What the government can do? And doesn’t yet do in agriculture?
What the private sector can do now in agriculture?
Indian agriculture, after 60 years of freedom, is now poised for some structural changes. These changes are likely to be brought about more by the private sector initiatives rather than by the conscious government policy support as such.
There is a global integration of Indian agriculture. There is the Doha round of WTO negotiations. It is all about agricultural trade with suitable safeguards for Indian farmers. Surely, Indian farmers will get more subsidies and more protection. Already, Thailand and Vietnam have complained to WTO about India paying huge subsidy to sugar exporters! Yes, this is the subject that also agitates India as against the huge American subsidy to its farmers to export to India! This is the new world trade order in which India has to learn to operate and succeed. Indian agriculture, as it diversifies and as its growing production gets exported, then, issues of world trade rules would come into play and Indian has to learn to play by the rules in a more proactive manner. India is about to replace Brazil, we are told, as a sugar exporter. This would be a big day. Then, with success comes jealousy and opposition from others and the mark of leadership is to win over people to our side!
Our agri exports needs to reach some respectable levels.
India must become a dependable exporter, be it rice or wheat or other products where India has significant advantages. Dairy, horticulture, fruits and medicinal crops etc, floriculture too, are all the new buzzwords!
Let us consider the present agri scenario in the country. There is the on-going concern and commitment to keeping India a food self-sufficiency country. There is a special national mission and also the funds allotted for this objective.
Otherwise, there is a food grains shortage, more to feed the PDS channel and as such the government is procuring the vast quantities of wheat and rice from the farmers.
There are two observations here.
One, there is a vast oversupply, in fact, a known leakage of the PDS supplies through open and black market channels, owing to political pressures and also administrative mismanagement at many levels. As per the latest data the central government is committed to supply of ration shop grains for below poverty and above poverty families. There is a subsidy of Rs.7 a kg for wheat and Rs.6.15 for rice and besides this payment, there is also the mismanaged number of beneficiaries. The bogus ration cards are a big source of cheating, more the ration cards, less the actual number of beneficiaries! Everybody knows this ongoing helpless feature of our PDS scheme! About 129.2 million above poverty ration cards are in circulation, though the Planning Commission estimates the actual families just 115.2 million. Then, food ministry says the economic cost of wheat to procure, transport, store etc. works to Rs.13.07 a kg, it is issued to states for Rs.6.10 a kg. In states like TN where the DMK had come to power by promising ration at Rs.2 a kg, irrespective of above or blow poverty, the subsidy in terms of percentage comes to as high as 53 per cent for wheat, for rice 42.5 per cent!
Readers can imagine why Manmohan Singh is keeping mum over such huge waste of public money! The PM just wants the troublesome CM to keep quiet! Even then the CM knows his mischief value and gives the PM sleepless nights!
This is the brazen politics of PDS and the government role to keep the poor fed! Prime Minister Singh bemoans the fact that Rs.one lakh crores are given in subsidies, in this food subsidy tops!
Now, see what the private sector does or can do.
The private sector big companies are now entering into the wheat procurement sector and the big ones, the MNCs like Cargill have raised the market price for farmers and also mopped up enough wheat for reselling to flour mills or for exports.
Now, the retail chains like Wal-Mart have entered into India. Local firms like Reliance and barti Airtel have also entered.
What does this means for Indian farmers and the Indian consumers?
First, again look at the realities at the ground levels.
Say, suddenly prices of such popular food items like onion or tomatoes fall owing to spurt in production. The Indian farmers are scattered and they don’t have an integrated one India market and as such local productions and demands are not always matched. So, there is this periodic panic news about sudden price falls, for every imaginable food crops or commodities, be it tomato or potato or onions or chilies and all these products have immense market value inside India or abroad. The trouble is there is no rational market system, no government policy to stabilise prices or protect the farmers. Most of them small and marginal farmers who have no way to protect themselves from sudden price fluctuations, either by price stablisation funds or by insurance.
All these periodic or rather routine crises are still very common in the agriculture sector and the Vidharbha region still cries for effective solutions. This, one wonders, is happening at a time when every other rural person is in possession of a mobile phone and the Internet savvy population so growing fast and we have the IT revolution and there are so many rural infrastructure, rural roads, rural connectivity, rural electricity and telecommunication and much else are all in full swing.
What we lack is the imagination. Our leaders don’t have any imagination; they have no inclination to think in a natural way. They are not even concerned with these realities. See the daily news about the criminal-politician link unearthed and the many criminal convictions in recent times are all pointers to how our political class is getting formed. In many states, in TN in particular (what is true here must be true elsewhere too) many serious crimes committed by politicians close to ruling families, and booked by or transferred to CBI remain in limbo! There is also the cynicism. It is better to keep the poor as poor by various freebies, colour TV sets and paying monthly pensions. Don’t reform the system. Much better is the political dividends!
Given the notorious insensitivity of the Indian bureaucracy towards farmers (see the farmers suicides in various states where the bank debts are not even spread out in time of distress, in spite of the PM’s packages etc), the current status is still one of colonial times of helplessness and hence the farmers suicides continue and continue to blacken the faces of our ministers and party leaders. It is high time this system is completely reversed. The situation has reached such a stage that no more newspapers or TV channels choose to report the farmer’s suicides; they need more sensational news like terror attacks. Lately, even the terror attacks, as the latest ones in Assam, were not even featured prominently. There is a fatigue of sorts had set in the Indian news media!
So, where do we go from here?
It is here, a sort of fate on its own came to the side of farmers and seem to offer some hope of rescue from the current nemesis almost caught on with the Indian farming community.
The one silver lining is the fact that the retail revolution would ultimately might come to the rescue of farmers.
The retail chains offer some positive features.
One, a big retail chain like Wal-Mart or Reliance can spot a surplus of, say onions in Dharwad. Yes, there is news from Dharwad that there the district administration decided to invite merchants from other states to buy the oversupply of onions this season. The farmers have been asked by the district authorities not to bring the onions for one week to the APMC yards!
The price of onions has crashed. On several occasions previously too this has happened. This type of price crashes in agri commodities are common, for all crops and in all geographies. The most tragic part of the story is the government or the governments have not been able to do anything and bring hope, let alone prosperity to the farmer’s households in all these 60 years of freedom. May be an exception could be the Amul success story. And see what the price the creator paid for his success. Dr.Varghese Kurien, the architect of Amul, was shunted out, unsung and unwept. We wrote, more than once, to higherups, to the President of India to honour Kurien with a Bharat Ratna. It fell on deaf years, as the BJP and later the Congress didn’t anything. May be, Kurien, from Gujarat, a minority man, and the sheer poverty of the leader’s minds all contribute to no new ideas or no new talents flower forth in the Indian soil. Let alone in the Indian farmers’ soil!
Now, there is hope. This time at least, our unthinking or unwilling to think outside their boxes of small cubicles, at least see some humility in their sheer poverty of minds to do something. At least to recognise the ways ahead.
The retail revolution could change things.
Already the ITC led e-choupal offers a universal platform to source farmers produce, be it soyabean, wheat, potatoes, grains and oilseeds from distant villages as well as to distribute products in its portfolios, financial instruments(read farm loans, insurance and health policies) and this is the way ahead. Bharti Airtel’s Fieldfresh, a new player in agri retail has done a good job already. Of course it burnt its fingers in contract farming for one reason or other. Now, instead of contract farming, it has bought directly from farmer’s grapes worth 6.000 tonnes, 300 containers and exported grapes to UK, Holland and Dubai in a big way. This is the way to go. One hopes the company has given back to grape farmers a good price so that grape farming on large scale for exports and for domestic market gets a boost. IT tools can be deployed to their full potential. It industry must rise to their social obligations in enlarging this field of operation by devising instruments that can take care of the entire spectrum of activities, from SHGs to telemedicine to what not.
Other companies like Tatas, MM all do this already, be it for tractors sales to fertiliser sales.
The most important point here is the need for the governments’ role in the new model of dispersed development processes. We have to pass a clear law on contract farming. There must be rights and obligations on the part of the corporate and the farmers as well. The cost of production and the technical help and extension must increasingly pass on into the responsibility of the corporates and the farmers obliged to sell to the corporates at a pres-set price system.
The governments would still have to play a proactive role that is a regulatory authority. Given to the private capitalist players, as history tells us, completely is unwisdom! The word “exploitation”s must be replaced with fairness, airplay and an equal playing field for farmers and the corporates in the contract farming relations. Private capitalism per se had been baleful in its influence on society and polity and much else.
So, we have to devise mechanisms to lay down rules of fairplay, quality services and much else.
There are so many studies by World Bank and other bodies about delivery of public services.
So, it is only important to see what can be done, as a new development model to reorganise agriculture as a viable and profitable and also a fulfilling employment to a vast new generation of farmers communities.
Employment generation through full employment of all rural resources, including the human resources, is the great critical differentiator.
You don’t need a Prof.Mohammad Yunus to tell you what to be done.
There is any number of highly competent individuals outside the government. Please tap the new talents.
Call them all in the service of farmers.
This is where the social and the private good can be balanced and new humane and sensitive economic and socio-political changes can be brought about. This is what is all about agricultural development in the new economy model!
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