Modi@1 : The fat farm fumble – reaping a harvest of distrust

By Stuti Chawla

NEW DELHI : In a country where rising prices of onion can topple governments, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has achieved no mean feat in keeping food prices under control, as it grappled with a drought in its first year.

Prices of most farm commodities remained benign for most of the year, though food grain output took a 5% hit due to unfavourable weather.

There was a spike in vegetable prices, but that too was quickly brought under control, and inflationary expectations are largely in check though another poor monsoon has been forecast.

This seemingly seamless food management that contributed to a low food and retail inflation environment would be an ideal breeding ground for the much-awaited rate cuts that would boost lending to the corporate sector and spur economic growth.

But in the quest of low food price regime, the Modi government appears to have given a raw deal to farmers, most of whom are at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Farmers have undoubtedly had a tough year. Poor monsoon rains in the kharif season lowered crop yields. The minimum support price hike for most crops was tepid at best, wholesale prices were subdued, and exports of most farm commodities were non-existent due to the bear grip on world commodity prices.

With the government cracking the whip on food prices, farmers found it difficult to recover even their input costs for some crops.

Unseasonal rains at the end of the rabi harvest made things tougher. The farm ministry has estimated damage of over 30% of the rabi area this year due to inclement weather.

Amid the piling gloom, there were many reports of farmer suicides this year.

There were long discussions on the agrarian crisis in Parliament in the second half of the just-concluded Budget Session. The government eased the crop loss compensation norms to help farmers in distress, but left it to states to dole out the compensation from the state disaster response fund.

The compensation claims were, however, far higher than the relief doled out, and that has not gone down well with the farmers.

Adding salt to the injury was the land acquisition bill that eases norms for private as well as government enterprises to acquire farm land—a pre-requisite for building infrastructure for the government’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ and smart cities’ plans.

The land buy bill, which cemented the Modi government’s pro-business stance, also reinforced its anti-farmer image, as it fails to protect the rights of small and marginal farmers.

Sensing the murmurs of discontent, the prime minister attempted to explain the government’s stance in his radio chat ‘Mann ki Baat’ in March, repeatedly asking farmers to trust the government’s intentions.

The move did little to plug the trust deficit that is fast taking root in rural India.

A farm minister who talks more about the welfare of cows and ‘pashu dhan’, than farmers’ distress has only added fuel to the fire.

Agriculture seems to be figuring low on the government’s agenda in a year when it particularly needed more focus.

The government lowered the allocation to agriculture in this year’s Union Budget, and is yet to announce any major scheme to revive growth in the sector.

The much-touted new crop insurance scheme that was supposed to make insurance worthwhile to farmers is still on the drawing board, and progress on issuing soil health cards to farmers is painfully slow.

A renewed thrust on irrigation schemes that could have been a balm for poor monsoon years is conspicuous by its absence.

On year on the job, and many of the government’s pre-poll promises remain promises. The national common agriculture market is yet to see the light of day and there is no effort to promote area-specific crops and vegetables, or disseminate real-time prices, production and trade data to farmers.

Yes, it has been only a year, only one-fifth of the term. But expectations run high. And there’s none other than Modi who’s responsible. After all, the flurry was for the promised “achche din” for all.

Lack of focus on the farm sector, which is crying for attention in the government’s reform juggernaut, could cost the government dear in the coming years.

Though the farm sector contributes just 16% to the country’s gross domestic product, nearly two-thirds of the country’s populace directly or indirectly depends on it, and that is too large a vote bank to ignore.

The Opposition has been quick to cash in on rural India’s growing trust deficit.

The revitalised Congress scion, Rahul Gandhi, has stepped up the rhetoric on the government’s alleged anti-farmer and pro-corporate policies, describing the regime as “suit boot ki sarkar”.

Agree with Gandhi or disagree, but one can’t ignore the allegation. Serious rethink and hard action from the government is the need of the hour. The farmer is feeling ignored in the big scheme of things. And patience may not last forever.

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