Thursday, February 21, 2008

Feeding the farmers

Feeding the farmers

The tragic reversal of roles is the result of national policies that have neglected agriculture and farming in the wake of globalisation, says Devinder Sharma.

January 2003 - Fifty-five years after the Indian farmers pulled out the perpetually hungry millions from the clutches of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, it is now their own turn to be fed. To stave off starvation among the farming community, the Tamilnadu government has launched a free mid-day meal programme for the small and marginal farmers, agricultural labourers and their families.

The tragic and shocking reversal of the role – feeding the farmers who have been feeding the country all these years – is the culmination of national policies that have neglected agriculture and farming in the wake of globalisation and economic liberalization. Tamilnadu’s courageous decision to provide free noon meal to farmers and their families will soon trigger a domino effect, with many more states announcing similar programmes for farmers in distress. After all, denials from the government notwithstanding, more than 10,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1987 in the states of Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even in the frontline agricultural state of Punjab.

For a country, which has 550 million farmers and another 200 million agricultural workers, the cost of faulty economic liberalization has just begun to show. Withdrawing the state support to agriculture and farming, and increasingly leaving farmers at the mercy of the monsoon and the markets, the national policies were in reality being drawn to shift the national resources for the benefit of only the business and industrial houses. Successive governments, since the noted economist Dr Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister made the blunder of buttressing industry at the cost of farming in 1991, have only exacerbated the crisis by moving the scarce resources to bolster the inefficient and corrupt industry. While agriculture continued to be neglected, industry continued to receive tax-holidays, cheaper credit, highly subsidized land, and excise duty relief.

An ungrateful nation ignored agriculture. In fact, the pink newspapers and some pro-liberalisation economists led the assault on farming saying that it is not the poor farmers who needed adequate infrastructure, cheap credit, an assured market, and a remunerative price but the small percentage of rich industrialists, business and trade that needed to be showered with the state exchequer. The result is that while the non-performing assets of the nationalized banks in India grew to Rs 100,000 crore (or Rs 10,00,000 million), with many individual industrialists defaulting the banks to the tune of Rs 500 crore (Rs 5000 million), the recovery of outstanding dues from small and marginal farmers continued to be in the range of 85 per cent. “Tough love”, isn’t it? Tough for the poor and hungry, and love for the rich and the elite!

Agriculture credit became a low priority, with some committees suggesting withdrawl of credit support to farmers. Credit for housing and buying a car is available at 9 to 11 per cent rate of interest while the crop loans to farmers fetch a hefty interest of 17 per cent. In reality, farmers were worse-off with almost 60 per cent of them depending upon the private moneylenders. The more the poverty levels, the more the rate of interest. In the infamous Kalahandi belt of Orissa, better known for hunger and starvation, I know of farmers who receive loans from private money-lenders at a stupendous interest rate of 460 per cent. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the rate of interest varies from 160 per cent to 250 per cent and in Jharkand, tribals in Palamau district pay back at a phenomenal interest rate of 130 percent.

Farmers defaulting the banks and private moneylenders (with petty outstanding dues) were hauled up and put behind the bars. Thousands of the farmers in distress preferred to commit suicide rather than to be faced with humiliation that comes along with indebtedness. On the other hand, the industrialists who defrauded the banks adorn the government committees and even headed the Federation of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

Knowing well that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is aimed at destroying the foundations of food self-sufficiency so assiduously built over the past three decades, the government merrily goes about dismantling the planks of food security and in the process driving millions of farmers from their meager land holdings to head for the urban centers looking for menial jobs. Agriculture instead is being assigned to the corporate and business houses. Government has no money to buy foodgrains from farmers, it’s fiscal deficit grows when farmers demand an increase of Rs 10 in procurement price (hike of Rs 10 means a burden of Rs 100 crore for the government), but doesn’t even flinch an eyelid while allocating Rs 140,000 crore (or Rs 10,40,000 million) for the agri-business industry for the next ten years.

The attack on the Indian peasantry is not only from the WTO but also from the genetic engineering industry, both of which work in close tandem. The entire scientific community (including the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and the bureaucracy at the national and the state levels is being lined up to pave a way for the smooth entry of the genetically modified crops. Very conveniently diverting the national attention from the more pressing crisis afflicting the farming sector, agricultural scientists have joined the orchestrated campaign to bring in the GM crops keeping the country’s growing food need in the year 2030. If only the effort that is being made to bring in the GM crops was directed to distribute the mountains of surplus foodgrains (exceeding 51 million tonnes at present) that rot in the open, a majority of the 320 million hungry people in India could have been adequately fed. If only the wasteful expenditure of US $ 25-50 million that goes into developing one GM crop, which has little or no advantage for farmers but is aimed at bringing more profits for the companies, had been utilized for helping out the farming communities, the country could have laid a strong foundations for an ‘evergreen revolution’.

Tamilnadu’s decision to throw open the free meal centers, which provides lunch to 7.5 million school children, to farmers as well from the auspicious day of ‘pongal’ on January 15, is a loud and clear ‘wake-up’ call. Corporatisation of agriculture, privatization of water, and pushing farmers to face the vagaries of the market, is all aimed at driving out farmers from farming. Ironically, the world’s biggest private enterprise, considering that every fourth farmer is an Indian, is under a threat from privatization. Economic liberalization therefore is aimed at destroying the very foundations of the farming systems thereby paving the way for a corporate takeover of Indian agriculture.

India has come a long way since the days of the ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence. Corporatisation of agriculture coupled with the application of expensive and risky genetic engineering technology is now all set to displace farmers. Food and farming is fast moving into an era of ‘lab-to-mouth’.

Devinder Sharma
January 2003

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap