Farm loan waiver is not the most prudent step to deal with the crisis in the agriculture sector

After the mobilisation of farmers in western Maharashtra by opposition parties, Kisan Kranti Yatra – the long march over 10 days – held by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) with thousands of farmers is yet another indication of unrest in rural India. Whether politically motivated or not, the convergence of farmers in the national capital reflects the stress in agriculture and crisis of confidence in the promises made by the government. Most farmers came from western and eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh to express their anger against the raw deal given to them. Successive governments will have to take their share of blame for failing to revive farming as a self-sustainable business enterprise, profitable vocation and one that allows earning of decent wages. While most political parties have raked up farmers’ problems at election time and made promises, there has scarcely been a change on the ground. Without empowering those dependent on the farm sector, India’s growth story will not be sustainable.

On the subject of their demands, the blanket waiver of farm loans may not be the best option for any government at the Centre or the states. Moreover, there is no consensus on waivers among political parties. Waivers are not sustainable in the long run and undermine credit culture across rural India. Such a move, even though a populist tool to build bridges with farmers, will only pile on more non-performing assets with banks. To date, the Narendra Modi regime’s focus was to double income via remunerative prices mechanism, make debt available at easy terms and bring rural people into mainstream banking sector. There is no denying that this is the right approach to spread rural prosperity, remove liquidity crisis for the farming community and expand agriculture sector contribution to GDP. However, the government should intercede on the farmers’ demand to lift a ban on plying of 10-year old tractors that had been imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). While, the tribunal’s order pertained to the overall aim of reducing pollution, the government could find some relief for farmers.

Meanwhile, providing cost-effective fuel and electricity is certain to enhance rural productivity and boost growth. But that is easier said than done in view of the huge spike in crude prices and rising cost of generating electricity. Cross-subsidising farmers along with domestic consumers is the only way out. Alternatively, governments at the Centre and in the states will have to provide direct power and fuel subsidies to farmers in their budgets. Otherwise, the government will have to factor the high fuel and power prices while computing the minimum support prices (MSP) for 20-odd products with assured 50 per cent enhanced returns. Providing pension for farm labour is not a bad idea at all. If Aasha workers and industrial contract labour could be extended social security, why not farm labour? One big issue on which the government may have expressed its inability was MSP that includes land lease rentals and family labour cost i.e. C2 cost plus formula recommended by MS Swaminathan committee. To begin with, a watered down proposal has already been agreed upon and implemented as part of the prime minister’s dream project of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. Achieving this landmark should be starting point for expanding this formula.