A rotten deal to ryots

With farm subsidy under attack, Quantitative Restrictions on imports gone and marketing facilities not yet in place, farmers are feeling insecure. GARGI PARSAI lists their woes.

THE AGRICULTURE sector is in transition - for better or worse, nobody knows yet. For the moment, there is a lot of discontent within the farming community and a growing sense of frustration at the way things has been turning out for it since the Agreement on Agriculture in the World Trade Organisation came into effect in 1995.

With farm subsidy under attack, Quantitative Restrictions (QRs) on import of several commodities gone and marketing avenues and facilities not yet in place, the farmers are feeling insecure. Added to this is the surge of BT cotton, genetically-modified food technology, terminator seed technology, and global attempts to patent traditional seeds and products which have bewildered cultivators.

Successive governments have not done anything worth a mention to make the farm sector aware of what is coming. There is no extension system in place to educate the farmers or even panchayats on field - what to expect and what not to fear and how to adapt themselves to the changing economic scenario to make the most of it and enhance their incomes. A lot of rhetoric has gone into assuring agriculturists from political platforms how competition would change their lifestyle, but the reality is about ill- informed, debt-bound farmers committing suicides or pushed into penury.

This year was particularly difficult with a record foodgrains production of 206 million tonnes, availability of stocks in excess by 219 lakh tonnes and lack of a marketing mechanism. The lofty scheme for setting up a cold storage chain in the country in the aftermath of the onion scarcity two years ago and the glut in potato, tomato and brinjal output is nowhere in sight. Likewise, the national policy for creating storage spaces for foodgrains has also not taken off and thousands of tonnes of foodgrains are stored in open spaces or are rotting in Food Corporation of India godowns when people are going hungry in drought-stricken Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Added to this are the ill-conceived decisions taken in the last two years to allow unfettered import of wheat, sugar and oilseeds.

It was only after the additional - unneeded imports - tilted the scales that a move was made to impose a duty on them. Even now, the conservative hike in the duty on oilseeds has done nothing to stop their import and ruined the copra economy in southern States.

The worst problem this year is that farmers are unable to get a remunerative price, whether in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh or Kerala, because of the problem of plenty. Over the years, the minimum support price for various commodities including rice and wheat has been so attractive that it has disturbed the mandi economy. It has also hampered export as the international prices are often lower than in-house prices. The FCI too slowed down procurement this year for lack of storage space. The Government has, of course, taken the political decision to go ahead with procurement. There are also concerns at the Government allowing import of commodities from countries which heavily subsidise their farm sector, while the prices of inputs in Indian farming have gone up with the hike in the cost of diesel, power and fertilizer.

Farm experts say that in previous years even when the WTO was not in place, the Indian farmer was not that well-off given the farm- level- mandi economy of functioning through `artiyas' (middlemen, agents) who would give a loan to the cultivator as well as buy his produce. This cycle, of course, did nothing to improve the lifestyle of the farmers. But now, when the Government wants to encourage diversification, marketing and export, the `artiyas' are still in place benefiting most from the surplus situation.

The executive chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, Dr. Krishan Bir Chaudhary, who attended all preliminary meetings convened by the Union Agriculture Ministry on the stand to be taken in the ongoing WTO negotiations, is categorical: India should pull out of agricultural pacts as they are not favourable to Indian farmers and will ruin them in a few years. ``Where is the Indian farmer today who is all set to capture the world market with WTO? Can he cope with the stringent phytosanitary measures or the child labour norms imposed by the developed world? If the farmer discontinues the traditional cropping pattern and goes for diversification, where are the marketing facilities - the cold storages, the food processing units and export markets?''

Mr. Chaudhary may sound like someone against the WTO or economic liberalisation, but he is not. He is yearning for the progress that the farmers were promised they would make after the WTO came into being.

But there are other pragmatic voices which suggest that the best way would be for India to explore markets in smaller, needy nations such as Ethiopia, Surinam, Bangladesh and the CIS countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

The Agriculture Ministry seems to have finally woken up to the needs of the farming community. A Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Bill, 2000, which entitles a farmer to the same level of protection as obtaining for a breeder if he/she has bred a new variety, is before a select committee of Parliament. The Minister, Mr. Nitish Kumar, has prepared a paper, after consultations with a variety of people and politicians including former Prime Ministers, on India's latest stand on the agreements on agriculture in the WTO. The foremost are the demands for a level playing field for member-countries on farm subsidies and restoration of QRs on some products while stressing the farmers' livelihood and self-sufficiency factors.

But farm leaders say a strong farming community threw out the Congress regime which kept the WTO provisions in a shroud. The way things are moving, they warn, it will again vote out the NDA, once the simmering discontent comes to the boil.

(The Hindu)


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