The recently declared Farmers Policy of the central government came up for strong criticism from all sides during a seminar held on 9-10 February in Mumbai. Speakers from various fields - policy makers, bureaucrats, social workers, farmers, journalists, activists and researchers - opined that the policy failed to address some of the main challenges before Indian farmers at this point of time. Focus On Global South, an NGO, organised the event.
Speakers criticized the misplaced policy emphases on reducing people's dependence on agriculture and encouraging corporate farming, and demanded that farmers be given direct income support apart from loan relief and revival of indigenous and sustainable farming practices should receive subsidy support from the government. Speakers also condemned government policy which allowed large scale transfer of agricultural land to corporates in the name of development.
Dr Avinash Shirke addressing. Afsar Jafri and Dr V Gandhimati on the dias. Pic: Aparna Pallavi.
Apart from policy issues, speakers also emphasized that policy or no policy, farmers in the country will have to find their own ways to survive and also to find their way back to sustainable and farmer-friendly farming practices destroyed by mechanisation and modernization of farming.
Removing people from land: But how?
The first point on which the policy came for severe criticism is its unashamed emphasis on moving people out of the agriculture sector in the name of reducing dependency on agriculture. Speakers opined that such a leaning simply showed that the government was playing into the hands of financial manipulators like the World Bank, who wish to destroy India's agriculture.
Said former finance secretary and convener of the Indian People's Campaign Against WTO, S P Shukla, "The policy does not even talk about the 10,00,000 hectares of land that is being transferred for non-agriculture purposes every decade. It does not talk about the suicides happening in the farming community as a result of land loss. Instead, it talks about shifting a 240 million strong work-force to urban sectors, which at the present rural to urban migration rate of 6 lakh people per year, will take 384 years. You call that planning?" Shukla was finance secretary during prime minister V P Singh's tenure and commerce secretary during prime minister Chandra Shekhar's tenure.
Economist Jaya Mehta pointed out that while the policy did talk about moving people out of agriculture, it did not specify as to where these people were to be moved. "Where can you rehabilitate 59 per cent of the population?" said she, "Given the growing unprofitability of farming, would these people not have moved out on their own if there were space for them to move out at all?"
Going west, but half way
While speakers unanimously slammed the government for its relentless 'go west' policy, which encouraged chemical-intensive and unsustainable farming practices, causing permanent damage to Indian soils and natural resources, they also argued that if the government is still committed to this model of agriculture, they should not just take half-measures, but go the whole way by also providing sufficient farm subsidies and direct income support - which is now the done thing in the West.
"Whenever the issue of financial relief to farmers is brought up, politicians think only in terms of loan relief," said N D Patil, leader of the Shetkari Kamgar Paksha, "Why don't they talk about production-cost based price? In the US, they pay farmers compensation for even leaving their lands fallow, so why, in India should farmers not be paid for the work of producing food for the people and inputs for industry?"
R L Pitale, former member of the National Farmers Commission, said that even a small amount like Rs.25 per farmer household per day would go a long way in ensuring financial stability and prevent extreme reactions like suicides.
Most speakers, however, felt that the direct income support option should be used to encourage farmers to return to sustainable farm practices. Pitale pointed out that in the UK, 33 lakh hectares of land were brought back under organic farming by providing direct income support to farmers continuously for three years.
"Enriching the land, generating fertile soil, regenerating natural soil fauna, conserving natural resources, harnessing surface water, conserving indigenous seed, and other practices related to sustainable farming are not just farming practices, but also important jobs that add to the country's assets. Why should farmers not be paid a salary for performing this all important work?" demanded Balkrishna Renake, chairman of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic tribes.
Devinder Sharma, even while pointing out the need for direct income support, made it clear that such support being provided to farmers in the USA simply showed that the mechanised and chemical input-intensive agricultural model is a failure, and the long-term solution lies in returning to indigenous farming practices.
Subhash Lombte, activist of Rashtriya Gramin Shekkari Shetmajoor Abhiyan, opined that the Employment Guarantee provisions can be used to provide support to the entire agricultural economy. "If rural labourers are paid under NREGA for working on farmers' lands, both farmers and labourers will benefit and the entire farm economy will be revived. Lombte also suggested that a demand should be made with the Maharashtra government to provide Rs.1,000 subsidy per acre to farmers for planting jowar, the staple millet. He said that with the rise in acreage under jowar, which also yields good quality fodder, farmers will be able to add to their cattle wealth and go for organic farming.
Corporate farming under the lens
The policy emphasis on corporate farming came under unanimous and severe attack from all sides. Speakers literally tore the official argument that corporate farming will benefit farmers to pieces with piercing logic.
Jaya Mehta pointed out that the new policy is structured in such a way that it leaves no space for "Even a word about corporate non-interference in agriculture". Not just the agriculture policy but the entire economic policy of the country is corporate-favourable. Exploding the myth that the presence of corporates will eliminate the middlemen between farmers and consumers, she said, "The corporates themselves are the biggest middlemen, and all corporate intervension will amount to is that these big middlemen will devour the smaller ones."
Jaya also described in detail the various ways in which corporate intervension has added to farmers' woes and increased their exploitation. An example she gave was of how small farmers were excluded from the procurement process. Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), for instance, has weighing technology in which they weigh the entire truck full of grain and then the empty truck. If a farmer does not have one truck full of grain he can't sell. Farmers can't even do it collectively, because the variety of the grain differs. And even big farmers often have to suffer losses in transport expenses if the company rejects their grain under some criteria of their own.
Afsar Jafri, agricultural researcher associated with Focus on Global South, gave an example of how 'successful' corporate-farmer partnerships work - BT cotton seed producing farmers in Andhra Pradesh were paid Rs.250 per kg for the seed by the company, which went on to sell the same seed for Rs.1,650 for 450 grams. "This shows who really benefits from such 'successful' collaborations," said he.
Shukla said that while the government's policy contains a lot of sloganeering about protecting farmers' interests, all the practical measures that it comes up with go in favour of corporates rather than farmers.
How to survive in spite of policy
One of the crucial insights arrived at during the seminar was that policy or no policy, farmers will have to learn to survive in a sustainable manner on their own. Policy support, said Professor V Gandhimati of the Tata School of Rural Development, can be a trap. "Ultimately, the responsibility to survive somehow, despite whatever policy might do to them, falls on the shoulders of the farmers themselves. Expecting too much from policy, and then falling apart when that does not happen, is becoming a vicious circle from which farmers need to extricate themselves.
In this context, several case studies on farmers who have successfully revived their indigenous practices and broken through the debt trap were presented.
Balkrishna Renake pointed out the case of three illiterate nomadic women in Solapur district of Maharashtra, who, after three years of intensive natural farming, are earning an annual income of Rs.40,000 each from just 10 gunthas (0.1 acre) of land each.
Dr Avinash Shirke of Social Work College of Yavatmal, said that technology and inputs have to be integrated with farming practices in such a way that farmers can use them in their own way, without either government support or help from input dealers. "We see that all state support, efficient or not, gets politicised, with benefits going to those who are politically strong. At this rate, no amount of policy reform will reach the poorest of the poor farmers. The only way out for these people is barefoot technology which farmers can carry out themselves with no outside help."