Mihir Shah

Without a comprehensive, paradigmatic shift in the agriculture policy, the deaths of farmers will not stop.

SIXTY YEARS after Independence, one of the fastest growing economies in the world finds its villages lurching perilously between murder and suicide. Such is the intense cynicism of many of our people that they are either taking to the gun to kill in anger or drinking the poisonous brew out of sheer hopelessness.

In many ways, the elections of 2004 were a reminder to our ruling classes that the rural poor were no longer willing to be taken for granted. They were demanding an urgent course correction. But is this even remotely visible on the horizon? All we seem to have are relief packages and debates over potentially dangerous genetically modified (GM) crops, contract farming, special economic zones (SEZs), and the catastrophic interlinking of rivers programme. Little sign of the root causes of the rural predicament being addressed.

What we see today is a cumulative consequence of a comprehensive policy failure that needs to be addressed through across-the-board reforms. Reforms centred on farmers and the poor, with a necessarily different content and orientation from those unleashed for corporate India. The 1990s saw the neglect of India's drylands reach a peak but they also witnessed the wheels coming off the Green Revolution. After reaching a peak in the early 1980s, there has been a steady and massive decline in public investment in agriculture. The rate of expansion of irrigated area in India today has fallen to half the levels of the early 1970s. Even more worrisome, nearly 75 per cent of the increase in irrigation over the last 20 years has come from tubewells. Which rather than resolving the water crisis, appear to be only aggravating it.

This is because we continue to follow a development paradigm that pays no heed to the limits imposed by the eco-system and the various tipping points in nature. India is a largely hard rock country. Deep drilling by tubewells here can lead to virtual "mining" of water. But even in alluvial areas of Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi (for which this technology is meant), water tables have plunged. We have forgotten that groundwater is a common resource whose indiscriminate private extraction creates grave problems of sustainability.

We need urgently to move towards a regime of sustainable groundwater management and location-specific, people-centred watershed development. The potential of this approach has been abundantly demonstrated across the country. But for it to be effective at scale requires major institutional reform, such as that suggested by the recent report of the Parthasarathy Committee. Why the recommendations of this path-breaking report continue to languish unattended is a question the United Progressive Alliance Government needs to urgently answer. The new National Rainfed Areas Authority must not end up being a toothless, advisory body. Its role has to be to infuse professionalism and accountability at the cutting-edge level of implementation, as suggested by the Parthasarathy Committee.

While water security is the undoubted foundation of all rural livelihoods, without basic changes in the agriculture practised by our farmers since the Green Revolution, there will be no hope for rural India. Starting with the Second Plan, for the last 50 years our policy-makers have insisted that the salvation of India's countryside lies in urbanisation and industrialisation. Completely overlooking that for a nation whose cities are its biggest emerging disasters and where more than 700 million people are engaged in farming, there can be no escape from improving its agriculture a sound agrarian base on which could develop a whole range of other nature-based livelihoods.

Put yourself in the position of our farmers today. They realise that dependence on chemical fertilizers is becoming endless. The more they use them, the more they need to apply to maintain the same levels of productivity. Pesticides are no longer able to control pests. This is why Green Revolution (especially cotton) farmers are in the forefront of those committing suicide. These are not necessarily the poorest but they are the ones for whom farming has become a completely unviable profession. Their costs have way outstripped their incomes.

The worst contribution of the Green Revolution (other than indiscriminate tubewells) has been monoculture. Any investor in the stock market knows that portfolio diversification is the foundation of a sound investment strategy in a risky environment. There is no business more risky than agriculture. Both nature and markets demand diversity. We need to move decisively towards bio-diverse farming that minimises the risks posed by global markets and ecology. Which grows crops and uses seeds that require less water. Which the farmer can re-use (unlike hybrids and GM seeds). Which reduces costs by using home-grown compost and pesticides such as neem oil and cow's urine. Even with some compromise on short-term yields, this leads to an increase in net incomes of farmers. Being tightly integrated across internal sub-systems, this agriculture is also much more resilient to external shock. The output of each sub-system becomes the input of another. There is virtually no concept of waste here. This GM-free, no pesticide, increasingly organic farming is no longer the exclusive preserve of romantics. It is actually what world markets are giving price premiums for.

Such farming is being practised in India by a smattering of farmers and NGOs. But for it to be viable at scale requires major policy reforms. The pattern of subsidies has to shift away from chemical to organic inputs. Price and procurement support (restricted till now mainly to rice and wheat) has to be expanded to dryland crops and regions. Without such incentives, their outputs will continue to fall. A major shake-up is required in agriculture extension services. Many government research centres in the hinterlands of India are doing excellent but largely unrecognised work. Grass-roots NGOs can play a critical role in bringing this work out of ivory towers by linking lab to land and securing invaluable feedback for scientists from farmers. So that R&D itself becomes more relevant to ground realities.

We cannot accept a WTO situation where U.S. and EU farmers continue to enjoy disproportionately higher subsidies, while we squeeze and not protect our own people. We must recognise that over the last 20 years, India has consistently reduced tax rates for the rich, while dismantling a whole range of import tariffs and support structures for the rural poor. For instance, it is undeniable that electricity must be appropriately priced. Free power has been a contributing factor to groundwater over-extraction. But it must also be understood that without improving the availability (hours), reliability (timing), and quality (voltage) of power supply, higher tariffs only prove a further nail in the coffin for India's peasantry.

Ensuring credit

Finally, what has broken the back of farmers is the re-emergence of the usurious moneylender. For 20 years after the nationalisation of banks in 1969, there was a steady decline in his role. But since "reforms" began in the 1990s, this trend has been reversed. The share of the formal sector in rural credit has significantly declined and the poorer you are, the more inaccessible it is for you. We need to redefine our notion of reforms. Rather than shutting down public sector banks in remote rural areas and promoting micro-finance institutions (dangerously poised to be the modern moneylenders), we need to improve profitability of banks by linking them to federations of savings groups. These economically powerful local women's institutions are ideal channels for marketing outputs and purchasing agricultural inputs. They can also facilitate the introduction of weather and crop insurance, almost completely absent today but crucial in providing security to our beleaguered farmers.

Many pieces form the jigsaw puzzle of India's killing fields. Farmers saddled with technologies and seeds that overexploit groundwater, their inputs more expensive by the day, falling productivity levels as fertilizers yield diminishing returns and pests develop resistance, monoculture heightening vulnerability to market and weather fluctuations, little incentive for dryland farmers growing crops other than rice and wheat and imports leading to lower prices for what they grow, programmes like watershed development so poorly implemented that money goes down the drain, increasing dependence for credit on usurious moneylenders and no insurance for crops. A pincer movement zeroing in from all sides, until the farmers' capacity to hang on to dear life is irreparably broken, leaving only death as an alternative. While the gamut of change required to break this deadlock appears formidable, let us not forget that after almost as bad a crisis, a very similar architecture was put in place for the Green Revolution in the 1970s. Let us hope the UPA Government, brought unexpectedly to power by Verdict 2004, can muster the political will required to abide by it.

(The writer leads Samaj Pragati Sahayog, a grass-roots initiative for water and livelihood security, in 72 of India's most backward districts across 12 States.)