Instead of arm-twisting farmers, educate them so they make intelligent choices

As reported by this paper on Monday, the government is considering a plan under which farmers will not be allowed to grow water-intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane, if they want access to water from new irrigation projects coming up in the country. In short, the government is planning to influence what farmers do by using water resource as a tool of state policy.

The policymakers seem to be forgetting two basic facts about Indian agriculture. One, as agriculture falls under the state jurisdiction, there cannot be a Central law to restrict the use of water. Two, the way farmers in India use water resources — through irrigation canals — there is no way that even state governments can control the end use of water or tell a farmer what to do and what not to do. 

Yes, it is a fact that there is scarcity of water and productivity in irrigated areas is two and half time more than areas that are not irrigated. But a crop cycle is not only about water, there is a whole agriculture supply chain around that crop, which are unique to that particular geographical area.

If we ask Punjab to grow more fruits, vegetables and flowers instead of rice and wheat, where is the allied infrastructure that is essential to take care of the horticulture produce?

It is true that awareness must be created among the farmers about the basics of demand and supply as well as provide them with more relevant information regarding economic value enhancement of their production. This will nudge the farmers in making more intelligent decisions with regard to their choice of the crop to grow in a particular year. But these awareness campaigns cannot have conditions attached to them.

It is also essential to make farmers realise that when they follow a herd mentality — that is, choose a crop based on the price fetched by the crop the previous year — they might end losing money instead of increasing their earnings. For instance, when potatoes price shoot up, which they do often, tendency amongst farmers is to grow more potatoes in the hope that they will able to fetch higher prices in the coming season too. When too many farmers make this assumption, obviously, the supply of potatoes is going to be more than the demand, leading to a crash in potato prices. Thus farmers are left with huge stock of potatoes, which are either sold at throwaway prices or rotten. This in turn will discourage them from choosing potatoes next year. Thus this cycle keeps repeating.

The government certainly needs to educate farmer on crop planning. Data on possible production for the year can be easily estimated by the government, which can be used to explain to farmers about the crops that are likely to be in oversupply, along with suggestions for alternative crops that may yield them higher prices. This is no doubt a complicated affair, but it is worth the effort because after a couple of years of hand-holding, farmers will themselves be in a position to understand the demand and supply conditions of a particular crop and the returns to overall economy will be very high.

The policymakers need to work on weather forecasting system as well. Unpredictable weather is the biggest element of risk today in agriculture and every year unseasonable rains create trouble for farmers. In developed worlds, there are technique available which accurately forecast even the shortest possible weather trend, leave alone the accuracy of the mega trends like the monsoon. In India, unfortunately, we don’t even get our broad monsoon trend right.