Originally Published 2015-05-22 00:00:00 Published on May 22, 2015
The government's focus on big ticket investment in irrigation projects without caring for its impact on production capacity defeats the very purpose of investing in agriculture projects. There is a need for monumental policy shift to fight the agrarian crisis
Money Flushed Down the Irrigation Canal
As politicians cash in on the ubiquitous debate on the land acquisition bill as well as the issue of farmers' suicide, the agrarian crisis in this country continues to engulf lives of the toiling. Although the economic contribution of agriculture and allied activities to India's gross domestic product has been dwindling over the years, coming down to only 19 per cent now, a whopping 58 percent of India's population is still engaged in this sector.

With a growth rate of a meagre 1.1 percent, the agricultural sector's performance is bitterly disappointing. The sector is important as its ability to absorb the rural workforce has been unremitting in proportion to its contribution to the GDP over the years.

There has emerged an apparent income disparity between the agricultural sector and the non agricultural sector. The transfer of workforce from the agricultural to the manufacturing sector does not seem feasible as it would be capital intensive or less attainable sans technical support facilitation. Transfer to the service sector is also not quite easy for a rural populace with limited or no formal education.

There is also large-scale migration of rural workers to urban areas where they engage as daily-wage labourers. This is coupled with the disquieting rate of farm owners turning into farm workers due to their inability to sustain themselves on shrinking farms.

In the rural areas, where an estimated 80 percent of those engaged in farming are small and marginal farmers, survival of farmers with small land holdings seems bleak as the return on investment veers in favour of large farm owners.

The dawdling growth rate of the agricultural sector is attributed to the deficiency of public investment. The Union Government has mostly invested in large irrigation projects to offset the dependence on monsoons. However, there has been considerable disparity in the facilitation of irrigation, as a result of which farmers still continue to suffer. The Government's focus on profit-incurring farming zones, such as the Green Revolution belt, has also resulted in the marginalisation of drought-prone areas.

Another problem has been that the Government is only concerned with the magnanimity of the investment (in irrigation projects) without caring for its impact on production capacity. This defeats the very purpose of investing in agriculture projects in the first place. Remember that without associated aid, such as access to pesticides, seeds and fertilisers, agri-maladies will remain unresolved.

Inadequate maintenance and poor distribution of irrigation systems have also added to the complexities. On the other hand, groundwater irrigation is easily accessed by farmers who are better-off. This further deepens economic and social disparities and makes life miserable for small farmers.

India's productivity of crop yields per hectare is also mostly low as compared to global standards. Only in the case of a few selected crops, like wheat, is the yield comparable. In other words, the Green Revolution made wheat a safe bet for farmers, but the risks associated with other crops remain unabated.

Proof of this lied in the recently failed cotton crops and last year's soybean crop failure in Maharashtra. It is amply clear that without any monumental policy shift, the agricultural sector shall remain a death knell for the financially weaker farmers — for many of whom opting out of the sector is not an option either.

Problems of equity need to be resolved and better irrigation coverage across the country must be made a priority. The minimum support price is to be regulated for all crops — not just wheat and rice.

To support small land-owning farmers, a price stabilisation mechanism, to fight market volatility, is to be ensured. Institutional credits through priority sector lending should be facilitated. Without serious policy changes, the number of farmers committing suicides shall keep escalating, and amidst the political commotion, their meek voices shall be subdued.

(The writer is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in Kolkata)

Courtesy: (The Pioneer) 22 May, 2015.
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