Farmers’ Commission: A critical gap filled – II

By K.N. Kumar

The attitude toward farmers as a set of mere supplicants waiting for the patronage of the government is pervasive. The current model of governmental support to the sector is founded on the premise that the farmers need technical and financial support, and the same is usually delivered to them through a well laid down hierarchy of technically qualified people of the departments of agriculture and allied sectors. One cannot argue that this mechanism is flawed because it has delivered, and will continue to do so, because there are some very committed officers and field staff in the system. The data with respect to production and productivity gains of some key cereal and horticulture crops, fresh water fish and a few animal products prove this point adequately. The system is not faulty but it certainly is neither scientific nor sensitive. The technical officers feel stymied by the financial system that simply has no clue about the crop cycles, the bureaucracy has a severe shortage of human capacity to understand the technical intricacies of agriculture and the allied sectors and the farmers do not know what is going on because they are neither consulted on the policy nor are they briefed about the implementation process. The departments run on a heavily schematic approach, most of which are by design inflexible, top-driven, processes oriented; and are inadequate to  meet the requirements of the state’s farmers.

Not everything is fine with most technical directorates too, as most are desperately short of  manpower even to discharge their routine functions, what to speak of conducting original technical research.  They lack the time, or the mandate, to look into the fundamental issues plaguing the farming sector. All that they do is to stick to the schemes and deliver them to the best of their capabilities.  Honest stock-taking, of how the farmers’ lives can be improved, by thinking about and doing things differently – is certainly not on the agenda of an average officer of the various Directorates.  They are saddled with too many clerical functions that they are reconciled to doing, and driven as it were; by their targets, it would be well-nigh impossible to expect that these officers do any original work.  There are some individual exceptions, but we are not talking about them here. In all this humdrum, there is hardly any space or time for any serious interaction with the farmers – thereby leaving a huge gap that cannot be bridged so easily.

That brings me to my principal point that there has never been any effort in the past to establish a standing and permanent institutional mechanism to support the cause of the farmers. There is no body that articulates the farmer grievances based on a systematic study of their concerns, and urges or nudges the government to initiate action in that regard on a regular basis. There have been ad hoc commissions set up time to time, by various state governments and even the Government of India, to look into specific  issues concerning the farmers, but not a permanent standing commission by statute. Therefore, there is a huge knowledge gap in the mainstream society leading to an inadequate appreciation of the farm sector issues. Even the civil society does not precisely understand the complex, inter-linked farm sector issues. Therefore, the idea that there should be a publicly funded body to pick the farm distress signals and stand up for the rights of the genuine farmers is not just prudent, but timely too. The Commission should not just be a platform to engage the farmers regularly – it should also codify their rights and mainstream them so their agenda becomes a part of public discourse in due course of time. A derivative of all this effort by the Commission should be to find lasting, sustainable and long-term solutions to alleviate the agrarian distress. The issues are fundamental, so the response should not be just a muted murmur.

Farmer empowerment may consist of at least three major layers – economic, social and political. Each of these components needs to be worked on independently and together, but I think the primary ones are the economic and social layers. It certainly is a long haul, but it needs to be begun soon enough to avoid any distress expressing in the near time. Farmers can be empowered only when their interests are collectivized and when they begin speaking about their concerns powerfully on a common platform.  It is not my argument that such an organization would have to be necessarily a government body.  It does not have to be, but it could take a long time, if we have to leave it to an organic growth process. In the absence of a powerful farmer organization on the lines of a Shetkari Sangathan, catalysing such a process in the interim through a public body will perhaps be necessary. Empowerment is as much about educating people as it is about organizing them. The one who is educated can be organized and the one who is organized can be empowered.  Economic empowerment enables political empowerment and thereby leads to a better realization of rights. Unfortunately in our system the ones with authority do not always understand the people’s needs and the ones with needs do not have any authority.  The Farmers Commission can benefit both.

Just to give a brief on some of the farmer concerns that beg answers are – (1) Are all the state and central developmental schemes appropriately conceptualized?  And if so, are they all delivered such that there is an efficient return on the investments? (2) Why the state or the civil society is helpless in purging the scourge of the middlemen in agriculture?  (3) Why don’t the people discuss the near absence of authentic land records and why isn’t a comprehensive cadastral survey of Meghalaya’s lands done so far? And why are land reforms a taboo subject in the state? (4) How have the vendors come to dominate the input delivery system? Why are we so disdainful toward the native seeds and obsess over the MNC seeds driven by vendors? (5) What will happen to the state’s agriculture if the next generation of youth does not want to pursue it as a profession? (6) If organic agriculture is sought to be promoted then why higher prices cannot be ensured for the organic products? (7) Why isn’t the commodity marketing system not getting decentralized and is concentrated in a few hands? How are these archaic laws and traditional systems dominating the agriculture commodity marketing in Meghalaya?  (8) Why isn’t crop insurance system benefitting the farmers in the state? (9) After decades of investment in developing irrigation, how is it that the cropping intensity is only 120% in the state? For how long will we keep the land fallow during the winters in a water rich state?  (10) Why aren’t there any major technological breakthroughs in hill agriculture?  Why the foot print of the institution meant for developing and transferring technologies in the state so minimal? Questions galore and answers do not come by, so very easily or soon.

Besides the above issues, I also think that as a society we will not just need to acknowledge the farmer rights and entitlements, but also help codify them so they are internalized by the officials of all the departments. The necessity to codify farmer rights flows out of prudential reasons – if the primary sector fails, it will have a cascading negative effect on the secondary and tertiary sectors, if food security is impacted, the very base of social security will have been eroded. Even as we are discussing and prioritizing other things,  the agrarian distress is creeping in.  When it hits, it will hit really hard and the human suffering will be incalculably large.  3 lakh farmers committed suicides in India since 1995, failure of high value crops, debt burden and price crash being the primary reasons. Fortunately, we as a state have been spared of such a wide-spread calamity partly because the farmers here are wise enough not to excessively depend upon high value inputs as also because the assistance from the Government of India is very liberal, compared to the rest of India.  How long will this luck last?

(The writer is Chairperson, Meghalaya Farmers’ Commission)

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