hen Rooop Singh and his younger brother Basant Singh of Patiala district returned home after performing the last rites of their father, they didn’t know that destiny had reserved the same pathway for them. A decade after they cremated their father, Avtar Singh, who had committed suicide unable to bear the burden of mounting indebtedness; the two siblings took the same fatal route. They jumped into the Bhakra canal in Punjab.
Mounting farm indebtedness had taken two generations of the family. While the two sons ended their lives in November 2017, their father had died some 10 years earlier, in 2008. Both the brothers together owned 2.5 acres and were cultivating another 30 acres on contract. Not an isolated case, but it tells you how a perpetually loss making farming enterprise has taken a huge human toll over the decades. As the serial death dance on farmers continues unabated in Punjab, farmers’ unions estimate that even after the Congress government announced farm loan waivers, more than 430 farmers committed suicide in a year
Therefore, the recent report that farm incomes have touched the lowest in 15 years didn’t come as a surprise. It only endorses what has been known for long. The Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE) too had predicted that the nominal farm incomes in 2018-19 would be in the negative. This is in a way an extension of the findings of the Niti Aayog which had worked out the real farm incomes in the five year period, between 2011-12 and 2015-16 to be less than half one per cent every year, 0.44 per cent to be exact.
In such a dismal scenario, I sometimes wonder how the farming communities survive year after year. Those who end their lives add up to the collateral damage; but what about those who do not give up, and continue to struggle against all odds? More so, when it is generally believed that the real farm incomes have been on the decline for almost four decades now. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation (OECD) has estimated the farmers suffered a loss of Rs 45 lakh crore on account of being paid a lesser price for their produce between the year 2000 and 2017. Another study by UNCTAD had earlier estimated that the farm prices worldwide had remained almost static in the 20 year period between 1985 and 2005.
It is, therefore, obvious that in order to keep food inflation under control, successive governments have denied farmers their rightful income. The entire burden of keeping food prices low has been very conveniently passed on to farmers. In other words, it is the farmers who are bearing the entire cost of subsidising the consumers. At the same time, farmers are being deliberately paid less so as to provide cheaper raw material to industry. Hence, a farmer has only two roles – to provide cheaper food for the consumers and provide cheaper raw material for the industry.
To be born in debt and live in debt all through his life is virtually like living in a hell. Imagine being told every year that the government has enhanced the credit limit for farmers. It is generally believed that credit pe credit is the only way for farmers to survive. As the debt keeps mounting the distress grows, but I have never seen economists and policy-makers ever talking of providing farmers with their rightful income. It is for the first time, confronted with farmers’ anger visible through the electoral results in the Hindi heartland, that the government has launched a direct income support programme to provide small farmers with an annual support of Rs 6,000. This meagre amount signifies a significant shift in economic thinking – moving from credit to income support.
But what is little understood is that the decline in farm incomes is an outcome of an economic design we follow. Agriculture is being deliberately kept impoverished to keep economic reforms alive. Continuing with the same flawed economic thinking, the Chief Economic Advisor has also called for more investments in industry so as to pull the youth from the rural to the urban areas. This is exactly what the World Bank had directed India way back in 1996. It is primarily for this reason that public sector investments in agriculture have remained between 0.3 to 0.5 per cent of the GDP between 2011 and 2017. The total investments, both public and private, have also been declining steadily – from 3.1 per cent of GDP in 2011-12 to 2.2 per cent in 2016-17. Compare this with the tax concessions being given to industry, which measures 5 per cent of GDP. The best way to kill agriculture, therefore, is to drastically curtail public sector investments in this sector which employs 52 per cent of the country’s population.
No wonder, as per the latest CMIE calculations, of the 56.6 lakh job losses encountered in past 12 months, almost 46 lakh are from the rural areas. This is the outcome of an economic policy that aims at pushing the rural unemployed youth to urban areas, which are in need of dehari mazdoor. If displacing farmers to create a workforce of dehari mazdoor is economic growth, there is a serious need to take a relook. Shrinking land holdings are not a problem, the bigger difficulty arises by denying the farmers a rightful price for his produce.
Deliberate neglect of agriculture has rendered farming uneconomical and environmentally unsustainable. What is not being appreciated is that investing in rural areas is the only viable long-term solution to many of the problems India faces – hunger, poverty, unemployment, forced migration and climate change. All these have deep roots in the rural areas. Since agriculture is the predominant rural occupation, the thrust of any sensible economic policy has to begin with treating agriculture as an economic activity. It alone has the ability sustain millions of livelihoods and, thereby, reboot the economy.