India’s Farm Distress: Priority and a Challenge for the New Government
Manjari Balu May 30, 2019/Analysis
A deliberate campaigning strategy of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yielded an expected victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The election season had sparked off many appealing promises; one of them pertains to, agriculture, the most critical sector of the Indian economy. The agriculture sector contributes to 12.2 % of the GDP (it has fallen from 17.6% in 2004-05 to 12.2% in 2016-17) for the year 2017-2018 and roughly employs 50 % of the total workforce. The agrarian structure continues to suffer while political parties competed on the delusory promises during the campaigns. NDA government with a special focus on agrarian society has branded its promise to double each marginal farmer’s income by 2022. A pedestrian cash transferscheme has been propelled during the interim budget to provide INR 6000 (per year) to all the marginal farmers who hold less than 2 hectares of land. A valid scepticism about the promise stems out of the fact that there exist an unavailability of data about the farmers’ income and all the political parties refuse to talk about the farmers’ current income. Cash transfer scheme being an attempt to mollify the accumulated antipathy among the public especially farming community has to be scrutinized and put under the radar for substantial discussion.
Agriculture Distress and the Marginal Farmer
According to last published NSSO figures for the years 2012-13, farmers’ income averaged out to INR 6,424. Extrapolating the past data to arrive at the 2018-19 income using Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) to the nominal gross value added components of agriculture, cash transfer of 6000 would account for merely 6 % of the total farmers’ income. The Chief Economic Advisor claimed that the annual transfer to marginal farmers would be 17 %, an assertion backed with no clarification. The nebulous methodology to estimate income seems to question the effectiveness of such a policy instrument to address the perennial agricultural distress.
The agrarian economy has been volatile over the past few years and the well-being of the farmers have always been the litmus test to review the performance of the sector. Around 87 % of the farmers are small and marginal farmers with less than 2 hectares of land holding, this figure seems to be swelling- indicating an objective failure of the land consolidation reforms in the past few years.
There is a steady decline in the population engaged in agriculture to the total percentage of employment since the beginning of the independence. Displacement of agriculture labours to other sectors is inevitable if there is a gradual policy shift to mechanization of agriculture and capital formation, the eventual effect of the investment is ought to be reflected in the productivity. But between the years 2011 and 2015, agriculture workforce declined by 12.6 million, and the labour force increased by 14 million but total employmentin the economy increased only by 12 million. The incongruity in the figures proves the inability of the nonfarm sector to absorb residual workers out of work. Further, it is erroneous to premise the out of work farm labourers as an ultimate result of only innovation in agriculture. Status of unemployment has to be confessed and measures to provide employment has to be prioritized. It is apparent that the incumbent administration is resorting to the same banal and anodyne prescriptions that preceded it in its attempt to curry favour with the agricultural voter base, which had been promised employment during the 2014 election.
The incessant crisis is evident from the past records of famers’ suicide data published by National Crime Records Bureau; however, the report faces severe criticisms for underreporting deaths. Though there are various socio psychological reasons for suicides, indebtedness has been considered the primary cause of death. A mere addition of cash transfer might marginally ameliorate farmers’ debts but heavy dependence on informal credit system requires the government to resolve the gaps in current credit system.
Policy Challenge – Dealing with the Debt Problem
The Debt Asset Ratio (DAR) indicates the quantum of indebtedness among farmers, since 1990 the ratio has increased at an astounding rate of 630 % in 2013. One commonly posited explanation for the skyrocketing DAR is the excessive informal borrowings by the farmers while the asset value remains stagnant. The perpetual ignorance by the government to address the structural issues over decades pushed the farmers to demonstrate a protest and subsequently resulted in the electoral setbacks of BJP post the protest.
The apprehension is beyond agricultural and institutional policies, food inflation rates have fallen from 12.9 percent from 2013-14 to 0.13 percent in 2018. Even though the low inflation rates benefit the consumers in general- it would also imply the low food prices would be way below the input costs and return on private investment would be less if not non-existent. Government’s efforts have had little effect on keeping the inflation at a steady rate; the extreme movements of the inflation rates exacerbated the condition of the agrarian economy. The Government has announced to fix Minimum Support Price (MSP) at 50 % above the cost of production as per the recommendation of agricultural scientist Dr.Swaminathan. However, the recent protest placed a demand to change the method of arriving at the MSP figure. Pseudo free market behaviour from the government side has altered the market structure and mostly worked against the welfare of the marginal farmers. While the APMC (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee) controls the MSP, the small farmers are expected to reach out to the market with a higher transaction cost and end up with much lower revenue. The state has failed to acknowledge the governance failure and continues to place MSP in an equivocal position in every budget. Cash transfers schemes have been placed in the budget with a similar ambiguity in terms of its impact on agricultural productivity and growth. There is a paucity of literature that provides a lucid explanation for execution of cash transfer. A recent study conducted in the rural parts of poor Indian states with 3,800 samples concluded that only 13% of the respondents preferred cash transfer over public health care facilities. Though it is not as same as providing cash transfer to farmers, similar schemes in the past have failed to create a sanguine impression and has made the beneficiaries dubious about such ambitious policies. The sample is also not a true representation of the agrarian community, sector which has been victimized for decades and would vote for short term benefits that risks stagnant productivity and falling workforce.
The Paradox of Indian Agriculture
Indian agriculture faces many challenges and is a paradox. India has the second largest area of 159 million hectares in the world as arable land, next only to the United States. India is the second largest producer of Rice, Wheat, fruits and vegetables. India is the largest producer of bananas and mangoes. Export of agricultural products have ben growing at over 4% year on year. Despite all this there has been great volatility in agricultural economy over the last decade. Growth has been uneven, marginal farmers find farming becoming very uneconomical, and there has been significant decline in marginal farm holdings from 2.27 hectares in 2002 to 1.07 hectares in 2015. While big farmers have sustained themselves well, it is the marginal farmers who have continued to face increasing stress. While many encouraging policies and financial support schemes have been announced, in reality the implementation has been ineffective if not shoddy. Most planned investments and financial assistance have not reached the desired target populace.
Investment in agriculture GDP has declined from 3.3 % in 1980-81 to 2.9 % in 2013-2014 while the subsidies on fertilizers has increased by 15 times in the same time frame after adjusting to inflation. Fertilizers subsidy accounts to 47 % of the total subsidy in the budget for the year 2017-2018 and amounts to almost Rs.70,000 crore. Shenggen Fan and Ashok Gulati in their landmark studyto compare relative benefits of investments versus subsidies used a well-established statistical method ‘multi-equation system’. For every 10 lakh invested in agriculture pulled 328 people out of poverty and every one rupee spent on Research & Development increased the agriculture GDP by Rs11.20. The study also suggests that the inefficient input subsidies have actually been more counterproductive by hindering new investments and choking agriculture growth. Member of NITI Aayog and a renowned agronomist, Ramesh Chand had commented that research and development spend in India is not far behind China, a statement that calls for a reality check. For two decades India’s R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has been around 0.6 % while China spends around 2.1 % and Israel with the highest percentage if 4.2%. In absolute terms India invests 5 times lower than China and Israel. An effort on research & development is rather ostensible given less attention in the budget allocation.
Conclusion : Need for Effective Policy Actions
There is a conspicuous need for the government to assess the impact of cash transfer to farmers as a policy with various dimensions. The extent to which it can reconcile the distress in farming sector has to be scientifically proved to justify the quantum of investment for execution. Heavily subsidized agriculture and loan waiver always helped with political victory but the fundamental crisis has been unceasing. Even an elementary study on trends in agriculture seems to highlight that it requires prompt moves and strong long term goals. Policies’ pertaining to agriculture has to be a parcel of broader strategies. Tactics of transferring cash with minimal sanction from experts reserves its place only as a political expediency.
Marginal farmers and fragmented landholdings are the bottlenecks that prevent effective modernisation of Indian agriculture. The government will need to play a major role in evolving policies that create inclusive solutions to overcome the problems of marginal farmers. Agriculture in India continues to be in the grips of manual and subsistence farming without farm mechanisation or technological inputs. Average landholdings have shrunk from 2.28 hectares in 1970 to 1.08 hectare in 2015 (NABARD). Promoting cooperative farming will allow small and marginal farmers to take advantage of their family labour. Corporate farming, meanwhile, could allow economies of scale to kick in at lower thresholds.
Yet again, hollow electioneering masquerades as policy with the advent of the great festival of democracy. Now that the new government is in power, it is time that agriculture is given the due attention it deserves with a long-term strategy to resolve the problems of marginal farmers, fragmented land holdings, and the urgent need for rapid modernisation of agriculture and a national policy on water resources management.
Manjari Balu is a Research Analyst at ‘The Peninsula Foundation”. She holds a degree in economics. Opinions expressed are the author’s own.