Wheat farmers are becoming assertive!

Yet they need correct market information to get maximum prices!

The wheat procurement season is on and the wheat output is good in Punjab, Haryana and MP and Rajasthan and UP. There is a sort of cold war between the various players in the wheat procurement trade, the government on the one hand and the traditional traders and the newly emergent MNC segment, Cargill, ITC and Glencore, Ruchi and AWB. Every one wants the farmers wheat cheap, the current maximum cost/price for wheat per quintal is Rs.995.

But would give a higher price for farmers? None! So, the news that farmers are holding back stock has to be seen in the new realities of a hardening market and any attempt to exploit the farmers by anyone, including the government has to be seen in the perspective of maximizing the farmers incomes.

While the speculation of government resorting to imports continues. And also, the Commerce Minister Mr.Kamal Nath is talking of encouraging more agri exports. This is also a welcome development.

Timely monsoon, a vigorous wheat purchase in the open market ,government’s anxiety to keep away the private traders till the FCI procures the required quantity and the prospect of the private traders entering and offering higher prices for wheat etc are all the welcome sings of a vigorous agri sector in the country.

Yet, the prospects of wheat and pulses import, palm oil included, is also a fact. The opening of the export market for mangoes in the US, Japan markets show the exchanging trends for agro exports. But the new opportunities and threats come from the special economic zones that pose challenges to farmers’ lands and also the entry of the corporate sector into retailing might help farmers, provided enough safeguards for farmers’ interests are introduced.

Is the present government in Delhi thinking on these lines?

From what the several ministerial committees are doing in the agri and related sectors, from the way the agri minister Mr.Pawar is going about, it looks that there is not much that can change the basic realities in Indian farmers.

What about ensuring market price for growers?

I was recently in Mumbai and it was a hot day. However, the next morning, it was a New Year day in mid-April and I was surprised to find that rains had hit the city. It was a typical yearly experience when the first showers of the South West monsoon hits it first hits the Mumbai city along with Trivandrum and the Tamil Nadu borders.

So, the hot summer months gave way to the beginning of what is hoped for a normal monsoon this year. Any such weather forecast or the talk of such early monsoon would gladly delight the hearts of farmers.

In India somehow, surprisingly, such weather related news don’t seem to interest the politicians. I have never seen either the Prime Minister or the Agriculture Minister of the country talking about monsoons or about a new agriculture year. In other countries like Thailand or Vietnam or Japan, agriculture season is a big ceremony and the country’s top leaders, the monarchs inaugurate the first ploughing ceremonies.

Somehow India has now become an anti-agriculture society and politics. While we are doing politics by exploiting the helplessness of farmers’ communities, the Vidarbha tragedy continues, farmers in Karnataka resort to suicides, two sugarcane farmers ended their lives and other farmers went on fast demanding the sugarcane be lifted from their fields before they wither away.

In Maharashtra we find a funny situation. Most of the most powerful ministers and politicians are sugar barons! They all control individual sugar co-operative mills and we find that Mr.Munde, the opposition leader is the state’s biggest sugar baron! So too the Chief Minister and of course the Union Agri Minister,the redoubtable Sharad Pawar.He is widely seen as the minister only interested in protecting his sugar lobby which is so powerful for the very dynamics of the Maharastra politics and the sugar sector gets special funds, incentives to hold on to the stocks or exports. While the farmers in Vidharbha are left in the lurch, no amount of the PM package works there.

Now, we read about Mr.Kamal Nath’s new agri export policy. The Union Commerce Minister talked of   the latest changes in the foreign trade policy. New markets, new product lines for Indian exporters he had suggested. The new possibilities in agri exports he had indicated.

The thrust of the new policy is the new ideas behind the Focus Market Scheme and the Focus Product Scheme. The latter would be largely targeted at the farm sector whose competitiveness, the minister said, was to increase with the latest set of incentives for exports and the entry of the corporate sector in retailing. The required infrastructure would be set up and the proposed” food parks” would be operated by the private sector.

Unfortunately, in this country, the very word “private sector” means the entry of the highly suspect big corporate companies, many MNCs, entering the agri market and resorting to cut-throat competitions by offering higher prices ,as has happened now in the wheat and rice procurement business. The government agency, FCI, is made to suffer heavy losses by not able to procure targeted quantities and this further forces the government to resort to imports from foreign shores. Companies like Cargill and others only accentuate the “competitiveness” by driving out the local traders and twisting the country’s larger national focus that is to ensure fair price to farmers as well as to ensure a steady, stable supplies to the PDS.

Somehow, now in the race for entering the agri sector, the Indian big business hosues like Reliance and Bharti mittal groups are not going to be models for farmers to trust them and their assurances. Already, the MNCs, as in the case of Pepsi, in Punjab, they don’t honestly enter the market to serve the farmers interests. They serve their own interests and that too at the cost of the farmers interests. In potato cultivation by Pepsi, through contract farming, the companies assure the farmers to grow a particular crop, and then when the produce come for harvesting the companies insist of selecting the best quality produce and leave out the rest of the produce. This leads to farmers to distress sales.

Now, there are new dangers. The Indian companies are very likely to resort to the same business tactics. They would now go for procuring all the agri produce at the cheap rates wherever they are available and once the market becomes competitive, the competition among the retail giants would force farmers into some contracts, often unenforceable contracts to cultivate some particular crops and once the produce comes to the market, they would surely resort to forcing the farmers to part with the produce at a cheap rate.

Very much like what is now happening in the sugarcane cultivation sector.

The point is that farmers/big and small/have to be give some legal cover, say a contract farming legislation so that the producers’ interest are protected. This is a high priority at present. Along with that are some of the related issues like timely credit and also insurance cover. Unfortunately, the Commerce minister seems to be unaware of the issues involved when he has talked of agri exports.

This country, the farmers of this country had suffered for years because of the peculiar middle men syndrome in agriculture marketing. With all the developments in economic sphere, the rural markets are still operating on primitive exploitative manner only. There has to be a bold new initiative on the agriculture front.

Unfortunately, neither the Commerce minister nor the Agri minister seem to be honest enough to speak out the many obstacles they face or the many deficiencies the outside public sees in the functioning of their ministries. One instance is the functioning or the non-functioning of the Apeda.

This agri export agency with a specific mandate was established long ago. This has done some good work. But alas! In a typical Manmohan Singh style cobweb, this is now caught in a turf war among the many ministers! Everyone wants to have control of the agency. This is a great tragedy. It has reached a record of agro exports to Rs. 17,918 crore by last year. Apeda is supposed to run the agri export zones. But now, we like to ask: where are the agri export zones? What progress they have made? Apeda is starved of funds, staff and autonomy and the very identity! North East Region has a big potential in agri exports but it has only a share of just 4.8 %.Apeda hopes to double its exports to Rs.36,510 crores by the end of the 11th plan. In fact, the untapped potential for agri exports is very huge indeed.

Alas, there is neglect everywhere when you look at the agri sector.

We need a bold vision for the entire sector. We need many innovative concepts, innovative institutions, a vast coverage from credit insurance to more focused self-help groups of farmers to undertake so many agro/entrepreneurial ventures. When you talk with state level ministers and officials they all look to Delhi. When you look at Delhi, there is only a vast procession of so many ministerial committees on so many subjects under the sun! The latest were the long list of committees and sub-committees on agriculture and related issues” attended by Chief Ministers of major states and their pressing for their respective farm sector agendas. Nothing wrong. But how long, we can go on and on like this?

The National Development Council is supposed to meet on May 29 and consider the “Working Groups” headed by the CMs on WTO negotiations, biotechnology etc. This seems quite unrewarding bureaucratic exercise. A great pity. We expect more dynamic response in terms of new initiatives from the otherwise capable Sharad Pawar.

The PM and his finance minister are anyway not very much interested in this sector. At least, the recent election results from across the country and the likely fallouts from the rest of the country only could force the non-performers to quit and make for new comers.

Sonia Gandhi is engaged in a “do or die” election campaign strategy. The voters’ skepticism has led to Congress debacle in a series of election results. So, where is the time to think of specific issues like agriculture? It is now all about caste and communal politics. Even the PM is unwelcome to campaign. Such is his image among the voters!

This is democracy and there must be ways to explore new initiatives from those who can rise up to the expectations of the farmers who feel let down this time!

Post Navigation