Ideological kinks and implementation glitches mar govt’s agri policies

Reviewing the government’s agricultural policies in the run-up to the Budget.

Farmers
The protesting farmers don’t want to subject themselves to the uncertainties of the market | Photo: PTI

Anil Ghanwat, one of the three members of the Supreme Court-appointed committee on Farm Laws, had led Maharashtra farmers to agitate for access to genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant (HTBt) cotton. The government has not approved this hybrid. The company that came close to getting regulatory approval for it withdrew its application at the last moment because of the government’s December 2015 Bt cottonseed price control order, which not only fixes the retail price but also royalties that franchisees will pay for proprietary traits. Farmers have been extensively growing pirated and unapproved HTBt cotton. Ghanvat led the protest planting in defiance of the law at a village in Akola in June 2019 with the slogan: “Bt by right, not by stealth.”

The government is unwilling to grant that freedom for ideological reasons, even though Gujarat has benefitted from the cotton revolution brought about by Bt cotton under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch as chief minister from 2002. HTBt cotton would reduce the cost of cultivation by obviating the need for manual weeding. Agricultural exporting nations of the world are invested in herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits in cotton, soybean and maize. India will have to adopt the technology to compete with them, but instead has chosen to emulate the European Union, a net importer of food that is opposed to GM technology. Taking a cue from the EU, India has not finalised the regulations for gene editing technology either.

As president of the Shetkari Sanghatana, Ghanvat favours free markets and supports the three central laws on contract farming, the lifting of stock limits and cess-free trading outside the regulated mandis. Though agriculture based on market prices will align it to demand, the protesting farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh don’t want to subject themselves to the uncertainties of the market. They want assured procurement at officially declared floor prices, which often are not floor prices at all, but tend to be higher than market prices.

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If floor or minimum support prices (MSP) have in fact become price ceilings, it’s because the prime minister announced in March 2018 that they would be cost plus 50 per cent. The costs here are cash expenses incurred on raising a crop plus the wages that a farmer would have paid if they did not use family labour and a profit margin of 50 per cent. But this formula can make MSPs more than the landed price of imports and price Indian commodities out of the international market.

At the MSP of Rs 19,750 a tonne, Indian wheat cannot compete against that of Australia, Canada, Russia and the United States, which is fetching $275-280 a tonne for March-April shipments. The cost of cleaning, bagging, handling and transport to ports in Gujarat, plus exporters margin, will raise the price of Indian wheat to about $290 a tonne.

Farmers in north-west India must produce less of wheat and rice and Maharashtra less sugarcane because India produces more of these than it needs, but farmers will not give up risk-free crops unless they are incentivised to diversify. Maize, mustard and pulses are good, environment-friendly substitutes provided the government permits taboo technologies in them that will cut down yield losses from pests and pathogens, and also assure procurement for a few years. Ashok Gulati, a member of the SC committee on Farm Laws, has sought a Rs 10,000 crore diversification fund for Punjab. The government should also vigorously implement a programme to bring the Green Revolution in rice and other crops to water-rich eastern India. It was initiated by the late president Pranab Mukherjee in 2010 as finance minister, but seems to have lost its way.

Some headline-grabbing but well-intended programmes of the government have fallen short of promise because implementation has been less than thorough. The electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM), which the Prime Minister launched in April 2017, was meant to create a national market for agricultural produce by enabling contact-less remote trading on the basis of certified quality. It was launched in April 2017 and covers about a thousand regulated mandis. But interstate sales have not taken off to the extent expected, says Neelkamal Darbari, managing director of Small Farmers’ Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC), which manages it. About 40 per cent of the e-NAM mandis don’t have assaying facilities (or personnel) to grade produce on the basis of parameters like moisture level and admixture like pebbles. Without this, trading will be a leap of faith.

Five years on, the government’s flagship crop insurance programme continues to provide inadequate cover to farmers despite being restructured many times. States do not pay their share of the premium on time. Delays in estimation of losses hold up settlement of claims. The losses are also not accurately estimated, resulting in partial compensation. The churn among insurers does not beget trust or help the business stabilise.

Dairying is a high-growth activity, which cereal cultivators are encouraged to pursue, but the government’s attitude to the meat industry is stifling it. Enhancing milk yields requires breed, herd and fodder management. Unproductive animals need to be culled, but cow slaughter legislation makes this difficult. To get around the legislation, farmers are preferring buffaloes, whose milk also has a higher amount of fat. Narayan Hegde, a dairy expert, has suggested that exotic foreign breeds like Jersey and Holstein Friesian should be exempt from the legislation as they are not considered sacred! But Karnataka ordinance promulgated this month brings even buffaloes within the definition of cattle (unlike other states) whose slaughter below 13 years is prohibited.

In her last budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a thrust on Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF). This is supposed to enhance yields at low cost, sustainably, without use of chemical fertilisers by harnessing beneficial microbes that release nutrients locked up in soil and absorb nitrogen and moisture from the atmosphere. This is aligned to the government’s promotion of traditional and organic agriculture. These types of agriculture will need more, not less, land to feed a growing population when agricultural land is shrinking under the pressure of urbanisation and industrialisation.

At a seminar on the future of agriculture organised by NITI Aayog in association with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on January 19, NITI Aayog’s vice-chairman Rajeev Kumar commended ZBNF and said farmers in Godavari and Guntur regions of Andhra Pradesh were converting to it in droves. He said his wife and he were practising it on their farm. But the chairman of Andhra Pradesh’s Farmers Commission, MVS Reddy, has given up ZBNF after trying it for about 10 years because his rice yields were lower than the average.

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