Pamper the farmers, make them rich : The Tribune India


Pamper the farmers, make them rich

The irony of Indian farming is the fear of a bumper crop and the apathy of a penny-pinching govt

Pamper the farmers, make them rich

RUTHLESS: It is easy to beat up protesting farmers and clear the National Highway. Tribune photo

Rajesh Ramachandran

THIS year marks the 80th anniversary of the 1943 Famine, or Churchill’s Secret War, as Madhusree Mukerjee called it in her book by that name. But for her brilliant exposé of the Bengal holocaust, there aren’t many contemporary studies done to understand the Indian agrarian and market conditions that can still lead to a famine and a broken economy in the context of the lessons learnt from the British policies that starved to death over 30 lakh people. Every time farmers block National Highway-44, Indian politicians need to have a closer relook at Churchill’s famine to understand that the policies which imperil producers and boost profiteering will ultimately starve an entire population.

Indian politicians need to understand that the policies which imperil producers and boost profiteering will ultimately starve an entire population.

On Tuesday, farmer leaders blocked the road at Shahabad near Kurukshetra against the Haryana government’s refusal to procure sunflower seeds at the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 6,400 per quintal. Earlier, the mustard crop had met a similar fate. It was being bought by private traders at

Rs 4,400 per quintal against the MSP of Rs 5,450. When farmers wilt in the heat of official apathy after a bumper crop, they get sapped of the will to continue. Farming is not a profession of choice. Take a detour from NH44 into the countryside and what welcomes a visitor are hoardings advertising courses that enable an escape into the First World. The governmental policies seem to push even the last standing farmer off his farmland.

India is the world’s biggest edible oil importer, spending $20 billion on it annually. So, a government that talks incessantly about atmanirbharta ought to have a policy that would help India dictate the global prices of oilseeds and edible oils. However, India ends up importing the alien palm or soybean oil instead of promoting its native oilseeds and enriching its oilseed farmers. The import policy eventually only helps the importer and the edible oil marketing companies. Sure, the price of imported edible oil was just half of the Indian domestic price and the imports helped ease food inflation by bringing down cooking oil prices. But at what cost?

The farmers who had substantially increased the area under oilseed cultivation in view of last year’s price will be hesitant to do it this time after getting beaten up by the police at Shahabad. The shrinkage of the area under oilseed cultivation is great news for international oil traders and domestic sellers, who will make a killing again when Indian prices go up. And if the next crop fails for some reason, the prices will skyrocket, creating a political situation that would force more and more imports, thus maximising the traders’ and sellers’ profits. The solution is obviously remunerative prices for Indian farmers, and an efficient supply chain from their farm gate to the factory to retail outlets, eschewing humongous corporate profits.

Oilseeds have declared MSPs, yet even the rare state government that procures such crops hesitates to pay these prices as if it is some local trader haggling with the hapless farmer. If the Centre has declared an MSP and the state government is indeed buying that particular crop, the latter has to pay it outright. Otherwise, the MSP becomes meaningless, forcing the crisis-hit farmer to start a needless protest. In fact, even the concept of the MSP is getting turned on its head; instead of being the rock-bottom insurance against avoidable misery for the farmer, the MSP is being held out as if it is some unachievable Maximum Luxury Price.

If this is the case with oilseed farmers, vegetable growers’ plight is worse. During the initial days of last month’s capsicum harvest in Punjab, the crop was being sold for Rs 3 per kg, and that too when the market price being charged by retail outlets/pushcart vendors was Rs 40. Within this wide price band is what’s lost for the farmer and the consumer. This is largely the story of Indian farming all across the country. Farmers often do not even get to recover the cost of the crop, let alone the money spent on transporting their produce to the mandis, forcing many of them to plough it back into the fields. It is sad to note that Indian farmers ought to be scared of a plentiful harvest. All the talk of cold storage makes no sense because vegetable farmers simply cannot afford to keep their harvest stored. Policy planners seem to have made cold storage out of an average vegetable grower’s reach.

The case of green chillies was no different this season, forcing Ferozepur farmer Balwinder Singh to form a local chilli collective offering better prices in his neighbourhood. His ambition is to start a processing plant as part of the collective’s effort. Just over a week ago, the Union government announced an investment of Rs 1 lakh crore to boost storage, and that too in the cooperative sector. The country badly needs post-harvest infrastructure for all crops, not just foodgrains. Even in the case of foodgrains, this newspaper had reported in late April that 55.47 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) out of 88 LMT of wheat procured till then in Punjab was lying in the open. Wheat worth Rs 6 crore lying rotten for two years is now getting auctioned off in Haryana.

It is easy to beat up protesting farmers and clear the NH. Yes, everybody has the right to travel on the fast lanes of prosperity. But the first condition for building these fast lanes of progress is food security, the most vital aspect of national security. It cannot be treated in a penny-pinching cavalier manner with a government saying that it would pay a few hundred rupees less than the MSP or that it will enter the market only after the last impoverished farmer has made a distress sale. Pamper the farmers, make them rich and they would in turn build the new India.

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