Thursday, December 13, 2018
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Posted at: Jun 25, 2018, 1:13 AM; last updated: Jun 25, 2018, 1:13 AM (IST)AGRICULTURE: PUNJAB STATE FARMERS' POLICY

Seeds of a new policy

The draft of Punjab State Farmers' Policy fails to address several critical issues such as the presence of  arhtiyas in the farm credit system, one of the root causes of agrarian distress, says Prof Sukhpal Singh

It is heartening to see a draft of the agricultural policy for Punjab for the first time. The draft covers a whole range of issues - governance, socio-economic development, sustainability, water, power, crops, animal husbandry, agricultural research, extension, post-harvest management, farm credit, mechanisation and risk management. It defines the farmer to include owners, owner cultivators, tenants and farm workers.

Narrow vision

The policy vision, "to continuously increase incomes of those dependent on agriculture on a sustainable basis while preserving the ecological balance", misses out on social sustainability. This dimension includes concerns about equity, farm workers, youth and women. The average age of farmers is going up, youth are becoming disinterested in farming and women workers predominate the sector. 

Including tenants and workers in the definition of farmer is not enough, if it is not carried through the policy in specific aspects like land-leasing policy, risk management, credit and other dimensions of the precariousness of their livelihoods.  Given that small farms are the future in terms of their relevance and efficiency, the policy needs to provide space for marginal and leasee farmers. The policy should have considered sustainable development goals of the UN, which include responsible production and consumption.

Faulty objectives

The objectives of the policy are based on a false claim that Punjab farmers are prosperous (including farm workers) as it talks of improving their prosperity. On the other hand, it proposes a detailed study to ascertain the causes of farmers' suicides for effective interventions. This shows that farmers are facing a crisis and not prosperity. There is a dearth of studies on social and psychological dimensions of farmer and farm worker suicides. The state and its machinery are in a denial mode about the crisis. 

Governance fixation

The policy steps beyond its mandate while dabbling into disguised unemployment, improving panchayati raj governance, guest control Act, and promoting rural development. The policy document seems to be pre-occupied with governance when it suggests merging of various ministries, involvement of guardians of governance in programme delivery and monitoring and raising monthly pensions. But, on the crucial issues of land governance, it fails to state the purpose of the land-leasing law. Would it provide a free-for-all leasing policy or promote 'reverse tenancy' or give small cultivator access to land? It could have proposed a land bank at village level and restrictions on those leasing in very large acreage.  The much-needed land-use planning for appropriate use of farm land is missing.

Power subsidy

The most provocative recommendation is the rationalisation of the ballooning power subsidy to reduce unsustainable use of ground-water. It states that subsidy will be restricted to non-income tax payee farmers. There may not be more than a small fraction of all farmers under this category and they know ways to circumvent this law. It is intriguing why the report did not recommend land-holding-based provision of subsidy or land limit for each farmer. At the least, it should have proposed tying up of subsidy or new connections to micro-irrigation, which is missing. 

Major omissions

The biggest weakness of the policy is its neglect of the marketing aspects of the state's farm sector. The quality of food is not even discussed when it is known that there are serious issues with it, for example, in the milk sector. How would Punjab attend to food safety issues under FSSAI rules? The farmers’ commission is not expected to be unaware of the model APLM and CFS Acts and the FSSAI rules and the urgency of market reforms for farmer benefit, including direct payment.  

It only proposes a 20 per cent cess on the commission of arhtiya for wheat and paddy to create a fund for running a price stabilisation fund for non-MSP crop. This is from an old tactic to milk the FCI. One had expected that the report would dwell on the role of contract farming, and role of the state in contract farming given its failure on this front in the past two decades, besides the role of private wholesale markets and of FPOs and APMC mandis. 

Sustainability issues

The policy is at pains to explore the possibility of the availing of carbon credit for improved agricultural practices such as direct seeding of rice and zero burning of paddy straw, without being mindful of the fact that these short-term solutions would only perpetuate paddy cultivation, which is the root cause of many problems and would also hit crop diversification. 

The crucial aspect of climate change due to livestock (methane emission) is not mentioned. It suggests the promotion of organic farming and recommends convergence of all activities/schemes for organic farming, besides incentivisation of certification for organic farming. This is an exclusive approach as other sustainable practices and standards like fair trade, better cotton, and natural farming are not even acknowledged. 

It proposes checking the sale of substandard agricultural inputs and proposes examining the possibility of enacting a state-level legislation so that only those pesticides are licensed for use which are included in the packages of practices recommended by the PAU. Would they be permitted even if they are banned elsewhere?  The crucial issue of quality of seed and bio-inputs is also left unattended.

Financial issues

On the issue of credit access and risk management, it promises that the land-leasing Act would enable the tenant/leasee farmers to obtain crop loans without difficulty, without being aware of the experience of Andhra Pradesh with its Licensed Cultivators Act. How will something that has not worked in AP work in Punjab? More importantly, it has not touched the issue of the role of arhtiyas in the credit system, which is at the root of some agrarian distress. Further, sheep are excluded from the livestock sector. The potential of village ponds for leasing them for fisheries to landless groups of men or women is also given a miss.

Missing data

The document makes several statements without adequate data support. Overall, the policy reads more like a 'good governance' guide rather than providing future directions to the state's agricultural sector. It is more of a patch-work driven by immediate concerns rather than an integrated policy document from a medium or long-term perspective.  


THE DRAFT

  • State’s cultivated land: 10 million acres
  • Total farmers: 26 lakh 
  • 1 tractor for every 8.7 hectares 
  • Average annual income: Rs 2,16,708
Farm credit

  • Short-term credit required: Rs 24,000 cr  
  • Credit oftake increased 8 times from 2004-05 to 2015-16
  • Output increased by only 1.11 times
Ground Reality

  • Rapid depletion of ground water mainly due to paddy 
  • Average 34 tube wells per sq km 
  • 110 out of 148 blocks over exploited for ground water
POLICY OBJECTIVES

  • Achieving acceptable levels of living standards for all
  • Conserving natural resources
  • Combating disguised unemployment
  • Improving governance and delivery of services to farmers
KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

Better governance 

  • Merge ministries of agriculture, cooperation, animal husbandry
  • Create a data bank on farmers' ecosystem
  • Use ICT technology to deliver services
Environment protection

  • Incentivise use of biomass for fuel, compost etc
  • Multi-pronged approach to take care of crop residues
  • Permit non-farm use of agricultural land only as last resort
Water and power

  • Frame a water policy for optimum use 
  • Use Abiana for maintenance of canal 
  • Restrict power subsidy to non-income tax payee farmers
Socio-economic balance

  • Affordable healthcare and quality education 
  • Prioritise and strengthen skill development
  • Equal wages to men and women workers
(Source: Punjab State Farmer' and Farm Workers' Commission)

— The writer is Professor at IIM, Ahmedabad

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