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March 20, 2008

It's time to think outside the box about Indian agriculture

by M Rajivlochan

The government's mantra of trying to make farmers' distress go away by spending more money does not seem to work. The earlier amount of Rs 3,750 crore spent in Vidarbha did little to reduce farmers' woes. The present loan waiver of Rs 60,000 crore is bound to go the same way unless we equip our farmers with skills to deal with a globalised world.

The time has come to think out of the box and make use of the large mass of small and marginal farmers to rejuvenate our agriculture sector. Over 114 million of India's 127 million farmers operate small farms. The majority of these farmers is into dry-land farming and work as labourers on the side. Many have some skills in agriculture but not enough to enable them to move away from the production of low value cereals and pulses to other high value agri-products.

There are three further constraints: most farmers have little idea of how to tap the market, there are virtually no facilities available for storing perishable commodities and they have little access to improved farm technology and knowledge.

A successful farmer needs to have considerable knowledge of "sunrise" crops, seed varieties, crop rotation cycles and appropriate farming techniques. In these days of the internet, the urban consumer takes availability of information for granted. Television, newspapers and magazines all educate the city dweller on things pertinent to urban living. There are no comparable sources of information for the farmer.

The 59th NSSO survey states that the farmer is mostly dependent on informal and often unreliable sources of information. Only 18 per cent of the farmers across the country were aware of things like bio-fertilisers. Only 8 per cent were aware of the WTO, 29 per cent knew about the mini-mum support price, a mere 5 per cent were members of self-help groups while 71 per cent did not belong to any cooperative.

Contrary to what many doomsayers predict, the entrance of MNCs might help the farmer. Minimally these companies would lessen the stranglehold that middlemen have on the agriculture marketing system in India at present. Involvement of private capital in infrastructure development, whether it is storage facilities, market yards, roads and agri-processing units is both possible and desirable.

But the use of such agencies for large-scale contract farming in the hope that they will then make the necessary effort to upgrade the skills of the farmer and thereby obviate the need for public investment in extension and research is likely to produce a cure worse than the malaise.

The very quality that guarantees the efficiency of business — the need to make a profit — also means that due safeguards need to be put in place. The misuse of fertilisers, pesticides and other agricultural inputs in large parts of the country should be sufficient to alert us to the dangers of unregulated private enterprise.

In the present case, all that the government really needs to do is to provide the farmer with agriculture extension services, improved marketing infrastructure and better health services. Privatisation of these services would ensure that the farmer remains in no position to profit from global economic processes. Selling off a loss-making PSU is a very different proposition from privatising health services in rural areas.

Many of the votaries of privatisation seem blind to the fact that private entities are able to provide satisfaction in urban areas mainly on account of the readiness of the urban consumer to demand value for money and also the availability of choice. Farmers do not have such luxuries. The hesitation of private banks and telephone companies to sign on rural customers is a case in point. The government has never been able to enforce the so-called Universal Service Obligation on anyone.

The consistent reluctance of qualified doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals to serve in rural areas reinforces a point that is consistently ignored. As of now, providing support services to the farmer seems to be the last thing on our policymakers' minds. It is about time that we provided our farmers with a level playing field.

*The writer is a professor at Panjab University, Chandigarh.

Times of India

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