The annual Union Budget is a powerful indicator of the priorities of the government in power, and after this Budget presentation it is clear to all but the very partisan that the Narendra Modi Cabinet is clearly pro-urban and pro-corporate India. Everything in this budget is based around benefits and growth for the corporate and urban elite (like me, and you reading this), in the expectation that trickle down will work. Agriculture, rural India, peasant, landless laborer – these are out of sight of the ruling elite, and out of mind.
Himanshu is a professor at JNU, and he wrote this after the recent Arun Jaitley budget: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/M7mdRJTnquTSDBm9c69J0N/Budget-fails-to-factor-in-the-challenges-to-revive-rural-eco.html If he is too radical for you (considering he is from JNU), then please read Ashok Gulati a Professor at ICRIER and a former Chairman of the Union Government’s agricultural pricing commission http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/silence-on-the-farm/.
These two academics are a part of a murmur of dissenting voices that are increasingly critical of this Government’s neglect of agriculture, and of issues of grave import to the majority of India that continues to live in the rural areas. However, the neglect of agriculture by all post Independence governments and urban elites (other than the brief interregnum of the Janata Party from 1977 to 1979) is a secular trend and the BJP is just an exemplary and current representative of this deeply entrenched Cities First worldview.
Profitability continues to decline in farming and our already miniscule farms continue to fragment, a land far away from our comfortable Parliament and pashmina-a-day Arun Jaitley – “Agricultural Census data shows that there were about 121 million agricultural holdings in India in 2000-01. Around 99 million were small and marginal farmers. Average size has declined from 2.3 ha. In 1970-71 to 1.37 ha. In 2000-2001”. http://www.igidr.ac.in/pdf/publication/WP-2012-014.pdf.
Farm size in the USA is a stark contrast, ” In 2012, the average farm size was 434 acres. This was a 3.8 percent increase over 2007, when the average farm was 418 acres.” http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Preliminary_Report/Highlights.pdf.
In India … “The average size of operational land holdings has reduced by half from 2.28 ha in 1970-71 to 1.16 ha in 2010-11. Consequently, the number of land holdings in the marginal and small categories have swelled by 56 million and 11 million respectively, during the same period ……… Small (1 to 2 ha.) and marginal holdings (less than 1 ha.) together, constitute 85 per cent in terms of number of operational holdings and 44 per cent of the operated area in the country. Thus, over the period, the marginal category has emerged as a distinct and dominant class by itself with its average size dwindling to a mere 0.38 ha.” https://www.nabard.org/Publication/Rural_Pulse_final142014.pdf
Prices of farmers produce stagnates (in 2014, the BJP government allowed one of the smallest increases in agricultural prices in a decade), input prices continue to increase and profitabilty declines, weather becomes even more erratic and the risk continues to be borne by the increasingly impoverished peasant, and uncontrolled chemical fertilizer and pesticide that cause massive – even irreversible – harm to humans and the environment remains central to farming in the rice and wheat bowls of India. In short, the farmer buckles under the weight of unequal terms of trade versus his urban entrepreneur while the ways of modern ‘scientific’ agriculture and the mostly parasitic and urban rooted agricultural bureaucracy continue to viciously undermine the efforts of chemical free farming as they poison our soil, air and food. The added player in this potent mix is the global farming conglomerate and Indian corporations looking for profits through this very same chemical intensive farming, hybrid and GMO seeds and fossil fuel based mechanization.
This is not another tilting at the capitalists, but a sober look at reality of the lives of marginal and small farmers (defined above as those with less than 5 acres of land) after having organically farmed with intellectual and time intensity for 3 years on land that is slightly more than 2 hectares or at the higher end of the small and marginal farmers who constitute the vast majority (84%) of holdings : http://www.amanbagh.wordpress.com . I’m financially well-off and do not depend on my farm for my livelihood; and I farm (organically, using the ways of my ancestors) to provide pure and healthy food for my family and friends; and as a proof of concept that traditional methods can be self sustainable and financially viable.
My experiment with truth after three years is bitter sweet – my family and the occasional friend now eats healthy cereals, lentils and vegetables grown organically under my watch; but it is also clear to me that a peasant on 5 acres can at best break even – using either chemical or organic methods. No savings, no luxuries, no consumer goods. Just subsistence. The land holding is the critical factor, not the method – the production difference between these two methods is clearly not significant, especially after I factor in the many benefits that accrue to society from farming without chemicals.
We call this the ‘Life Cycle Cost of Ownership’ in business management and what that means is that the cost of he HP laser jet printing is not just the cost of the printer and the paper, but the ink cartridge over the life of the period you hold the printer – no wonder HP makes billions for the innocuous cartridge, and you and I feel we won by buying a ‘cheap’ printer. Similarly, the poisoning of our water bodies by pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; the increasing use of groundwater for crops that need more water and more fertilizer; the dead soil generated after decades of application of enormous quantities of chemical fertilizers that kills all macrobiotic life; the use of polluting diesel for intensive and mechanized farming using tractors and combine harvesters – all these have rupee costs that end up in the count of families in villages who have modern lifestyle diseases including cancer. It would be an interesting system study to calculate the immediate benefits in terms of increase of production through fertilizers, hybrid seeds and pesticides Versus the long term costs to society as I have enumerated above.
One practical solution, especially as agriculture is a state subject, is for every Indian state to commit that 10% of their land goes organic in 5 years – and will double every ten years. The government owes the people pure water, land and air; it is without doubt financially viable if you calculate the full life cycle cost. I attended the 5th National Organic Farming Convention (http://organicconvention.in/) held in Chandigarh from 28 Feb to 2 March 2015, the Haryana CM stated he would do some of this, but I wonder if he really will. This means setting up extensive organic farming education and extension services that reach the farmers to parallel the chemical farming bureaucracy; desi cow and bull breeding and use programs and incentives; an effective traditional and alternative medicine veterinary extension service to dairy farmers; a widespread gobar gas plant construction program; an organic fertilizer and pest repellant industry; free range chicken development program; solar power use in agriculture; a vibrant and quality desi seed production industry and a host of other methods that support the farmer in re-applying the ways of his ancestors that are enriched by traditional methods from across India and by modern technology that support nature.
As usual, all of this can all be done as people much more knowledgeable than me have the policy answers – all it needs is a leader with an alternate and long term vision of development, a team that believes in him, and the will as well as the political ability to consistently execute.
Exhale, don’t hold your breath. Mr. Modi, Mr. Jaitley or Mr Khattar are most probably not the answer. They look to Adani and Ambani, not to Agriculture.