May , 2017
Deepening distress of farmers: Yield that never reaps gains
14:02 pm

Nirma Bora


Prosperity of the Indian agricultural sector has often been assessed by agricultural economists on two bases - its contribution to the country’s GDP and its growth rate per annum.  Despite having a buffer stock of over 60 million tonnes and the food grain production increasing from 51 million tonnes (mt) in 1950 to about 264 mt in 2014-15, boosting the not so ‘stagnant’ growth rate in agriculture is still high on the agenda of the current government. However, the agrarian crisis in the country is not about food insecurity as much as it is about farmers’ income security. At this crucial time, when the rising number of farmers’ suicide has been doing rounds at international conferences including the signature ceremony of the Paris Agreement, the government must focus on ascertaining the income security of farmers.  Doubling the farmers’ income by 2022 may work well as a rhetoric to pacify the public but it would be extremely difficult to implement as it would imply a compound growth rate of 12% per annum.

The agrarian crisis

It was the chemically supplemented Green Revolution of the 1960s that helped India end its cycle of famine and yet, set off a new threat, which was more disastrous than the initial one. It led to negative environmental effects in the form of depleting water tables, emission of greenhouse gases and contamination of soil and groundwater. Another nail in the coffin was climate change. The current decade will see whether humanity is capable of overcoming a complex web of environmental problems and how farmers cope with the unpredictable and extreme weather events.

The extent of crop damage from extreme weather events in the rabi of 2015 itself was as high as Rs. 20,453 crore and affected around 18.23 million hectares of cropland across 15 states. Prior to this, in 2014, the damage was reported on 5.5 million hectares across six states for the rabi crops. Besides hailstorm and unseasonal rains, consecutive drought years of 2014 and 2015 made the agricultural sector go through a low period. The 2015 drought was estimated to impact the economy ensuring a loss of around Rs. 6,50,000 crore. 

Crops loss is an annual phenomenon now and its direct 

impact is evident on food production and can also be seen in the rising agricultural indebtness which has triggered this alarming rate of farmer suicides. According to NSSO 59th Round (2003) 48.6% farmer households were estimated to be indebted. In NSSO 70th Round (2013), this number shot up to 52%. Corresponding to the increase in the debt burden, an increase in suicide rate was also witnessed. While 15,400 farmers ended their lives each year between 1995 and 2003, this number increased to more than 16,000 per year between 2004 and 2012. Indebtness is being cited as the predominant single factor associated with farmer suicide as data from National Crime Records Bureau reveal that 80% of farmers killed themselves in 2015 because of bankruptcy or due to debts they could not repay. Poor implementation of crop insurance schemes also contributes to this increasing vulnerability of farmers. Currently, only 20% of the farmers and 23% of the total cropped area in the country has been insured.

Though crop failure or low productivity may be the primary reason behind farmers’ suicide, it’s not the sole reason. With Punjab having the highest annual per hectare productivity of cereal crops (like wheat, rice and maize) and Maharashtra in 2016 witnessing higher per-unit output of onions than in the previous years, it’s time for agri- economists to acknowledge that the low price being paid to the farmers is the primary reason for the prevailing agrarian crisis. The procurement price of wheat in 1970 was Rupee Foradian 76/quintal. In 2015, MSP for wheat was fixed at Rs. 1,450 per quintal. This is an increase by 19 times over a period of 45 years. The jump in salaries of government employees (just the basic salary plus DA) in the same period has been 120 to 150 times and for school teachers it has been 280 to 320 times. Looking at the salary hike in other sectors, the government must acknowledge and take remedial measures towards balancing income distribution.

With an average farm household making less than Rs. 6,500 a month from all sources of income, millions are leaving their homes in search of jobs that are not there. The last 10 years (between 2001-2011) witnessed one of the largest migrations from rural to urban India, not seen in 90 years. Though the government tries to incentivize agriculture by providing huge subsidies on agriculture technology and practices, 94% of government subsidies are being availed by big and medium farmers, leaving the smaller and marginal ones dry. Subsequently, a large majority of farmers wanted to give up farming for some better opportunity in cities.

Policies and its limitations

Adaptability and resilience of the system and its components are determined by actions at different levels and interactions within the system. While farmers across India have demonstrated a capacity to adopt a number of adaptation practices that has not only sustained production and farm incomes but has significant environmental, social, and economic value, the Indian government too has begun to address these vulnerabilities. Various programmes have been introduced ranging from PM Crop Insurance Scheme in 2016, KISAN SMS Portal in 2013, Soil Health Card Scheme in 2015, Krishi Sichai Yojna (2015) to the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) seeking to transform Indian agriculture into a climate resilient production system through suitable adaptation and mitigation measures in domains of both crops and animal husbandry. Each of these programmes is laced with components that appear to benefit the farmer but have limited outcomes. For example, under the Soil Health Card Scheme, soil test will be conducted once in 3 years and will over-generalise the soil as only one soil sample will be taken from an area of 10 hectares in rain-fed land and 2.5 hectares in irrigated land. Likewise, free SMS scheme for farmers ignores the high illiteracy in backward and rural areas with limited ability to read the message and follow the weather related warning. Another attempt of the government to reduce the risk associated with climate change has been the launch of National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture. The Mission has actually contributed, but towards making agriculture “sustain high yields” instead of it being ‘sustainable’ as its focus is broadly on biotechnology and farm mechanization for a country where farmers cannot even afford purchasing simple agricultural tools, seeds and manure from the market. Other initiatives like the Climate Smart Villages overlooked medium and long term strategies for sustainable agriculture and worked more on a project mode while Bringing Green Revolution in Eastern India (BGREI) was about boosting production and productivity through focus on mechanisation and technology. 


Generally, most discussion on climate change and agriculture focuses on the dimension of achieving record production each year, leaving behind security of the food producers. Despite food price inflation, farmers’ net income has not increased. With various schemes, missions and plans being announced in agriculture, farmers still live in a hand to mouth situation as half the farmers’ households are neck-deep in debt. In times of changing climate too, the government is obsessed with ‘maximization of production’ approach and is not recognizing the risk ahead.  Profitability in the farming sector should be tied to bigger and more humble goals like steady income for the farmers, effective and efficient use of natural resources and food security for the nation.

The author is part of the team of Public Advocacy Initiatives for Rights and Values in India (PAIRVI), New Delhi



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