In the midst of the euphoria in the capital markets, after a strong mandate for Narendra Modi, the loud cries of wailing farm widows have been lost in the noise and cacophony that followed. To my mind, this is the biggest policy paralysis that afflicts the country.
So when I heard Modi speak at the Central Hall of Parliament the other day: "Ours will be a government that thinks, works and live for the poor. This will be a government dedicated to the villages, youth and women of India," my hope was reinforced. In a country where agriculture has been devastated over the years, where an estimated 50 lakh people abandon farming every year and move into the cities looking for menial jobs, resurrecting agriculture is the biggest and most immediate challenge the new government faces.
There is a renewed spurt in the number of farm suicides across the country. My colleague Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, says that in the past few weeks five farmers have been committing suicide every day in the Vidarbha, and another five in the Telangana regions. He has based his calculations on newspaper reports from the region. In Bundelkhand, civil society activist Sanjay Singh says in the past fortnight there have been on an average 2-3 farm suicides every day.
In Punjab, the food bowl of the country, Indian Express reports 10 farmers have committed suicide in last 40 days.
In the Bundelkhand region, which cuts across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Sanjay Singh reported 105 farm suicides till March 31. Reeling under mounting debt, these farmers had given up when the freak weather hit the standing crop in several parts of central India. In neighbouring Maharashtra, some 101 farmers had ended their lives after hailstorms flattened the standing crop in the months of February-March. Of these, 30 suicides took place in April.
Some days ago, I read news reports stating two debt-ridden farmer brothers, Jugraj Singh (33) and Jagtar Singh (30) consumed poison to end their lives. They belonged to Hassanpur village in Mansa district of Punjab. They had taken a loan of Rs3-lakh from the Punjab Cooperative Agricultural Development Bank in Budhlada. They were issued a notice by the bank for non-payment of the pending amount, and unable to repay they preferred to end their lives. Unfortunately, their father had also committed suicide some 13 years ago.
The story is the same everywhere. Mounting debts and falling incomes. In the past 17 years, close to 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide. Every hour two farmers commit suicide somewhere in India. The serial death dance on the farms continues unabated.
The spurt in farmer suicides in the past few weeks is a demonstration of the apathy and neglect with which policymakers have treated agriculture. In fact, I find a kind of contempt that prevails in policy planning towards farming and agriculture. Farmers are being treated as if they are a burden on society, and all efforts are to force them to abandon agriculture and migrate into the cities. The sooner the nation offloads this burden, the better it will be for the country's growth and development, is what is generally perceived. I, therefore don't see much of hope for India's farmers.
Census 2011 tells us that every day close to 2,400 farmers quit agriculture and move to the cities looking for menial jobs. The pace of rural to urban migration has then picked up enormously. At best most of these farmers end up becoming security guards in the cities or driving rickshaws. I have never understood the economic rationale behind first destroying existing employment in agriculture, and then creating employment opportunities in the cities for daily wage workers.
Still worse is the fact that an estimated 60 per cent farmers go to bed hungry. There can be nothing more shocking than to find that people who produce food for the country — annadata — have to go to bed hungry. Regardless, economists are now questioning Narendra Modi's poll promise of providing farmers with 50 per cent profits as part of the minimum support price they get. The other day on a TV channel I was asked if agricultural prices go up how will the new government bring down inflation?
These economists want farmers alone to bear the entire burden of feeding the nation with cheap food. Primarily for this reason there has been a deliberate effort to keep farmers pauperised so that they are forced to abandon agriculture. Manmohan Singh had a number of times reiterated that India does not need 70 per cent farmers, and therefore there is an urgent need for a demographic shift. Agriculture has thus been kept starved of public funds. In the 12th Plan period, you will be shocked to know all that agriculture received, despite employing 60 per cent of the population, was Rs1.50 lakh crore. What miracle can be expected with such a paltry investment?
Agriculture too needs investments. In 2014-15, Rs5.73 lakh crore was given just by way of tax concessions to the corporate. If only such an investment was made in agriculture, it would have given a shot in the arm to the beleaguered farming population. The more the income in the hands of farmers, the more will be their purchasing power, thus driving the entire economy. Agriculture therefore stays as the backbone of the Indian economy. Take for instance the food being wasted across the country. Prolonged rains this year have damaged huge stocks of wheat, rice and other perishables for want of adequate storage capacity. In Punjab alone, 26 lakh tonnes of procured wheat this year has been damaged by rains.
For the new Prime Minister, agriculture will remain the sector needing immediate attention. In fact, he has little choice considering that the Indian Meteorological Department has already predicted a below normal monsoon this year. For the new government, the immediate task besides preparing to reduce the impact of a possible drought will be to take a re-look at agriculture and come up with policies that bring back the pride in farming. The approach has to be on how to make agriculture economically viable and environmentally sustainable. There is no reason why India cannot have flourishing agriculture where farmers don't commit suicide. There is no reason why India cannot adopt sustainable farm practices in a manner that makes agriculture profitable for farmers.
Here is a historic opportunity for Narendra Modi to think and work for the poor. Restoring the pride in agriculture is the surest way to fulfil the aspirations of youth, women and farmers.
The author is a food and agriculture policy analyst