67 Years after Independence, Indian farmers have disappeared from the economic radar screen - Devinder Sharma's interview

Indian farmers continue to toll against all odds. 
(pic from web) 

On the occasion of the 67th Independence, Aug 15, 2014, the Hindi magazine Yathawat interviewed me on the state of Indian agriculture. In this short and crisp interview, I was asked to track the historical backdrop and to look at the present and future agricultural policies and approaches.  

Q: When India got its Independence in 1947, how did its agriculture look like? 

India got its Independence in 1947 in the backdrop of Bengal Famine. The famine happened in 1943 taking a massive human toll. Some estimates point to 3 million people perishing in the famine. But Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s work tells us that there was no shortfall in food production in 1943. It was only because the private trade had diverted the food that millions of people were left starving. In 1947, when India got Independence, agriculture was in a pathetic state, a fallout of the neglect and wanton destruction of agriculture during the days of the British Raj. With more than 80 per cent population engaged in subsistence farming, Independent India was a hungry nation.

Q: What prompted Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri to give the slogan of "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan" in 1965? Was it a reflection of the grave crisis afflicting farmers and farming, and of course the threat India faced from across the borders. 

When Lal Bahadur Shashtri took over a Prime Minister in 1964 India was a food importing country. It depended on food imports from North America under the PL-480 scheme. Not many people know that 1965, the year when India went to war with Pakistan, was also a drought year. In 1965 India had imported 10 million tonnes of wheat under PL-480. Knowing how precarious the food situation was, and knowing the extent of prevailing hunger, Lal Bahadur Shashtri had urged the nation to fast for a day. I know many people who have continued to fast on Monday’s since then. It was primarily because Lal Bahadur Shashtri understood the role that soldiers and farmers play in maintaining national security thereby preserving national sovereignty that he gave the slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’

Q: Green Revolution came in the late 1970s. What led to that ..

For almost 20 years after Independence in 1947 India had remained a food importing country. In fact, after the 10 million tonnes food import in 1965, the next year 1966 also turned to be a drought year in which India imported 11 million tonnes of foodgrains. That was the biggest food import at that time in history. before that, it was not that the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not make any serious efforts to improve food production. He launched various community development programmes but could not achieve the desired results. On Aug 15, 1955 he had shared his frustration with the nation when he said from the rampart of Red Fort: “It is very humiliating for any country to import food. So everything else can wait but not agriculture.’

After the premature death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri in Jan 1966, Mrs Indira Gandhi took over. But before Shashtri died he had annoyed the then American President Lyndon Johnson when he had told an American journalist, in reply to a question, that the war in Vietnam “was an act of aggression’. This sentence had annoyed Johnson who had stopped food exports to India under what is known as ‘stop-go policy’. India was then in such a precarious situation that even the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations had to make an appeal to US to allow food exports to India. Food would come directly from the ship to the hungry mouths. India was then called as a country living in a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence.

Mrs Indira Gandhi sowed the foundation of ‘Green Revolution’ in 1966 when she allowed the seeds of dwarf and high-yielding varieties of wheat from CIMMYT in Mexico. India imported 18,000 tonnes of wheat seed from Mexico, adapted them to Indian conditions, and as per an earlier demarcated programme, distributed these seed to farmers in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh where irrigation was available. The first wheat harvest after cultivating high-yielding seeds in 1967 was five tonnes more than the previous. This was a record increase at that time and was termed ‘wheat revolution’ by Mrs Gandhi.

Q: Green Revolution increased production in wheat and rice. Besides high-yielding varieties, there must be something else too?

The quantum jump in the wheat production was followed by rice two years later. India received high-yielding varieties of rice from the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, in 1968. These rice varieties were adapted to the Indian conditions and distributed to farmers in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and also in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Rice also recorded an increase in productivity and production. The term ‘Green Revolution’ was later coined by an American scientist, William Gaud.

Green Revolution turned the country self-sufficient in wheat and rice, and by early 1970s India stopped importing food under PL-480.

Since the days of Green Revolution, Indian agriculture has grown manifold. There has been an all around development in crop production not only in wheat and rice but also in coarse cereals, maize, cotton, sugarcane etc. Improved technology was packaged well with right policy decisions. The setting up of Food Corporation of India and Agricultural Prices Commission in 1965-66 were the two major planks of what Dr M S Swaminathan calls as the ‘famine-avoidance’ strategy.

Q: How come after Green Revolution turned the corners, farmers are committing suicide on a large scale?

By the mid-1980s, the environmental impact of intensive farming systems that used chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides and groundwater had begun to emerge. These are called the 2nd Generation Environmental Impacts. But instead of encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable practices to thwart the negative impact of intensive agriculture, farm scientists tried to address this by encouraging more Green Revolution. In other words they asked farmers to apply more chemicals. This deteriorated the natural resource base. At the same time, the policy support for agriculture declined. Reduction in public sector investment in agriculture, failure to encourage sustainable farming practices, and unremunerative prices for agricultural produce were among the factors that turned agriculture into a losing proposition. The damage was more pronounced in cash crops like cotton. Farm suicides began as a trickle around 1987 or so and since then have taken a toll of nearly 3 lakh farmers in the past 17 years.

Q: What is behind the terrible agrarian crisis that India faces? 

Farm suicides are the outcome of the continued neglect and apathy of the farm sector. Besides the policy makers, a significant role is also played by agriculture scientists and economists. They cannot simply absolve themselves from the terrible agrarian crisis that have prevailed for almost two decades now.

Q: Is it because India does not have a clear cut understanding and focus on how to prop up agriculture? Is it because of a wrong direction coming from international institutions? 

About 20 years after the Green Revolution began, and somewhere in the early 1990s, the global economic thinking shifted to shrinking agriculture and boosting industry. World Bank/IMF and the international financial institutions began to propose that economic growth can only take place when fewer people are left in agriculture. In 1996, the World Development Report of the World Bank suggested moving 400 million people, equally to twice the combined population of UK, France and Germany, from the rural to the urban areas in India in the next 20 years, by the year 2015.

Meanwhile, the emergence of World Trade Organisation in 1995, also shifted the focus to trade. The mainline economic thinking shifted to reducing support for agriculture and importing highly subsidized cheaper food from the developed countries. Subsequently, the World Bank and Multinational Corporations have been pushing for land acquisitions, contract farming, creation of super markets or in other words paving the way for corporate agriculture. In other words, the neglect of small scale agriculture is part of a design. It is part of a pre-planned economic strategy that is being imposed. 

In a country where 52 per cent of the 1.27 billion people are directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture, the thrust of the economic growth paradigm is to push farmers out of agriculture. Since the younger lot among farmer’s don’t know anything except farming, the World Bank had suggested a network of training schools across the country to train them to become industrial workers. That is being done. In other words, farmers have now become a burden on the country. The common thinking is the sooner the country is able to offload farmers,  the better it will be.

Q: Every year the government announces support for agriculture in its annual budgets. You think that is enough? 

In 2013-14, farmers produced a record harvest of 264.4 million tonnes of foodgrains. Production of oilseeds reached a record high of 34.5 million tonnes, a jump of 4.8 per cent. Maize production increased by 8.52 per cent to reach a level of 24.2 million tones. Pulses production reached an all-time high of 19.6 million tones, an increase of 7.10 per cent over the previous year. Cotton production too touched a record high.
With such record production, the nation should remain indebted to the virile and hardworking farmers. But last year, in 2013-14, when farm production recorded a quantum jump, agriculture received Rs 19,307-crore from the annual budget kitty, which is less than 1 per cent of the total budget outlay. This year, only Rs 22,652-crore has been provided for agriculture and cooperation departments. Again the outlay for agriculture remains less than 1 per cent of the total budget. In all fairness, the apathy towards agriculture continues.

Q: Is the neglect continuing? 

The neglect of agriculture has become more pronounced since economic liberalization was introduced in 1991. I recall the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh famous budget speech when he showered all the bounties on industry and in the next paragraph said that agriculture remains the mainstay of the economy. But since agriculture is a State subject, he left it to the State Governments to provide the much need impetus to farming. But what he forgot to say was that industry too is a State subject and should have been left to the State governments. The bias therefore was clearly visible.

Although agriculture grew at an impressive rate of 4.1 per cent in the Eleventh Plan period (2007-8 and 2011-12) it received a dismal financial support of Rs 1 lakh crore. For a sector which directly and indirectly employs 60-crore people, Rs 1 lakh crore outlay for five years is simply peanuts. In the 12 Plan period (2012-13 to 2017-18) agriculture is projected to receive Rs 1.5 lakh crore. Compare this with the Rs 5.73 lakh crore tax exemptions showered on the industry in 2014-15 alone. Since 2004-05, Industry has received tax concessions (computed under ‘revenue foregone’ in the budget documents) to the tune of Rs 36.5-lakh crores or Rs 1,100 crore per day for the past 9 years. It’s therefore a matter of priorities. In fact, as I have been saying for long, farmers have disappeared from the economic radar screen.

Despite the neglect, the fact remains whatever India has been able to achieve in economic and military terms is primarily because of food self-sufficiency built so assiduously over the past five decades. But the tragedy is that the country is deliberately destroying the agricultural foundations, and pushing it back to the days of 'ship-to-mouth’ existence. Over the past few years, India is busy adopted the same economic policies that were existing at the time of Bengal Famine. #
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Devinder Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst. An award-winning Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and researcher well-known and respected for his views on food and trade policy. Trained as an agricultural scientist (he holds a Master’s in Plant Breeding & Genetics), Sharma has been with the Indian Express, amongst the largest selling English language dailies in India. And then quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and intellectual property rights, environment and development, food security and poverty, biotechnology and hunger, and the implications of the free trade paradigm for developing countries.