It is good that there has been a lot of discussion around farmers’ problems in recent months. Some useful suggestions have emerged. At the level of official policy, however, two issues appear to be dominating the discussion.
Firstly, the much-discussed loan waivers. Now there is no doubt that farmers need relief from debt, not just from bank loans but also from loans of private moneylenders. But alongside we need to raise the relevant question – what is the system that pushes the farmer into debt and why has the system increased indebtedness of farmers in more recent times (despite selective loan-waivers being announced from time to time)? Are we also doing something significant to break the cycle which inevitably increases indebtedness? If this is not done, then despite loan-waivers – even big ones – the problem of indebtedness-related distress will again acquire serious dimensions after some time.
The second policy option which dominates discussion is regarding increase of support price. Again, there is no doubt that this is needed, but there is a larger context and a larger question. The crucial question is – what kind of farming system will the increase in price support? If it helps farmers who are involved in ecologically friendly and sustainable farming practices, then this increase is welcome. On the other hand, if such an increase perpetuates a basically unsustainable and ecologically harmful system by providing artificial support, then the wisdom of such a price increase is in doubt.
For example, growing excess sugarcane in a water-scarce area (and also having liquor factories linked to large-scale sugarcane cultivation) is clearly unsustainable. It is basically harmful for the environment and people of the region and so the system is bound to collapse. But politically powerful lobbies can exert pressure to increase the price of this monoculture crop even in such a situation and so the unsustainable, harmful cropping and industrial growth linked to it is perpetuated by using public funds wrongly.
This is just one example. The broader question is whether public funds should be poured into providing artificial support to unsustainable, expensive, ecologically disruptive systems or should the same funds be used to support a change towards sustainable, low-cost, eco-friendly, self-reliant systems?
There are very powerful lobbies which not only want the existing unsustainable, ecologically disruptive and harmful practices to continue, but in addition they are pushing for even more disruptive practices that benefit them or increase their dominance. Should the government make their task easier by increasing the support-price for crops or crop varieties or crop rotations grown under these disruptive systems?
The key issue is that we need farming systems which are sustainable, extremely low-cost and self-reliant (to the extent possible). One main emphasis is to find decentralised and locally-specific solutions, keeping in mind land, soil and water conditions, while keeping in mind the larger priorities of agro-ecology, food security and sovereignty.
Farming science should mean never going against nature, but instead observing natural processes carefully to see how these can be harnessed to help the cause of farmers and farming without harming other living beings and the environment. A related principle is that no poison should ever be introduced and released in the food system and in the food chain.
For these good ideas to work in the interests of the good earth, the government should have very pro-village policies and spend liberally but carefully on water conservation and increasing the green cover.
A question which many farmers’ organisations ask is whether such a system can also bring enough cash to farmers, as beyond providing healthy food for themselves and others they have cash needs. The answer for this oft-asked question is three-fold. Firstly, it is not a matter of gross cash receipts but of net income. If good farming is so low-cost as to avoid debts, then the net income is likely to be better. This net income will increase as the positive results of protected ecosystems emerge in the course of years.
Secondly, there is enough scope for generating a wide range of other eco-friendly jobs at the level of rural areas and para-urban areas which can be more accessible to all rural families and help to increase cash income. Such wider changes in economy for decentralised employment increasing initiatives are also needed for regeneration of villages.
Thirdly, social reform efforts are badly needed to curb consumption of liquor and all other substance abuse, to curb dowry system and all wasteful spending on certain events and also to restrict wasteful consumerism. Without such social reform initiatives, it will be difficult to reduce indebtedness and economic problems.
The problem of rural distress is multi-dimensional and the solution also has to be multi-dimensional. We should try to reach a broad agreement at least on some basic issues so that some important policies and initiatives can be taken up without further delay.
As eco-friendly farming is an important part of the solution, we should try to also get the funds available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for such programmes. The government must also give highest priority to rural areas. Hence it should be possible to mobilise higher reasources for rural areas, but it is even more important to utilise these funds carefully.
So far moneys have been largely used to fund unsustainable, ecologically disruptive, wasteful practices. We need to use our limited resources for sustainable practices that cost less and are most suitable for small farmers. The agenda of land reforms should be revived so that landless households can also get at least some land and we can also have them as small farmers.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved in several social movements and initiatives.