Agriculture is not the favourite topic of the season. Especially when the Finance Minister P Chidambaram is all geared to present his what could well be the election budget with predictable populist sops. That the sops so far have not worked and the biggest of them all the Rs 76,000 crore NREGA, the so-called vision statement of the UPA, is a monumental failure is the last thing the FM would like to hear. But that is another story.
Unfortunately there are more painful aspects of the farm sector. Last week with a characteristic flourish the Finance Minister waved the new revised estimates of the Central Statistical Organisation, to boast that the Indian economy grew by 9.6 per cent in 2006-07, the highest in 18 years.
There was a missing passage however, in the comedy: the agricultural sector recorded a dismal 3.8 per cent growth, down from last year's6.1 per cent. This was the lead in most regional papers. (These percentages are misleading and will not tell the real story.)
During this period one farmer was committing suicide every 30 minute. Dr. K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies who analysed farmer'ssuicides between 1997 and 2005, based on the National Crime Records Bureau data concluded that in the last eight years a minimum of 1.5 lakh farmers committed suicide. Farm suicides worsened after 2001 and of late farm suicides have reached an alarming frequency while the number of farmers continues to fall, with countless thousands abandoning agriculture in distress. An exhaustive report of this study was published in The Hindu (November 12-15) by P. Sainath, celebrated writer on rural poverty. The report says, ?The number of such deaths peaked in 2004. So while the number of farmer'ssuicides shows a raising trend after 2001, the number of farmers may well have declined?The trend of a decline in cultivators seems to have begun even earlier?? The 1991 census says there were 111 million cultivators. This number declined to 103 million in the 2001 census. As the farm crisis deepened, this decline has sharpened and certainly farming has no new takers, says Dr K Nagaraj.
What this research also revealed was that the maximum number of suicides were taking place in the zones of highly diversified, commercialised agriculture. Cash crops dominate and to a lesser extent coarse cereals. ?From the mid 90s onwards, points out Dr. Nagaraj, prices and farm incomes crashed. As costs rose?even as bank credit dried up?so did indebtedness. Even as subsidies for corporate farmers in the West rose we cut our few, very minimal life supports and subsidies to our own farmers. The collapse of investment in agriculture also meant it was and is most difficult to get out of this trap.? All the sincere studies on agriculture show some definite trends. That after six decades of independence, rural indebtedness is a reality, that agriculture is largely dependent on vagaries of nature, the field under irrigation has not substantially increased, electricity supply is not adequate and wherever available the charges are unacceptably high, the number of farmer poverty is less where food grains are produced, the land area under food crop cultivation is shrinking by the day and farmers are leaving farm sector in distress. Exactly the situation the globalisers are working on.
Water stress has been a common feature. Problems with land and water have worsened as state investment in agriculture disappeared. Cultivation costs have shot up in the high return cash crop zones and price of cash crops crashed as in the case of cotton, rubber, coconut, spices etc. In this massive US-EU subsidies to their growers played a role. Equally villainous was the price rigging with the tightening grip of large corporations over the trade in agricultural commodities, says Dr. Nagaraj. Our Finance Minister a great votary of cash crops and corporate farming did not even caution the Indian farmer of this travesty.
In his recently released book, a collection of articles in The Indian Express, during the NDA rule, Chidambaram has intriguingly accused the then Finance Minister of exactly what he has been doing in the last four years. Understandably Chidambaram has written only three articles on agriculture, ?I was able to identify the real issues plaguing that sector: low investment, inadequate credit and poor farm-gate prices. These problems persist, but a beginning has been made … to double agricultural credit, increase public investment in irrigation and implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) as a safety net for those who cannot find work? (A View From The Outside). But this portion I quoted is a postscript by Chidambaram from inside, after he became the minister. His four-year record is abysmally poor on this score.
What is actually the problem? There is the belief emanating from IMF prescriptions that India is cultivating food stuff in too large an area and that the yield per hectare is not equivalent with developed countries and that the cost of Indian food production is high and that India can import cheaper food from world market. This however is a ploy to create market for farmers of the developed countries. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate critic of globalisation says, ?The critics of globalisation accuse Western countries of hypocrisy, and the critics are right. The Western countries have pushed poor countries to eliminate trade barriers, but kept up their own barriers, preventing developing countries from exporting their agricultural products and depriving them of desperately needed export income. The United States was, of course, one of the prime culprits, and this was an issue about which I felt intensely? (Globalization and its Discontents). Stiglitz adds, ?Unfortunately, the IMF and World Bank have approached the issues from narrow ideological perspectives?. Scorecards were kept for the countries making the transition ?.those who privatized faster were given the high marks. As a result privatization often did not bring the benefits that were promised.?
Take the Indian example. While the Finance Minister pursued a gruelling tax regime on the helpless salaried class, the incentive given to Special Economic Zone developers drained the national exchequer of an average of Rs one lakh crore annually. But the SEZ did not bring the huge committed investments.
In seventeen years after globalisation, for the first time on May 29, last year, the government admitted at the National Development Council meeting to discuss agricultural crisis and to launch three food security missions. The Planning Commission has estimated that by 2012 India will import 12 million tonne food grain. That is the impending food crisis.
(The views expressed in this column are personal. The writer can be contacted at [email protected])