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Devinder Sharma on India's Agriculture Crisis

 
 

Agriculture directly and indirectly occupies 70 percent of India’s workforce but comprises only 14 percent of the GDP. Despite this topsy-turvy fiscality, the country’s policymakers have long disdained agriculture as development’s poorer cousin. Nearly three-fourths of a century after independence and the recent emergence of a free-market initiative that replaced the earlier socialist-welfare impulse, farmers lead hardscrabble lives, so debt-ridden that India has a seemingly insurmountable problem unique to it: farmers suicides, ironically usually through one of the causes of debt: pesticides.

The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014 expressly riding an immense wave of support from farmers taken in by the party’s promise to waive farmers’ debts, increase harvest procurement prices, and install middlemen-free farm-to-market mechanisms.

None of this has come to pass. Debts have increased startlingly, harvests of all produce except rice and wheat rot in place because of high imports and a lack of cold-storage facilities, and the government’s untethered free-market policy has resulted in more layers of opportunistic middlemen than ever before.

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Starting June 1, 2018, farmers in 10 states, most of them headed by BJP governments, began a 10-day strike. In an attempt to stem the glut of low-cost imported vegetables and milk products, millions of farmers are dumping produce instead of sending them to market.

We spoke to to food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma, who is known as India’s “Green Chomsky,” to understand the reasons behind this crisis.

Clearly, what agricultural India is facing is its gravest crisis in years. What has brought us to such a pass?

We need to understand that over the past 22 years, more than 330,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. That’s over 12,000 farmers a year [or 33 every day]. While they are reflective of the immensity of the agrarian crisis in India, farmers’ suicides are just one aspect of a multidecadal crisis. If we look at the condition of those [farmers] who are not dying, it is also pathetic.

According to Indian government’s own economic think-tank, NITI Aayog [the three-year-old National Institution for Transforming India, which replaced the hoary 65-year-old Planning Commission], the average income growth of a farming family, in 2011-2016, was only 0.44 percent, which basically means that income for farmers was stagnant [but expenses rose, since, while their income mirrors inflation month-on-month in the same period, food inflation is at 2.8 percent]. If people like us had their incomes frozen for this long, a lot of us would meet the same fate.

Who might be blamed for this: government, environment, farming methodologies…?

It is said that the accumulation of governmental and environmental factors is responsible for this crisis in India. But, in my opinion, the blame rests solely on government: not one particular government, but successive governments. The problem lies not in the farm but outside the farm. Farmers are suffering not because of nature as much as they are suffering because of policy design.

Policy design is what has led to this crisis, because the successive governments have been advised by the World Bank to take 400 million people out of the rural areas to urban areas [to provide labor to industries]. But governments cannot actually force people out. They are, therefore, creating economic conditions that push farmers to abandon agriculture and relocate for survival to the urban areas. No less than Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, had said that the biggest reform would be to move people out of agriculture into urban areas, because the market there needs cheap labor.

This, then, is the economic policy of the country. Agriculture is deliberately being kept impoverished. Agriculture is made to sacrifice itself to keep economic “reform” alive.

The mega problem is that this happening all over the world.

The present government in India says that they will change the fortune of Indian farmers by doubling their income by 2022. Is this even possible?

One needs to, first of all, look at the present income of a farmer, which the government intends to double. The government’s own Economic Survey of India 2016 tells us that the average income of a farmer (or of a farming family) is only 20,000 rupees (roughly $294) a year in 17 states of India, or about half of the country. That means that the monthly income of a farming family — of an average of five members — is less than 1,700 rupees ($25).

I cannot imagine how these people are surviving today. Even if this income were to be doubled, it wouldn’t help the farmers.

What we need today is massive investment in the agriculture sector — and, simultaneously, economic capacity in the hands of farmers. Almost 600 million people in India [or almost double the total population of the U.S.] are involved directly in agriculture. The best way to develop [the country] is to provide more income in the hands of these poor people, because once these people get more money, they will create demand and this is how wheel of development will start moving.

The same economic thinking that has decimated farms all over the Western world is being brought to India. The crisis in agriculture is phenomenal in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, et cetera. In India, it is more visible only because almost half the population here is directly involved in farming.

The central and state governments are accused of reworking the data related to the agrarian crisis in order to maintain a public perception that things have been blown out of proportion and that matters are not irreparable.

There is no denying the fact that the farmers’ suicides data in India is underreported (or filed away as having been caused by factors other than related to farming). Governments try to downplay them for obvious reasons.

My issue with this is that figures are not going to change anything. Do you think that if the number of farmers committing suicide was double that it is today, the government would act? No, it wouldn’t. Unless the economic design [related to farming] is reformed, I don’t see any way out of this crisis.

Many economists and political analysts are accusing the incumbent government of being pro-rich. How is this impacting farmers?

Let’s be very clear. This is not happening only in India: it is part-and-parcel of a faulty and dangerous economic design that the whole world is following. If the wealth of five people (or families) is equal to the earnings of half the world, this means that something is wrong in the way the economic growth model was designed. The sad part is that we have been programmed to believe that there is no way to development except to follow the same model. The World Trade Organization was supposed to bring huge benefits to the world. But where is the benefit? Poverty, hunger, inequality… everything is still out there.

Unfortunately, everything is so well-designed that even if the wealth of five people grows, the world appears to be growing at a phenomenal rate, too. And this is just not the case.

Avinash Giri & Shristi Sinha write for StoriesAsia.

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