Why the farmer crisis is far from over
The promises made by the Maharashtra government are nothing but temporary solutions.
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The 180km-long march of thousand of farmers from Nashik to Mumbai has led to a slew of promises by the Maharashtra government. Mumbaikars felt indebted to the farmers, led by the All India Kisan Sabha and other farmer groups, particularly for their decision not to take to the streets in the morning, but instead march to Azad Maidan at night, keeping in mind the Class 10 board exam.
But the promises made to the farmers are - as professor MS Swaminathan, chairman of the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers that is commonly referred to as the Swaminathan panel, said - temporary or ad hoc solutions.
Professor Swaminathan has clearly stated that, “The demand for loan waiver is indicative of non-viability of farm economics. Every step should be taken to make farming economically viable.”
As he bluntly put it, “I am sorry to say that very simple and short-term strategies like loan waiver are adopted... loan waiver is only an easy way to get a new farm loan. But writing off does not guarantee repayment of the next loan unless farming is made viable.”
He went on to stress that "apart from writing off loans, the focus should be to ensure how the loan is repaid. For this, farming economics needs to be fixed... We need a new agriculture, based on ecology and economics".
This general prescription though important, raises critical issues. P Sainath, who has written extensively on agriculture in Maharashtra, has in his detailed writings shown the severe impact on farmers taking loans in distressed times, where rural banking loans are inadequate or take inordinate time to be serviced. This forces many farmers to go to moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest and are ruthless in demanding quick repayment of the loans with interest.
Agricultural outreach is insufficient, in terms of roads, wells, drinking water, affordable fertilisers, cheap access to seeds, and other examples of agricultural extension. Land-use planning is also critical. Prof Swaminathan pointed out that farmers often end up sowing more than the demand.
This leads to price crash of their produce. There is a bitter irony there. One of the most important issues in poverty reduction is the need for cheap and accessible farm products. But in a skewed market, there are plenty of farm products available, but not affordable for the land-owning farmers, and highly inadequate food for the poor farmers and landless peasants.
So in the farming sector, landless farmer must get adequate access to affordable funds, fertilisers, seeds, latest farm technologies and water. Later, technologies like cold storages, where farm products are stored, must be introduced so that vegetables, fruits, etc, can be purchased by farmers at reasonable prices.
These are long-term, and not short-term solutions. As professor Swaminathan has repeatedly pointed out, farmers of different produce have suffered over the years more for the excess acreage of their crops, than the demand for their produce.
The landless peasants must be supported by the workers, land and water activists, agricultural experts, environmental activists to raise the living standards in the agrarian sector. Short-term measures will only be popular in the short-term. But medium- and long-term measures are urgently required for the farmers who with their blood, sweat and tears are able to strike a balance between ecology and economics, as professor Swaminathan has urged.