Focussing on the marginal farmer

The sluice gate on the Bhakra main line canal in Khanauri-Kalan village in Sangrur district, Punjab, has become infamous. According to reports, it is a suicide point for farmers and their families. Typically, 30-45 corpses are found in the canal on average every month. Farmers’ suicide in Punjab is a major worry: over 2,632 farmers are reported to have committed suicide between 1995 and 2015,in the land famed for its Green Revolution, according to State government records. Mansa district alone accounts for 1,334 suicides. Adding farm labourers raises the total to 4,687 reported suicides. The reasons for this vary: cotton crop has been whittled by whiteflies, basmati’s market price has declined, the local moneylender has hiked up rates to 20 per cent. The farmer ekes his way to penury.

Farmer suicides are not a new trend. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2,195 marginal farmers reportedly committed suicide in 2015 (of which 834 were in Maharashtra), while 3,618 “small farmers” undertook such drastic steps, with Maharashtra alone seeing 1,285. More curiously, a larger number of small farmers rather than marginal farmers reportedly committed suicide in States like Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka. Somehow, small farmers are also bedevilled by the agricultural crisis, and this is not the case in just the traditional drought-stricken States.

On input costs

Agriculture in States like Punjab is typically a monoculture of wheat and paddy. When input costs associated with fertilizers, crop-protection chemicals and seeds rose, along with fixed costs associated with agricultural equipment such as tractors and submersible pumps, agriculture became economically unviable. Prices have risen — of arhar seeds and staple crops like paddy and sugarcane, of fertilizers and plain barley. The old days of farmers handing seeds as family heirlooms to their sons are long gone. Hiring labourers and animals is expensive. With an increase in application of crop-protection chemicals, soya bean has seen a massive jump in pesticide cost. Given a jump in input costs, cultivation costs have gone up in multiples. The total cost of cultivation for wheat rose three times from 2004-05 to 2012-13.

While traditionally the blame is cast on the usurious local moneylender, NCRB data highlight that 2,474 of the 3,000 farmers who were reported to have committed suicide in 2015 had loans from local banks, while those who had loans from moneylenders were just 9.8 per cent of the total. Maharashtra reported 1,293 such suicides for indebtedness, while Karnataka had 946. Meanwhile, farmers in Punjab are estimated to have an outstanding debt of Rs. 69,355 crore. Somehow, the traditional moneylender is seemingly more “flexible” than local banks.

Retailoring agriculture

Solving this crisis requires an inclusive approach. Our policies should encourage integrated pest management, an approach that focusses on combining biological, chemical, mechanical and physical means to combat pests with a long-term emphasis on eliminating or significantly reducing the need for pesticides. In Vietnam, over 2 million of the Mekong Delta’s rice farmers adopted a “no spray early” rule, curbing insecticide applications within the first 40 days of rice planting. Predatory beetles that commonly prey on rice pests were sustained, encouraging the crop while cutting pesticide use by over 50 per cent.

The local fertilizer industry needs support — timely delivery of subsidies would improve working capital requirements, enabling them to manage costs through internal sources rather than external loans. Delayed payments can cause an interest outgo of Rs. 3,500 crore for fertilizer firms annually. State seed policies should focus on encouraging contract farming, along with identification of new genotypes for treating pest and disease syndromes, as well as adverse weather conditions. Precision-farming techniques like Systematic Rice Intensification can help increase seed production in this regard.

Our farm equipment policy needs to be retailored with a focus on manufacturing farming equipment and implements that are currently imported. Subsidies should be rerouted to ensure lower collateral requirements, longer moratoriums and payback periods for farmers seeking to buy equipment and entrepreneurs seeking to setup Custom Hiring Centres (CHC) for agricultural equipment. Companies with a corporate social responsibility focus on agriculture can be further encouraged to invest in capacity-building initiatives, skill development and the establishment of CHCs.

We need to ensure that institutional financing is available and accessible and benefit provision is simplified while disbursed funds are effectively monitored. States should seek to establish early warning signals, monitoring farmers who go past set limits and seek unsustainable loans. Village-wise lists of deeply indebted farmers must be prepared annually to identify farmers on the flight path to penury and potential suicide. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, along with the local administration, should be tasked with analysing such lists for macro and local policy interventions, along with devising timely loan restructuring initiatives, insurance claim settlements and better counselling.

Finally, such individuals must be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Given the hard struggle of making a living in agriculture these days, such farmers face big odds for sustaining their families and educating their children. Travelling through the by-lanes of suicide-stricken villages in Bijnor, Bahraich, Kheri, Allahabad, Aligarh and Moradabad is a humbling and disconcerting experience. Even distributing Rs.50,000 per distraught marginal farmer family has had little impact; so deep is the scale of agrarian distress. Our efforts in crowdfunding have been a palliative for over 3,000 farmers, but only systemic change can transform their situation. The marginal farmer requires more than just hope now.

Feroze Varun Gandhi is a Member of Parliament, representing the Sultanpur constituency for the BJP.

Our farm equipment policy needs to be retailored with a focus on manufacturing farming equipment that is currently imported

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