The unsung hero of 2008 is indeed the Indian farmer. While many may feel
kisanomics is out of fashion, some agriculture production stats may be relevant
given the global food crisis and rising crude oil prices. We Indians should be
happy that grain (wheat and rice) produce went up from 217.28 million tonnes in
2006-07 to 227.32 million tonnes in 2007-08. And with a good monsoon, the
projections for the the rest of this year seems comfortable. We may not have to
go in for huge imports.
But let us not forget that we are in the comfort zone because our farmers cultivated their land. This they did going against currently accepted wisdom. Remember, for well over a decade our farmers have been repeatedly advised to quit farming. There has been no dearth of pundits who have articulated this view. Chandrababu Naidu, when he was Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, had famously declared that farming doesn't make sense in the IT age. The focus, he felt, should be on manufacturing. It is another matter that after losing the 2004 elections Naidu now sings a pro-farmer tune. Other equally `sensible' experts raised the all important question: Why farm when one can import food at less costs from the international market?
Journalists supportive of a globalised economy have frequently presented facts to prove that farming doesn't pay. The input-output ratio is not good enough. Labour is a problem. The yield per acre is poor. The conclusion: farming will only lead the farmer to ruin and suicide. Simultaneously, success stories of those who have shifted to farming exotic vegetables (brocolli and the like) seemed to drive home the point that the days of cultivating crops like wheat and paddy are over.
But now the global food scenario has undergone a sea change. Several studies point to an international food crisis. Blame it on the west, cultivating corn for fuel or the rising price of crude -- whatever the reasons, everyone is agreed that India can ill afford to import foodgrains. It simply must have enough stocks in its godowns to feed its people. And since neither science nor the corporate sector has mastered photosynthesis, wheat and rice can only be grown using the time tested method of sowing and harvesting.
The farmers who have given us this year's harvest are a faceless lot. If farming is non-profitable what is it that makes millions of people in rural India go back to their land year after year? One explanation is that it is the only vocation that the unlettered farmer knows. While many among them have been persuaded by experts and NGOs funded by the west to quit we are lucky that not everyone has given up tilling their land.
So is it time that we at least recognise the kisan? For well over a decade he has been a much ridiculed figure. Every sop given to him has been questioned. Every fertiliser subsidy has been described as a drain on the exchequer. The farmer stood guilty of hogging too much free power, grabbing loans he can't repay and making demands that did not make for good economics. He was a monster who had to be humbled.
Indeed, we have now become used to equating any pro-farmer programme with
populism. The jury is still out on whether Rs 60,000 plus crore farm loan write
off by the Manmohan Singh government will actually benefit the farmer. It may
not, as reports in the press seem to suggest. But the initial response to the
waiver tells us of our attitude to our farmers. Questions about where the money
will come from were raised. The government was accused of fiscal indiscipline.
But no such concerns have been voiced about corporate loan waivers, which, from
1999 onwards are close to double the write-off for kisans.
Now that it is becoming increasingly clear that India will have to depend on its farmers, the focus will now be on how little the government is doing to help/assist the kisan. This is a U-turn from 'don't do anything for the lazy lot' position several experts took till recently. So we will soon be hearing of how low cost seeds are not being provided. How fertliser costs have gone up. How decline in acreage under cultivation is alarming. How the loan waiver has provided no relief. And how steps should be taken to provide "real and substantive" relief for the farmer.
Whatever the new prescriptions, the focus will be to better agriculture output. That alone will provide food security. And to that end, India will need the the humble farmer.