Suraj usay jagaye, yeh ehsan woh kabhi nahi leta: HIS has been quoted from a Hindi primer which describes a farmer who never accepts any obligation from the sun for awakening him every morning. He rises on his own before sunrise and is off to his field with his pair of bullocks and farm implements almost everyday. A few hours later, his small son or daughter bring his breakfast?mostly leftovers from the previous night?and then he returns home for his modest lunch. Maybe after a siesta he is back on his field tending to the crops. The life of a farmer, one would like to imagine, is a happy one.
Forget it. A farmer sticks to his profession because he has no escape route. Had there been one, 40 per cent of the farmers would have long before left for other professions according to a National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) study very often quoted by almost everyone connected with agriculture, from the ace scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan to the humblest farm worker in a remote village, even in an agriculturally advanced State of Punjab.
Agriculture is one of the riskiest professions in the country. If you had any doubt, please refer to the incessant rains southern Tamil Nadu, southern Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry are having since about the middle of March, the period when one least expects heavy downpours. A moderately good wheat crops is standing in the fields now. One hopes that the rainfall that has hit the southern Peninsula does not repeat its performance in the north during the next few weeks.
One may ask why is it that even though the country has achieved the goal of achieving nearly nine per cent of GDP in the last few years, beginning with the year 2003-04 when it was 8.6 per cent, the number of farmers committing suicides has not gone down? In fact within the first ten days of the announcement of the Rs. 60,000 crore loan waiver scheme by the Finance Minister on February 29, 2008, at least 25 farmers committed suicides, mostly from Maharashtra including a few from western Maharashtra.
It is never a pleasant occasion, even for ?hard-boiled? journalists like this one with 50 years in the profession to recall the number of farmers committing suicides every now and then. Nevertheless, according to the latest figures given by the Minister of State of Agriculture Kantilal Bhuria in the Lok Sabha on March 3, 2008 (Question no 736), the highest number of suicides between 2004 and 2008 in Maharashtra was 4687, with Vidarbha, accounting for 2522 deaths (figures up to January 2008), Andhra Pradesh for 2539 suicides upto 30.6.07, Karnataka 727 (up to 10.7.07) and Kerala, 905 (up to 31.10.07). Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Gujarat too figured in the list with Gujarat reporting 282 suicides between 2004 and 2006.
It is often argued that not all suicides take place for agrarian reasons. Someone from Vidarbha had once described the event of a young farmer committing suicide because his parents had not agreed to his demand for a motorcycle. This is putting salt on the wounds suffered by families of farmers who had committed suicides.
The fact is that a farmer, by and large, is just too tired to carry on with un-remunerative agriculture, year after year, remaining indebted to usurious money-lenders all his life, and would become the happiest person if he somehow could get himself out of the chakravyuha of semi-starvation and threats by money-lenders or banks, floods and droughts, pest attacks and frosts, and finding money for his daughter'swedding and son'sschooling.
Agriculture, in spite of being the country'slargest employer at 60 per cent of the population has been repeatedly neglected all through except during the period of the Green Revolution in which Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Norman Borlaug, India'sAgriculture Ministers C. Subramaniam and Jagjivan Ram, and scientists Dr. B.P. Pal, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and a host of other scientists and workers had taken active part. Thereafter, we had a relatively drought period in the introduction of new seeds and technologies and very tardy development of irrigation. ?We are paying the price for neglect? Dr. Swaminathan told journalist Kalyani Shankar in an interview broadcast by All India Radio on the night of March 22, 2008.
Even though the NDA regime had seen very good production and productivity of rice and wheat among other cereals, it had decided to set up a National Commission on Farmers (NCF) in order to look into the causes of agrarian distress and suggest means of mitigating them. Accordingly, the NCF was set up under the chairmanship of Shri Sompal, Member, Planning Commission in charge of Agriculture on February 10, 2004. However, after the defeat of the NDA in the general elections the Commission was reorganised under the chairmanship of Dr. M. S. Swaminathan on November 8, 2004. This commission had submitted five reports, the last one being on October 4, 2006.
After considering all aspects of the recommendation by the Commission, the Government of India published its National Policy on Farmers in November 2007.
In a statement issued on November 25, 2007, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had said that the policy inter alia, aimed at improving the economing viability of farming??
Unfortunately, the National Policy on Farmers has not agreed to the proposal by the National Commission on Farmers that farmers should be paid 50 per cent more than their cost of production. This was rejected on plea that the prices were determined by the Commission on Agricultural Costs, and Prices (CACP), forgetting that the Government almost always announces bonus over the recommended prices in case of rice and wheat in particular.
The proposal that farm loans should be charged four per cent interest and there should be a four to five year grace period for repayment of loans for farmers from the rainfed areas, too did not find favour with the governmment.
The National Commission had suggested the setting-up of a National Food Security and Sovereignty Board with the Prime Minister as its chairperson and consisting of the Union Ministers of Agriculture and Food, Finance, Rural Development, Commerce, Water Resources, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Chief Ministers of a few food surplus and a few food deficit states besides leaders of principal political parties.
Entirely bypassing these suggestions, the government merely launched the National Food Security Mission with the limited objective of increasing the production of rice by 10 million tonnes, wheat by eight million tonnes and pulses by two million tonnes by the end of the 11th plan period with a total investment of about Rs. 5000 crore. And a Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana with an investment of Rs. 25,000 crore during the 11th plan period.
While the launching of these two programmes may be laudable, one is constrained to remark that this was a bureaucratic response to a problem of Himalyan proportion.
This reporter has always found fault with the decision of our Constitution framers to place agriculture and water in the State List. He found that the National Commission too held similar views. On agriculture, the Commission had categorically stated:
?We urge the central and state governments to consider seriously the question of including agriculture under the Concurrent List in Schedule VII, Article 246 of the Constitution. Important decisions like those relating to prices, credit and trade are taken by the Government of India?. By placing agriculture in the Concurrent List, serving farmers and saving farmers become a joint responsibility of the centre and the states, i.e. a truly national endeavour in raising the morale, prestige and economic well being of our farm women and men.?
(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered agriculture for four decades and can be contacted at G-201, Nanakpura, New Delhi.)