Successive governments have transformed an unequally prosperous rural society to one which is equally distressed. For the first time in history small and marginal farmers feel worse off than the landless classes. Farm income of small holder farmers is insufficient to support sustenance. Predominantly suicides are taking place in such farmer families which have no additional source of non-farm income. However, after analysing data sociologists have favourably deciphered poverty as reduced. For the sense of desperation that now pervades over rural India, blame must be appropriated to all political parties.
Disconnected politicians often take for granted that the policy prepared by bureaucrats will guarantee the targeted objectives. There are too many unpredictable facets of behavioural economics and climatic circumstances for a policy based on pure logic to succeed in the farm space. Even, regional diversity is not accounted for when designing policies. Similar programs for rain fed tribal outback and irrigated chemical choked fields of Punjab will just not do. A federal system could help solve that. Implications of the fine print of a policy can be detrimental to a nation. Discrepancies in RKYV scheme unearthed by CAG is a classic example how welfare objectives aren’t met when the fine print is written without involving those who will implement the program on the ground and those who will be affected like the farmers of the particular area.
MNEREGA & farm loan waiver weren’t the benevolent acts as made out to be. If they were, farmers wouldn’t be feeling helpless and rural India be suffering. Many insist MNREGA & farm loan waiver got congress re-elected in 2009. Irrespective of what data might conjure every farmer perceives that one of the primary reasons for farming becoming non-remunerative is increasing labour cost due to MNEREGA. On an average 40% of total farm input cost is labour cost. At time of harvest & sowing labour requirement is very high and labour cost simply doubles. Full impact of increased wages was felt in terms of falling farm profitability and it also fuelled food inflation. I will not stick my neck out just yet to claim that a badly designed MNEREGA was the main reason for unravelling of UPA II but the idea must be seriously contemplated. UPA strategy appeared that by increasing rural wages, poverty would be reduced. Increase in rural wages could not offset high inflation which negated the wage gains. It’s absolutely akin to hefty Minimum Support Price (MSP) increases which did not offset higher farm input expenses. CACP is on record explaining labour cost is not fully factored into recommendations for a MSP for fear of hurting consumer interests. MNEREGA with a little tweaking could have been the great program it is was supposed to be. If 100 days of labour had been reserved for the 250 days of the lean season, it would not only have doubled the total employment generated without more investments but would have also ensured prosperity of the masses & contained food inflation.
Lately, in response to farm distress & short lived outcry over farmer suicides, there is talk of a farm loan waiver. It is not the solution we seek for our problems. About half of indebted farmer households are dependent on institutional credit sources. Only farmers who defaulted on institutional credit gained from the last farm loan waiver. Benefits of farm loan waiver or other welfare programs like minimum support price procurement do not trickle down to millions of marginal farmers and those surviving in rain fed areas. This also fuels Naxalism. Now, that it is apparent industrialization will not create all the millions of anticipated jobs soon enough, the only way to wean those abandoned on the margins is getting them meaningfully self-employed in diversified agriculture. The biggest challenge for a regime is to design farm support programs where small & marginal farmers will get their proportionate share, more so in rain fed areas. A strategy solely dependent on doles outs of food & government work or inversely on use of force always fails.
Funding comes easy for perceived populist programs, but these do not necessarily deliver the promised benefits to society. Short term measures tend to become long term fixtures and restrict progress. Government announcements of ad havoc compensation for crop loss won’t solve problems either but only address the consequences of the deep malice that has crept into the system. It’s akin to constantly giving painkillers for a broken arm. A reactive government invariably loses whether it is responding to political jibes or a crisis. After its first anniversary the BJP will showcase Soil health card, Kisan channel, Crop insurance proposals & land acquisition bill etc. as pro-farmer initiatives. A reading between the lines makes it apparent these too will fail to translate into intended productive outcomes. It will take much more to deliver benefits and to stop the perception from gaining further ground that welfare programs & farmers are being abandoned. BJP can ill afford to remain on course to implement farm policies without adhering to farmer’s critical inputs. Framers can’t survive on mere lip service & political posturing. The public is distracted by farmer suicides, as 18th evangelist John Wesley said in another context “When you set yourself on fire, people love to come and see you burn” & no more.