?Annadaata?, a respectful term for the farmer, recognises him as the basis of the nation'sfood security. Contemporary governments, be it the UPA or NDA, are encouraging big business to usurp that role. The farmer, representing 58 per cent of the population but only 18 per cent of the GDP, is increasingly marginalised and distressed as the economy ?matures.?
Electoral math dictates that agrarian distress cannot be ignored. After four years and 40,000 suicides, the crisis is addressed through an eye-poppingly large loan waiver, instead of structural reforms aimed at assuring farm livelihoods and adequate food stocks. This faux charity charms no one. Not only does it fly in the face of good governance, but fails to assure the majority its entitlements.
Sops are easily handed out. Strategies for the empowerment of the small farmer are far harder to implement. Since 1967, the grey eminences who presided over the Green Revolution and its fallout – cancer epidemics, poisoned water and debt-drive suicides – have pushed agricultural policies that serve the interests of industry and hurt those of farmers.
The result is commonly referred to as an ?agrarian crisis?. Its socio-economic dimension, manifested in farmers? suicides, has attracted international and perhaps because of that, national attention. The second aspect, the collapse of our food security, is only now beginning to worry policy-makers as grain prices go north.
Food security depends both on adequate food production and on its appropriate distribution. We have neither. Despite the mushrooming of fast food chains and the sheer abundance of processed foods in departmental stores, the unalterable fact is that we are consuming more food than we produce. The apparent glut underlines inequities in food distribution. The super-entitled middle-class fights obesity even as the poor fight hunger. More than half our children are mal-nutritioned and the majority of women are anaemic.
The total annual requirement of grain for the Public Distribution System is 75.6 million tones. As the Department of Food & Civil Supplies observed, PDS procurement is falling and offtake (and leakages) increasing. Despite this, multi-national corporations and their front companies are permitted to stockpile Indian grain.
The projected demand for food grains in 2010 is 270 MT, against current production of 216 MT. A 25 per cent increase in productivity, at a time when per unit yield is falling, begs a miracle. Expensive food imports are a poor basis for food security. What we need is food sovereignty.
The current shortage was predictable given that the four basic determinants of food production – soil, water, seeds and farming practices ? are under unprecedented stress.
Land and water: Industry, urbanisation and resource-intensive agriculture thrive at the cost of cultivable lands and groundwater resources. Climate change, fuelled by industrial agriculture, has materially affected productivity.
Seeds: Traditional open-pollinated varieties have fallen victim to government policies aggressively promoting one-time use only hybrids and genetically modified (GM) seeds, without regard to health safety or bio-diversity. Farmers, instead of saving and improving their own seeds, are dependent on seed companies.
Farming practices: Capital-intensive ?industrial? farming failed to produce yields comparable to those obtaining in the early 20th century! Farming based on Indian Traditional Knowledge Systems not only produces higher yields over the long term but is more importantly, environmentally sound and therefore sustainable.
But armchair opinion-makers, lacking interaction with genuine stakeholders, prescribe quick-fix technologies. Laboratory-engendered miracle seeds to boost productivity without depleting natural resources! This is precisely how the Green Revolution was presented, as a benign, scale-neutral technology based on ?miracle seeds?. It was no such thing. Common resources were plundered to profit a few and all farmers now have to pay the price.
Even if miracle seeds are developed, lengthy trials must be conducted to ensure that apparently innocent technologies do not have crippling side effects and introduce potent environmental threats. We dare not to promote the agricultural version of Thalidomide, the ?safe? drug for pregnant women which resulted in horrifically malformed infants.
Interestingly, the discussion on food productivity focusses exclusively on quantity with quality given the go by. That sustainable agriculture produces better quality food is beyond arguement. The ?NPK? approach to agriculture has failed; similarly, the calorie-count approach to food does not address the issue of nutrition.
A fifth determinant of food production is land ownership. The direct correlation between ownership and improved productivity did not escape our constitutional fathers, who paid lip service to land and tenancy reforms but did not follow through.
The wheel has turned full circle and we must now look to the farmer instead of the scientist for sustained food production. Technological solutions alone, divorced from social and political structures geared to universal benefit, cannot deliver the goods. Instead of seeking a surplus to feed industry, we must economically empower the widest possible cross section of farmers.
The first step is liberation. Not just from debt in the short term, but from the burden of high input or industrial agriculture, through the adoption of Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) systems. High cost of inputs like laboratory-made seeds, factory-made agro-chemicals, diesel and power-driven machines and pumps makes farming non-viable for the majority of farmers. Typically, industrial agriculture focusses on yields while sustainable systems promote crop diversity and nutritional self sufficiency at the farm level.
Critics of organic farming and other LEISA systems claim their productivity is low. But studies have established that LEISA produces higher net returns per unit of land, labour and capital, besides being far more energy efficient and environment friendly. In terms of ecological economics, there is no valid arguement against LEISA. However, these are knowledge and labour intensive systems and hence, do not benefit industry.
Structural reforms in agriculture ? a changeover from industrial to sustainable farming – demand a shift in subsidies, away from the fertilizer companies and directly to the farmer, giving him the option of adopting modes of agriculture more suited to his needs. A shift in R & D and agricultural technology is also called for, geared towards the farmer rather than industry. Reform requires monitoring of credit flow so as to build the farming community'sasset base in the form of cattle, low-cost & clean fuel and energy systems and small-scale agri-processing infrastructure, instead of investment in one-time inputs.
To put it simply, a bag of urea will last the farmer one season. Cattle will last all his life. Urea alone will not assure a good harvest but it will degrade the soil, undermine crop pest-resistance and pollute the ecosystem. Cattle alone will not assure him a good harvest either, but it will improve soil fertility and crop pest-resistance, preserve the environment and provide him with food, fuel and power.
Investment in the standardisation and popularisation of low-cost rural technologies like bio-gas, non-conventional energy and drought energy based units ? which, unlike ?miracle seeds?, already exist ? can render villages self-sufficient in power and fuel and boost small-scale industry.
A participatory as opposed to a top-down approach to agriculture alone can ensure sustainability. For instance, restoration of pastures is critical to animal husbandry and can only be achieved through community effort. Ask the farmer what he wants. Adopt empirical methods.
The current picture is grim. The farmer has not been merely economically undermined but socially and psychologically as well. He is no longer a desirable Pati in marriage and has come to regard himself as downtrodden. Small wonder the majority of farmers finds agriculture unviable and are looking for exit routes.
It is imperative to let the farmer reclaim his self-sufficiency and self-respect and the nation its food sovereignty. If Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi have the small farmers? interests at heart, let them take a Gandhian view of agriculture.
(The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at [email protected])