Brainstorm Think

To Solve The Problem, First Define It

Before we solve the crisis in Indian agriculture, we need clarity on what we are aiming for.

This is the first post in our Brainstorm discussion on ‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture’. Read the intro post here.

Here’s a puzzle. Almost everyone agrees that there is a crisis in rural India in general and in agriculture in particular. Yet, we do not know how we are going to address it.

We know that there is a serious problem when half the country produces only around 14% of the national income. We know that crop yields in India are low, farm sizes are getting smaller, livelihoods depend on the vagaries of the monsoon, farm credit is controversial, farmers’ suicides capture headlines, as do farmers’ protests.

We know that we are addressing the agriculture sector through fertiliser subsidies, minimum support prices, price controls and trade quotas that are imposed in response to domestic and global events. Then there are government schemes that have four letter acronyms like ATMA, five-letter acronyms like NEGP-A, five-letter schemes like PMKSY and the biggest one of them all, a seven-letter one called MGNREGA.

Just take a look at a bulletin put out by the Union agriculture ministry and you’ll notice a flurry of activity: money being allocated, money being spent, metrics being achieved and charts showing rising graphs.

What we do not know is how India sees the future of agriculture and of farmers, and what the government, markets and civil society need to do to get there. There are programmes, schemes and budgets. But there are no goals. We are in a boat, steering and rowing in different directions at different times and different speeds, and hoping we’ll get to a destination we have not decided on.

This sounds overly harsh, but it isn’t. The National Policy for Farmers, released in 2007, spells out no less than 25 “major policy goals”. But they are not goals, but a list of activities. The Swaminathan Committee Report released a year before the national policy provides more details on land reforms, irrigation, productivity, credit and insurance, competitiveness and a number of other areas. Yet it recommends policy directions, not goals. It tells us which direction to row towards, but is less clear about the destination and time-frames.

This won’t do. Big, complex, distributed challenges that involve multiple actors—in this case the Union government, state governments, banks, private sector, non-governmental organisations and 500 million people—need specific goals and timelines so that efforts are aligned and concerted. The UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals spell out explicit targets such as “by 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty.” The Paris Agreement at the COP21 “limits global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and… to strive for 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Such goals help clarify minds, set priorities and focus policies towards achieving desired outcomes.

That is why the next national agriculture policy—and we need one—should largely focus on setting National Agriculture Goals (NAGs) with associated timelines. This should then inform the programmes of the Union and State governments, that are designed to achieve them. Of course, some states might elect to deviate from the NAGs—as they are constitutionally empowered to—but they will have to explain to their people why they are doing so.

Programmes and budgets will have to be justified on the basis of their ability to achieve the NAGs and alternative policy proposals can be compared and evaluated on the basis of their ability to do so more efficiently, effectively and speedily.

The NREGA is supposed to provide a social security net for farmers during periods of distress. Loan waivers bail out farmers in financial distress. Agricultural income is exempt from tax ostensibly because it will cause food inflation but really because it would be politically suicidal. Farmers are also provided with subsidised electricity. All these involve huge sums of money. We can debate whether any or all of these are justified or not. Yet none of these measures tell us how India sees the future of agriculture. We have no idea if the expenditure on agriculture and rural India is taking us closer or further away from where we should be going.

In the absence of NAGs, we make policy based on National Agricultural Emotions (NAEs) that end up serving vested interests. An audience in a South Indian town vehemently held on to the idea that it is a bad idea for farmers to move to cities and pursue other occupations. When informed that the number of people engaged in agriculture in the United States fell from 40% of the labour force in 1900 to just over 2% a century later, they argued that “in India people are emotionally attached to their land.”

In the context of attitudes towards genetically-modified crops, Harish Damodaran calls out the hypocrisy of the non-farming elite who would want the latest technology for “ourselves” but protest farmers getting access to GM technology. “Holding farmers to ‘pure’ standards is not limited to a denial of the right to use or reject a technology” he writes. “It extends to their obligation to safeguard Bharatiya Sanskriti and conserve gauvansh as per ‘our’ noble desire, even if this entails maintaining cattle that are of no use to them.”

Of course “markets” are bad, and “futures markets” are even more so. Therefore there is public support for price controls and quotas, which are considered “good” and “necessary.”

In the absence of a roadmap, it is hard to fault governments that announce subsidies, entitlements and loan waivers that can ameliorate a current crisis. They are popular because they appeal to conventional sentiment.

The absence of that roadmap cannot remain a puzzle. India needs to clearly define the future of its agriculture.

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About the author

Nitin Pai

Nitin Pai is co-founder & director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. His policy research covers defence economics and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Pai is a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), Nanyang Technological University and National College (Bangalore).