The agrarian crisis in the country, especially in Punjab, is deepening with each passing year. This is reflected in the majority of unviable holdings, nearly 95 per cent in India and 32 (marginal and small) in Punjab. Such farmers fall into the debt trap if they do not have supplementary sources of income. The non-viability of farming on small or marginal holdings is made worse by the mechanisation of farm operations on custom-hiring basis, replacing family labour; increasing use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides; and the purchase of costly seeds, especially from private companies. Deteriorating soil health, depleting water table and unseasonal rainfall due to climate change are also contributing to this process.
In Punjab, a large number of committees appointed by the state government, individual scholars, Punjab Agricultural University, Agriculture Department and the State Farmers Commission have recommended that farmers must resort to crop diversification and adopt cultivation of crops which are less water consuming, such as short-duration varieties of rice, pulses, oil seeds, vegetables, fruits, fodder, sugarcane, etc. This has been suggested to save the depleting ground water and also to increase the income of the farming community.
To meet the twin objectives of saving water and increasing income, new crops or new varieties of traditional crops have been recommended. To encourage sugarcane, several sugar mills, both in the cooperative and private sector, were set up in Punjab. The price of sugarcane was fixed by the state government, but a crisis was triggered in the industry when sugar prices fell and the mills started withholding payments to farmers. Around Rs 600 crore worth of payments was pending in Punjab and no one in the government bothered for a long time to get the payments released to farmers. Payments are still pending in the case of private sugar mills. It was only after the farmers resorted to blocking roads and railway tracks that the government woke up to the crisis to make the payments, but without the interest for the period of delay in the payments.
Similarly, farmers were advised that they should grow the PB 1509 variety of rice, a short-duration crop, sown on or after June 15, which matures in 90 days. The variety fetched the farmers Rs 3,500 per quintal last year and also saved ground water. This year, the crop started arriving in the market on September 15 and prices fell to Rs 900-1,000 per quintal, but no one in the government took note for 15 days. It was only on October 2 that the state government announced that it would buy this variety of paddy at Rs 1,450 per quintal, same as the MSP for the ordinary variety of rice. The PB 1509 rice is considered by farmers to be basmati, and it gives a much lower yield than the ordinary variety. At a price of Rs 1,450 per quintal, it would hardly cover the cost of cultivation. Even to get this lower price, the farmers had to resort to rail and road blocks and dharnas at various places for a number of days.
The story of the failure of the cotton crop is well known. Farmers continue to struggle for fair compensation for crop failure after they suffered damage from hailstorm and unseasonal rainfall in March and April, which caused considerable crop loss. The issue of fair compensation for crop loss and its timely release has remained unresolved. The government wakes up late and decides on the compensation amount arbitrarily, without sticking to any standard for fair assessment and valuation.
The ad hoc decisions in all these issues are aimed at defusing the immediate anger in the farming community, without resolving the larger agrarian crisis.
Any acceptable and sensible design for addressing the challenge of making agriculture environmentally sustainable must include a fair package of practices. This includes suggesting new crops or new varieties of old crops, which is done by PAU. These crops have to be supported by minimum support prices and an arrangement for their procurement at the MSP has to be made when the produce arrives in the market. This basic protocol is not being observed by the government.
Timely and quick payment not only creates confidence among farmers but ensures the success of a new cropping pattern. Without such a package, crop diversification, ensuring ecologically sustainable agriculture, is not possible. As agriculture has become highly commercial and investment intensive, it is necessary to insulate the farmers from the risks of weather-related hazards and pest attacks. This can be done by putting in place an insurance mechanism which provides adequate compensation to the farmers in case of crop failure on account of natural calamities. The compensation to the farmers has to be adequate, covering the total cost of production, including all variable costs, as well as rent of the land. The insurance cost can be paid by the state by imposing a cess on the procurement price paid by the buyers.
The present system of taking an accounting block as a unit for crop compensation assessment needs to be changed to considering individual cultivators. Without comprehensive producer-based crop damage insurance mechanism, and the above suggested package of practices based on the principle of general support to farmers and farming, the existing agrarian crisis will deepen further. This can lead to tensions in society and pains for the farming community, as well as suicides in the rural areas.
It is high time the powers that be at the state and national levels woke up to the deepening crisis and took up the issue with seriousness.
The rate of compensation for damaged crops (both wheat and cotton) and MSP for the PB 1509 variety of rice was not based on any principle. It was arbitrarily decided to defuse the agitation. The same was the case with arranging payments for sugarcane growers in Punjab, which had been pending for more than two years.
There is a need to put a principle-based support system for agriculture and farmers. It must include three components: (i) Principle-based steps for dealing with emergencies like crop failure, (ii) Medium-term measures to solve problems like the introduction of a new cropping pattern, and (iii) Long-term measures to mitigate adverse effects of climate change, depleting water table and soil degradation.
The way impending climate change is likely to affect North-West India in the absence of a comprehensive policy design (on the pattern of industry and trade) is going to threaten not only food security but also the well-being of a large population directly dependent on farming in the country.
The writer is a Professor at CRRID, Chandigarh.
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