Why has farming lost its ability to provide subsistence for the majority of the Indian farmers?

The problems of farmers have been a subject of discussion for several decades. This article tries to discuss why farmer's issues are far from being over. The reasons responsible for these problems are analyzed and solutions are also sought to be given through this article.

A couple of years back, the government at the centre had placed a mandate before itself to double the income of farmers by the year 2022 (over the 2015-16 level). Considering that, it is curious that an essay like this has to be written. It is our habit as humans to talk about some issue only when it becomes a sizeable problem. Last year, the farmer's issues were the burning topics across major parts of India. Now that there has been a lull in farmer's movements, we are prone to forget that there is anything wrong with the Indian agricultural sector. The first thing that we need to understand is that Indian agriculture does have its own peculiar problems. Some of these are so deep running that they cannot be removed in five years or maybe even in a decade. But are these problems so severe as to affect the farmer's ability to provide 'subsistence' for himself? For several lakhs of farmers (the marginal and small farmers) subsistence (producing enough food for his family) can and does become difficult in the drier spells. The reasons for this are numerous, some of which are discussed below.


The majority of the farmers, even in the twenty-first century are dependent on the weather gods. When the monsoons are normal (as is expected this year) everything is nice and good. But when they are not, the situation becomes dark. As climate change becomes more and more a real threat, rains will no longer be as predictable as they were in the past. The scenes of parched fields in some otherwise rain-rich regions should make policymakers think a bit.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the solution to this is providing for irrigation facilities. Yet what has happened? Cutting across states, scams in irrigation departments are very much a normal occurrence. The money that should have gone into the construction of canals or tube-wells goes into god knows where. Even simple rainwater harvesting structures are not very visible in most villages (except for a few exceptional ones). I can recall seeing the images of parched fields in one of the districts of Assam a few years back. If this can happen in Assam, no state is safe.

Credit and insurance

This is another factor that needs to be emphasized here. Despite the government's efforts to promote lending through formal sources, a large number of farmers borrow from informal sources (an unbelievable 40% according to NABARD's All India Rural Financial Inclusion Survey 2016-17). This might seem surprising considering the array of schemes launched by successive governments in this direction. But the debt trap is a reality in several Indian villages. It won't be very wrong to say that farmer suicides are a reflection of that.

Talking about insurance, the government would like to believe that the insurance schemes for farmers are actually working. How good it would have been if that would have actually been true! Lakhs, in fact, crores of people have been covered under this scheme. But are they getting the benefit of these schemes? According to a report shown on NDTV India, it is the Insurance companies which make profits. The terms used in the various policies are manipulated in such a manner so as to ensure that the humble farmer is left stranded in the event of an actual crisis.

A battle against nature – Environmental crisis

This is a big problem as well and although various reasons and explanations can be given for it, the effects now have to be borne mainly by the farmers. A mention was already made regarding increasing variability of rainfall. The reasons for it are too well known to be mentioned once again. Along with increasingly erratic rainfall, there are other related problems that need to be tackled. In the second half of the last century, a number of states in our country saw what is now commonly called the 'green revolution'. The so-called green revolution did lead to a massive increase in cereal output from a couple of states making us self-reliant in food-grain output, but it also left us with a poorer environment. The pesticide use per hectare increased to unprecedented levels. The increasing use of chemical fertilizers killed off the natural useful microorganisms in the soil (besides also being a scourge upon our health). The new HYV seeds required higher amounts of irrigation. While short and medium term grains were massive, the effects of these are slowly starting to show. Rice was never a natural crop in Punjab. And while the massive Rajasthan canal (this is not related to the green revolution) has irrigated parts of western Rajasthan that were earlier crying for water, it has also harmed the sustainability of the region. At some point, we have to recognize our follies because ultimately it is the smaller farmers who have to bear the brunt of all this.

From the farm to the market to the consumers

Last year we saw a resurgence of the farmer's movements. One of the main grievances articulated during those movements was the fact that farmers did not receive the fair price for their products. And this was despite the government increasing the MSPs on a variety of products!

The main thing we have to realize is that the MSP which is announced by the government from time to time is very often not followed in interior villages. Very often during the harvest season, there is a glut in the market. Lots of crop produce comes into the market at the same time and due to excess supply, the farmers are compelled to sell their products at lower than normal prices. The government's e-NAM (NAM stands for National Agriculture Market) initiative has not been of much help to the humble farmer in interior villages. Even if he (by a thin chance) has a smartphone with the e-NAM app, he won't be able to arrange the transport required to travel from his village to the 'Mandi' where the fair price is supposedly provided.

The farm to market to consumer chain is hopelessly inefficient in our country. In the regional Assamese news, it is not very difficult to find the news of farmers having to sell their vegetables at throwaway prices in Goalpara while in Guwahati, the same vegetables are sold at high prices. The infrastructure is moribund, there is no facility for cold storage and what we get in the end is farmers having to sweat it out to make their ends meet.

From short-term fixes to long term solutions

Recently the government launched its own solution to the farmer's problem – the PM KISAN scheme that promises a particular amount of money that would be delivered to the farmers' accounts at fixed intervals (Rs 6000 per year in three instalments). The ostensible explanation was that farmers need to be provided with a minimum basic income. However, more fundamentally it was a short-term populist solution to problems which run really, really deep.

Such sops would work only for the short-term. In the longer run, it won't be sustainable from an economic perspective. Also, election pressures might force a constant upward revision of the amounts that are provided. A much better solution that can cut at the root of the problem would be to make fundamental improvements in rural infrastructure. This includes irrigation, credit facilities, transportation (which is extremely important) as well as facilities like cold storage in rural areas. Care should also be taken to diversify the rural economy so that the threat of seasonality in agriculture can be countered. These improvements will take time, but these are undoubtedly much better than announcements of 'minimum income' for farmers. Hope the upcoming budget will take these issues into consideration.


Author: Umesh23 Jun 2019 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 8

Though the Govt initiated and implemented many schemes for the welfare of the farmers in our country, still their life could not be improved to the desired level. Especially the small farmers lost their battle miserably.

In my opinion, the minimum floor prices and the game played by the mediators is responsible for this mess. One of my Chinese acquaintances who happened to stay in our vicinity in India for a long duration, confided in me that farmers in China are much better than that of India. I asked him the reason. He told that due to a strict and firm governance the market prices are contained in China and the shopkeepers cannot increase the prices arbitrarily. What the Govt does there is that the farmer is paid about 70-80% of the market price of his commodity and Govt absorbs the differences of whatever occurred in transportation or shifting of material from one place to another. So the farmer is happy to get the good amount for his crops and remains attached to his profession happily.

I do not know how far that information is correct but if that Govt is able to execute such a plan for its farmers, then it is a commendable thing. In this respect we are still lagging behind in this matter and I think it is high time that Govt should come out with some drastic measures. Farming is our backbone and we being a populous country cannot take the risk of getting our provisions imported from other countries.

Author: DR.N.V. Srinivasa Rao28 Jun 2019 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 4

A farmer who invests his money in agriculture has no surety of getting his investment back. Nature does, sometimes, plays foul with him but it is the mediators who always play foul with him. They don't have space or money to store the yields with them and sell when the prices are maximum. So the brokers are purchasing from them at a lower price and storing and selling at a higher price and thus getting a good profit. Neither the producer nor the consumer is getting any benefits but the middle man is getting all the profit. This situation should change. The mediators should be eliminated. The government should create some space to store the material where the farmers can store and directly sell to the customer and thus avoid middlemen. This is the immediate need of the hour. Then only the farmer can live otherwise he will be lost.

Author: K Mohan14 Nov 2019 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 2

According to the law of economics, the diminishing returns do penetrate into the lands and thus the farmers who are using the same land for the same crop may not get the desired results and the land starts giving diminishing results. Moreover, the farmers have the habit of doing the same crop as done by the other farmer and thus the whole market is flooded with the same crop. The returns to the farmer vary and sometimes no returns can be expected.

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