Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta and Nikhil Jacob

“The agriculture sector is broadly successful. The public distribution system is functioning well, food security has been achieved and productivity is outstripping expectations. However, the farmers are unhappy, their incomes are abysmally low and cases of farmer suicides are still rampant”. Highlighting this critical conundrum that is being faced by the Agri-sector, Shri P Chengal Reddy, Chief Advisor, CIFA, dwelled on the need for urgent reforms in the farm sector which were long due. He applauded the attempt of the incumbent government for initiating the long due reforms in the farm sector through the new farm laws. He rightly pointed out that the Indian farmers are very much capable of developing global competitiveness.

Shri Reddy was chairing the session on “Assuring Farmers’ Income in the Context of New Farm Laws: Issues and the Way Forward”. The discussion was organized by the IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, Working People’s Charter and Counterview.

Panelists Assuring Farmers Income in the Context of New Farm Laws Issues and the Way Forward

Dr A Amarender Reddy, Principal Scientist (Agricultural Economics), ICAR-Centre Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad addressed the reasons for the poor income level of farmers. He attributed this to the fact that although the share of agriculture in GDP has reduced significantly, its share in employment has not reduced in comparison to the other developed countries. As a result, the income share of the sector is only 14% and the average income of a farmer is one-third of what an employee from the non-farm sector earns. Secondly,

Nearly 90 percent of the farmers survive on a meagre income which is barely enough to meet their consumption needs. Hence, they are rendered incapable of investing in capital assets, other fixed assets or even in education, leading to perpetually indebtedness.

The pertinent reason for the poor income level of the farmers is the rigidity of the current farm laws which permit only the farmers to sell in the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandi. This has led to a very small private sector investment in the agriculture sector, to the tune of two percent of the Gross Fixed Capital Formation (GFCF) in 2017-18. All of this has given rise to a vicious cycle of low prices, low incomes, increased debts and low investments which in turn lead to low-income levels.

Minimum Support Price (MSP) Regime

Dr Reddy noted that the cost of production of crops varies across different states. The MSP announced has to signal the farmer regarding the competitiveness of each crop in different regions so that they can produce the one which will fetch them a price which is greater than their cost of production. Even the procurement system has peculiar geographical differences with higher procurements in certain regions and of certain crops and negligible procurements in some other regions and some other crops.

Also, there are several imbalances and inherent deficiencies in the MSP system due to which hardly 10 percent of the farmers receive the benefits under it and the rest are exposed to the market weather, estimates Dr Reddy. Therefore, the policy frameworks must aim at improving the marketing efficiency and the marketing system as a whole. The new farm laws will help in achieving this purpose, opined Dr Reddy.

Status of APMCs

The non-uniformity in APMC charges with variations across states. He questioned the need to tax agriculture considering that the farmers are already poor and suggested that the APMC’s should not be used as a tax revenue source for state governments. Addressing the apprehension that the new farm laws will challenge the position of the APMC mandi’s, Dr Reddy pointed out that even currently, only a portion of the farmer’s produce is sold in the mandi’s and the rest is sold in the market. In that line, the new farm laws are only legalizing this practise and strengthening the outside markets, he clarified.  

Extrapolating from the data showing varying levels of awareness amongst farmers in different states about the MSP system, he states that the poor farmers from North-eastern India, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh etc receive less support whereas, the farmers from developed states like Punjab and Haryana receive the benefits from multiple support schemes. This leads to widening of the already existing income divide between the farmers of these states, he cautioned.

Elaborating on the efficiency of the procurement system, Dr Reddy cautioned that the practice of procuring more than stipulated buffer quantities lead to certain imbalances. It necessitates the offloading of the excess stock in the international or domestic market, which could lead to a price crash. Also, it could lead to a loss when the international market prices or the FCI reserved prices are lower than the actual economic cost of the stock which is inflated by the excess expenditure on handling, logistics, storage and distribution of the produce. Such wasteful expenses must be rationalised and redirected to rural and agriculture development, suggested Dr Reddy.

Speaking on the bias against pulses and other oil seeds in the procurement policy, Dr Reddy emphasises that it is economically unfeasible to increase their procurement under MSP. He suggests that some alternate mechanisms need to be built as pulses and oilseeds are poor man’s crops.

Considering all these lacunae in the agriculture sector, Dr Reddy identifies a long period policy paralysis that is existent. The acts and regulations that were put in place in the 1960s to tackle the ‘ship to mouth’ situation that existed back then are still being perpetuated in this era when India is self-sufficient. He also underlined the redundancies of several legislations, the corruption that is built in the system, the presence of a large number of petty traders and the lack of infrastructure in the sector. Dr Reddy believes that due to certain vested interests, several much-needed reforms are hindered from being implemented in due time.

Appraising the context of new farm laws, Dr Reddy contested that for several years the central government tried to prod the state governments to adopt the model agriculture acts. However, there was very little success and hence through the new farm laws, the government seeks to rectify this and build a nationwide common market, encourage private sector participation and provide freedom and choice to the farmers. In such a setup, the farmers, consumers and large corporate houses will stand to gain and the middlemen, state government revenues and APMC market committees will accrue a loss, maintains Dr Reddy.

Dr Reddy bats for a shift from an assured price to an assured income scheme. He suggested two alternatives, either a shift to a Price Deficiency Payment (PDP) system, where paddy and wheat could be procured under MSP up to the levels necessary to meet the PDS demands and the remaining 21 crops should be provided PDP. The other alternative he put forth was the modification of the insurance scheme, the PMFBY, which needs to cover the price risk in addition to the yield risk. The Agricultural Insurance Company (AIC) should be strengthened and the budget under agriculture subsidies should be pooled under this for providing income insurance. This will prevent market distortion and assure the farmers a minimum income.

He added that and it is the responsibility of academicians and researchers to ensure that mechanisms are in place to ensure sustainability and equitability while achieving market efficiency

Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director, Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, Telangana underlined the difference in opinion between the government who considers it as a panacea for all ills and the farmers who consider that it will lead to peril. Today, the farm sector is faced with several new challenges like the simultaneous prevalence of surplus production and poor income levels, falling prices and the rising cost of cultivation, changing consumption patterns and climate change.

To tackle these issues, he advocated for progressive decentralization, where the states are allowed to decide regarding the cropping pattern, market intervention mechanisms, and investment etc under the overall guidance of the central government. He also suggested that the faulty price estimation method under the MSP system should be changed; price distortions should be dealt with; subsidies should be rationalized and non-price distorting direct cash transfer mechanisms need to be explored with proper identification of the beneficiaries.

He highlighted that farmers are doubly taxed since they pay input taxes when purchasing raw materials as well as pay the mandi taxes when selling their produce. This impacts the farmer’s income levels. Dr Ramanjaneyulu appraised the essentiality of the new farm laws but criticized the way it was formulated by not keeping all the stakeholders in the loop.

Prof Seema Bathla, Professor, Centre for Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi corroborated Dr Reddy’s observation that the input costs are rising steeply despite the fertilizer, power and irrigation subsidies provided by the government. Simultaneously, poor price realization leads to low net returns to the farmer. She adds that this conundrum could be addressed by either regulating the input cost or increasing the output prices. The other alternative would be reforming the marketing mechanism, increasing the yield, reducing risk and tapping into the agro-processing sector.  

Prof Bathla highlighted the issue of regional bias in providing subsidies and points out that such a bias has been inherent right from the green revolution. This has led to the poor agriculture development of the eastern states. However, she contests that the subsidies depend on use and states such as Punjab and Haryana utilize a lot of fertilizers leading to this skewed disbursal of subsidies which hardly reach the neediest small and marginal farmers.

There is a need to analyse the impact of the increased usage of fertilizers and their impact on land and productivity. Analysing the next alternative of augmenting the output prices received by the farmer, Prof Bathla highlighted the challenges involved in moving to a PDP or a direct cash transfer scheme. She states that it is difficult to estimate with accuracy how much fertilizer is being used in a state, its price elasticity and the impact on overall output.

Hence the amount of cash transfer that needs to be given is something that has to be researched thoroughly, she added. Considering these issues in the first two alternatives, reforming the marketing mechanism would seem to be the next viable way forward. However, such reform has certain prerequisites like a high public investment in agriculture, irrigation and rural infrastructure, adds Prof Bathla.

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi, Independent Consultant, Policy Expert and SDG Campaigner opined that the MSP and procurement policies are not universal, crop diversity is being affected and this calls for reforms in the MSP regime. He highlights the issues associated with modern input technologies like genetically modified crops and HYV seeds which leads to leakage of income and calls for increased deliberations on whether brining in the private sector will solve all the inherent problems. Lastly, he criticizes the poor consultation process that was adopted while bringing in the farm reforms. No space and time are allotted to listen to the voice of farmers, notes Dr Donthi while citing examples from the past in case of cotton, corn, sugarcane.

Dr Donthi opined that there should be a thorough analysis of what should be the role of the public and private sector in ensuring price and market efficiency in the light of the new farm laws. He added that the MSP regime should be expanded as a universal MSP, but in a targeted and decentralized way. He argues that PDP is not an efficient solution given the corruptions and inadequacies in the system. Going forward, there is need to turn towards ecological farming and focus on local production and consumption,

There is the need for institutionally developed grading systems for agricultural commodities. He also highlighted the inaccessibility of certain food products like pulses, tamarind etc to the poor people due to their rising prices

Prof Surabhi Mittal, Member Secretary, International Committee of Women in Agricultural Economics, (ICWAE); Joint Secretary, Agricultural Economics Research Association (AERA) remarked that focus should be shifted from cereals to high-value commodities.  Prof Mittal maintained that the protests are fuelled by farmers in few states who are engaged in the cultivation of cereal crops or those cultivating crops which fetch them an MSP. However, she reminds that MSP was originally conceived to facilitate PDS, but now it is being viewed as a right for all farmers, which is not economically feasible.

Prof Mittal cautions that this system is not sustainable and to develop the farm sector there is a need for diversification of farming and introduction of marketing reforms. In that light, the current reforms are in the direction of making agriculture sustainable and profitable, where farmers can be seen as entrepreneurs, concluded Dr Mittal.

Prof Vinoj Abraham, Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Kerala raised a very critical point that an efficient market does not mean an equitable market. Efficient markets need not benefit all farmers. To drive home his point, he draws attention towards the outcomes of the other sectors which were liberalized since the 1990s which show a higher within sector inequality than the agriculture sector. Liberalization may lead to better market outcomes in terms of market efficiency but whether it leads to just solutions for the economy is a question that needs to be pondered upon, emphasises Prof Abraham.

Citing the example of rubber plantation in Kerala, Prof Abraham also notes that before opening the sector to the vagaries of the market, efforts must be made to ensure that productivity and competitiveness rise commensurate to the demand to be able to compete effectively in the global market.

Concluding Remarks and Way Forward

Dr Amarender Reddy agreed that ensuring market efficiency may not ensure equitability. However, he contested that after so many years of agriculture policy paralysis, a reform in this direction is inevitable. Also, the government must intervene to provide some safeguard to this end, remarked Dr Reddy.

With regards to the PDP system, he maintained that it is more efficient than physical procurement. He suggests that the existing infrastructure in place for disbursing the benefits under PM-Kisan can be used to provide PDP. He added that public procurement should continue to meet the needs of food security purposes but beyond that, it must be disbanded. In addition to this, Dr Reddy suggested that the FPO’s should be strengthened and input costs must be contained by adopting new and advanced technologies.

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