Traveling through western and central Uttar Pradesh on my way home to Tilhar for the Holi break, I had occasion to see the winter crop . Tilhar lies about 300 km east of Delhi in the fertile plains of northern India. Here acres of wheat stood sturdily in the fields, slowly changing colour from green to yellow. The crop was good and if all goes well ( touchwood !) the farmer will have a good harvest ,bringing in a good average of grain, but will it bring in prosperity? Will the crop in the field translate into money in the bank? Likely not.
One thing is clear , the farmer knows how to farm. He, and now increasingly she, can coax out of the earth, even under difficult conditions of poor soil and little water, something to eat. In areas blessed by Nature like in the Indo-Gangetic belt where Tilhar lies, farmers know how to take good crops.
This year the wheat is good. Fairly decent winter rains that came late in the season were nectar for the standing crop. The westerly wind did not blow too much and the farmer was relieved . Because when the Pachiyao wind blows in from the west , it will cruelly dry up the sap in the seed so the grains will be light and shriveled. But this season with its sunny warming days and cool nights, so crucial for wheat, the crop was thriving and the grains are plump and plentiful. The wheat crop depends on the night temperature. It must be cold for the wheat to thrive. This year the nights have been cold and the crop in the fields shows it.
Western and Central Uttar Pradesh produce surplus grain like Punjab and Haryana and since the days of the Green Revolution, these have been important centres where rice and wheat are procured for the central pool. In the early days this worked well for farmers but in the last years , procurement has become an exercise to torment farmers rather than support them. First, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is announced, is never paid in full, always less. If the price announced for wheat is Rs 1120 per quintal, as it is this year, the real price that the farmer would get could be anything from Rs 750 to Rs 950 per quintal. Corruption locks the farmers in a vice like grip because they have no storage facilities and must sell their harvest immediately after harvest.
Both procurement agencies and where relevant, the market, knows this and turns the screws on price since they know the farmer has no choice but to sell. Other strategies that are used to press prices down is to tell the farmer that their grain has not been dried sufficiently ( whether that is true or not) and will not be lifted. As soon as palms have been greased, the grain dries miraculously. Other tricks are to declare the grain too ‘light’ , not fulfilling the standards set by the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The FCI’s exacting standards are equally miraculously met once the farmers pockets have become correspondingly lighter.
Often there is an unholy nexus between the FCI agents and private companies . The deal is that the procurement agency will reject much of the grain on one pretext or another Farmers have to travel to procurement centres with their grain, for it to be inspected, weighed and lifted. If they do not have their own bullock carts, they hire these or rent trucks or tractor trolleys to bring their grain to the centre. Every day of delay costs the farmer in rental money. Its like ports charge demurrage charges if you do not lift your goods. Each day the port holds your goods, it charges you a fee. Bullock cart , tractor- trolley and truck owners do the same. So if they have to wait around till the farmer can negotiate the deal, the cost of hire goes up every day.
This eats into the farmer’s profit. When the farmer’s grain is held up and he is desperate to sell , the private companies will step in and buy up the grain at low prices. In this way the backbreaking effort put in by the farmer and the little subsidy he gets on fertilizer and diesel to irrigate his fields goes to benefit the private companies. Despite a good harvest the farmer may not make a profit. Sometimes he can not even recover his cost and in this way he gets poorer and so desperate that he wants to abandon agriculture.
This is not my version. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) discovered this in its survey in 2007 when almost half the country’s farmers said they would abandon farming if they could find another occupation. This should set the alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power. If the farmer does not grow food what will we eat? Import food ? But there is nothing available on the international market to buy ! Droughts in Australia and Russia, floods in New Zealand and turbulent weather every where has ensured that the guaranteed food surpluses cannot be counted on. The biofuel drive in the US has drawn away the American corn into ethanol production so that wheat is being diverted to animal feed and both corn and wheat are now in short supply.
It is not rocket science to understand that we need to make agriculture work if we as a nation are to get anywhere. Pursuing the dreams of 9 percent growth while leaving large chunks of India out of the ambit of such growth is fraught with danger, as the developments in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand are showing us every other week. Internal security, the Prime Minister says is the country’s largest crisis. Fixing agriculture and putting money in the farmers’ pocket is a dead sure way of finding our way out of this crisis. When will we get that?