricultural country in terms of direct and indirect jobs the farm sector creates. Statistically, agriculture contributes around 18 per cent of India’s GDP though providing employment to nearly two-third of its total population. Rural women play a vital role in agriculture, representing almost 50 per cent of farm labour. Agricultural accounts for around 15 per cent of the country’s export earnings. In China, agriculture accounts for about 11 per cent of its GDP, which is over four times larger than India’s. In 2016, India’s GDP was $2.5 trillion. China’s GDP was $11.4 trillion. Some 330 million or over 45 per cent of China’s total labour force live on farming although only about 15 per cent of China’s total land mass is cultivable. Over 75 per cent of China’s total cultivated land grow only food crops. Properly organised under cooperatives, India’s marginal farms hold the promise of doing better than China’s. Earlier they are initiated, the better it is for poor marginal farmers and agriculture.
It’s important that the government ensures that groundwater, on which India’s agriculture is substantially dependant, is not exploited by consumer industries making soft drinks, bottled water, alcoholic beverages, etc. The latter can use municipal water, drawn mostly from rivers, for a small fee. India’s agriculture is mostly rain-fed. The proportion of net irrigated area to net area sown was 45.70 percent at the beginning of this decade. This means that half the country’s farmland rely entirely on rains for their crops. Deep tube-wells are a major source of irrigation. While the total cropped area is estimated at 193.76 million hectares, nine states account for almost 78 percent of it. They are Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and West Bengal.
Incidentally, Maharashtra, Andhra, Telangana, UP and Karnataka have among the most debt-trapped farmers. Maharashtra has always seen the highest number of farm suicides every year. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, now championing the cause of poor farmers, may be aware that the state was ruled by the Congress-NCP coalition for 15 consecutive years, until BJP came to power in 2014. Of the country’s total net irrigated area of 64.57 million hectares, about 48 per cent are shared by small and marginal holdings. Under cooperative farming, the marginal holders can put together their resources and seek help from the government and local bodies to improve their access to irrigation. Nobody denies that agricultural cooperatives can also be subject to corruption and political exploitation. Yet, they seem to be the best option before the country’s debt-ridden, suicide-prone marginal farmers. (IPA Service)