Indian agriculture needs a paradigm shift from its hand-to-mouth approach that has been in vogue for decades now. It will not just drive up farmers’s incomes but the nation’s economy as well.
Over the last few days, the media has been carrying reports of farmers being worried over prices crashing for crops like potato, pulses, fruits, spices and oilseeds. The state and central governments are being blamed for the problems that farmers face. Prices have crashed on glut, though. The bitter experiences of a drop in prices of agricultural produce are repeating. But little thought has been given to avoid such things from recurring. Actions seem to be ad hoc in nature.
Farmers can find solutions on their own
At a workshop conducted by Janapada Seva Trust at Melukote, Karnataka, last weekend, there were interesting solutions on offer. Anantha Sayanan, who heads the Organic Farmers Market network of 20-odd outlets, told the attendees that there are many things farmers could consider. For example, farmers growing organic or traditional variety of cotton that are not genetically modified could think of various way to market their produce more effectively. One way is to make wicks for lamps, which has great market potential. Another is through the demand by Western European countries for non-GMO surgical cotton.
On 7 February 2016, Swarajya published an article on how entrepreneurship had transformed the Coimbatore region in Tamil Nadu. True, seldom have we heard any murmurs from farmers of the western districts of Tamil Nadu, mainly Coimbatore, Erode, Tiruppur, Namakkal, Krishnagiri and Salem districts. Entrepreneurship in the region has driven the economy and, in turn, protected farmers. The region is tapping into its advantage of being the national egg hub to the hilt with companies like SKM Egg Products, Suguna Poultry and VKS Food emerging as important players in the industry. There is another lesson that can be drawn from Namakkal, the hub of the poultry industry. The egg price committee fixes the price on a daily basis and buyers have no choice but to pay it. Second, Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district is one of the leading regions in production of mangoes and flowers. Hosur, where greenhouses for growing roses have sprung up, is the top exporter of the flower from the country. During the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, over one crore of rose stems are shipped abroad. Mango growers are benefiting from the mango pulp industries that have mushroomed in the district. Salem is India’s leading producer of tapioca pearls (sabu dana). Processing units produce sago for food, starch and alcohol, protecting tapioca farmers from fluctuating prices.
More ways to improve returns
While such entrepreneurship can help, there are other ways to improve returns from farms. In Madhya Pradesh, farmers in the Indore region can tell you how they first enquire about the prevailing price in the market before deciding on taking their produce to the market. The price ticker that Doordarshan runs on its television channel helps them. Farmers in Maharashtra have built their compact storage units to stock up on rabi onion, which has a better shelf life once it is harvested during the March-April period. Onion farmers continue this practice as their returns improve during the off-season months starting June. Last year, cotton farmers in Gujarat waited until March before they began to offload their produce as the fibre’s price tends to rise between March and August, when arrivals drop. Even now, some farmers in Madhya Pradesh have vowed not to sell their soyabean stocks until the off-season as they can get higher prices from doing so.
These measures are in contrast to the panic button that some of the potato farmers have pressed in states like Uttar Pradesh. For years now, the Agra region has been producing potatoes aplenty. The surprising fact is that no industry which can help the farmers get additional income has been set up there. In 2013, media reports said that a potato processing unit would soon be set up in Agra. That has not happened till now. Agra is blessed with cold storage units, but in August 2017, some of the farmers were put under pressure by the cold storage owners who threatened to throw out the old stocks. The question here is, why haven’t farmers put up their own storage for potatoes like Maharashtra onion growers have?
Setting up a collective body
A view put forth as a solution to the crisis faced by potato farmers is that they should hold back their produce until prices turn remunerative for them. The other option for them should be to refuse to sell unless they get a remunerative price. Yet another way offered is, farmers should stop cultivating crops that yield loss or don’t benefit them. Farmers can certainly take the second option by forming a small body or an association to negotiate their returns. They need a collective power which these associations can offer. The associations can be formed village-wise, leading to similar ones in taluks, districts and states, finally leading to a national body. The National Egg Coordination Committee is a great example where prices for eggs are fixed on a daily basis by the respective regional units.
In India, there is a Confederation of Indian Farmers Association, which hasn’t made much of an impact. The Confederation or some other association that could be formed to get a better deal for farmers, can be run by professionals on the lines of those in the United States (US) or Australia. The farmer associations in these countries negotiate as one for various inputs and purchases. Annually, they get sponsors who can offer them huge discounts for purchase of their products like tractors or cars. The association can go a little farther, aiming at setting up value-added units like ones for making tomato puree, ketchup, potato finger chips or crisps and so on.
The onus of better farm prices isn’t on farmers alone. The government should help set up value-added industries by extending some sort of sops like moratorium on the loans availed to set up the unit or bearing a part of the interest. The government can lower customs duty and the goods and services tax (GST) on equipment and machinery for such processing industries. These measures, rather than subsidies, can go a long way in improving the lives of farmers.
There are other players who need to play their roles seriously. First, agricultural extension workers should provide correct inputs to farmers and guide them in choosing a particular crop to cultivate. The extension workers can, in turn, be helped by agricultural universities, which can offer guidance through their economic research cells. A few agricultural universities have such cells, but what role they play in farmers deciding on which crop to grow is a moot question. Probably the extension workers need to be accountable for the inputs they give to farmers in terms of helping to raise a crop. Farmers can also get help from agri-business development units of agricultural universities like the one that Tamil Nadu Agricultural University runs. Besides, positive results found in the laboratories of agricultural universities will have to quickly find their way into the land.
Indian agriculture needs a paradigm shift from its hand-to-mouth approach that has been in vogue for decades now. It will not just drive up farmers’s incomes but the nation’s economy as well. This can also double farmers’s incomes, as envisioned by the Modi government.