Agriculture

Agriculture Reform Rhetoric or Unbridled Capitalist Accumulation?

Guest Article by Rahul Banerjee

The agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan is not liked by many of the conservationists, but it may be useful to quote him since he has also great acceptability among the official circles. He had warned about the various implications of energy, capital and chemical intensive monoculture agriculture. We did not address them then and we are not addressing them now even as the debate is raging on the agriculture reforms with farmers justifiably on the doorsteps of the National capital.

The UN World Food Programme illustrated another ill effect of this paradigm when David Beaseley said[i] on Dec 10, 2020 while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020, “Some 270 million people worldwide – equivalent to the combined populations of Germany, Britain, France and Italy – stand on the brink of starvation”.

Most farmers in the country are marginal or small farmers, like Pavlia  of Vakner village of Alirajpur district of MP in the picture, whose surplus produce after that set aside for home consumption is so little that it is not economical to take it to the market to sell. So they sell it at a low price to the traders who come to their farms.
Photo by Subhadra Khaperde

The warnings M S Swaminathan who is credited with initiating the green revolution in India in the 1960s had warned then – “Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead to the springing up of deserts. Irrigation without arrangements for drainage would result in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides could cause adverse changes in biological balance and lead to an increase in cancer and other diseases through toxic residues present in grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of underground water would lead to rapid exhaustion of this capital resource left to us through ages of natural farming. The rapid replacement of numerous locally adapted varieties with one or two high yielding strains in large contiguous areas would result in the spread of serious diseases capable of wiping out entire crops …… Therefore, the initiation of exploitative agriculture without a proper understanding of the various consequences of every one of the changes introduced into traditional agriculture and without first building up a proper and scientific training base to sustain it, may only lead us into an era of agricultural disaster in the long run, rather than to an era of agricultural prosperity”.

This is from his address to the Indian Science Congress Convention in Varanasi in 1968. I had taken this quote from an article of his in a business magazine in April or May 2017 which I have since misplaced. However, on searching the net I found another document of the Indian Science Congress convention of 2008[ii] in which this warning given by Swaminathan is mentioned on page 8 along with the acknowledgement that this warning has come true. Readers can also refer to the blog post[iii] I did at the time.

Yet this warning remained rhetorical as Swaminathan launched with gusto the green revolution and it was unleashed with huge government subsidies being provided to farmers in the form of low priced or free seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, water, electricity, farm equipment and credit and minimum support prices to buy the produce above market rates.

The promotion of hybrid corn in the western madhya pradesh region has led to the near extinction of bajra or pearl millet. Aladibai is one of the few who are still growing it but gets no support from the government either in the form of inputs or minimum support price and so will give it up after some time. Photo by Subhadra Khaperde.

Manifest ill-effects The ill effects of green revolution are well documented and manifest in many different ways, but it is in water sector that the ill effects can be seen most starkly. The groundwater that has become the lifeline of agriculture have seen sharply decreasing levels and deteriorating quality at most places. The government refuses to acknowledge the role of the groundwater and continues to build more big projects, which in turn is reducing groundwater recharge. The agriculture pricing and the forces that decide the inappropriate cropping patterns seem to have no influence or seem knowledge blind when it comes to understanding or taking into account the water realities.

All the ill effects predicted by Swaminathan then have manifested themselves now and farms are increasingly becoming wastelands and farmers paupers. The contribution of agriculture to the GDP has gone down from 40% in the 1960s to just 16% in 2019 while the population dependent on agriculture has gone down far less proportionately from 75% of the total population to 50% in the same time. Thus, 53% of the per capita GDP (of those engaged in agriculture) was coming from agriculture in the 1960s while only 32% comes currently, which means that per capita income from agriculture has dwindled in comparison to that from the services and industrial sectors. So the public investments in green revolution agriculture and the subsidies being provided for the same were seen to be increasingly unproductive. Moreover, agricultural incomes could not be taxed and primary products of agriculture are exempt from indirect taxes and so the Governments at the centre and the states weren’t getting much direct revenue from agriculture, further discouraging the government from making investments in agriculture.

Budibai another marginal farmer from Pandutalab village in Dewas district of MP produces the cash crop turmeric but once again since it is a very small quantity and since it is not bought in the Mandis which cater only to cereals and pulses, she has to sell it to a local trader. Photo by Subhadra Khaperde.

The three pictures above and stories illustrate the irrelevance of the new farm laws to the vast majority of farmers in the country.

Decreasing investments post 1990 From the 1990s with the neo-liberal reforms kicking in, the stress has been on markets being allowed to allocate resources rather than the government doing it. So investments in agriculture and the subsidies have continuously gone down further aggravating the incomes of farmers. This has reinforced the process of primitive accumulation that has been the mainstay of industrial and urban development in India since the time of independence. Economic surpluses and cheap labour have been extracted from rural areas continuously and with the farming sector falling into crisis leading to decline in relative per capita incomes from agriculture, both permanent and seasonal migration to towns and cities has increased tremendously depressing wages in urban areas by increasing the pool of unemployed labour there.

The New Farm laws The new farm laws are nothing but a further attempt by the Centre to lessen its outgo in the form of subsidies to the farm sector under the rhetoric of liberalization, that markets are better allocators of resources than governments, that has been peddled to facilitate the enhanced gift of subsidies from the government to the corporations instead.

These laws just formalize what has been going on for quite some time now. The agricultural produce marketing committees (APMC), the Mandis, were bypassed by traders even before the new laws were enacted as they would go directly to the farmers and collect their produce both under weighing it and under paying them. They would then sell some of the produce to the Government procurement agencies at the minimum support price and the rest they would sell on the online commodity exchanges like NCDEX and NCMX to the big corporate players.

The open market prices for all agricultural produce are determined on these exchanges where the big corporations deploy huge funds and use algorithms to trade. These big players have their agents in each and every market who are all connected in real time online to the corporate servers and they are also connected to global commodity exchanges.

What the new farm laws have done is that the taxes that needed to be paid to the APMCs have been removed and the restriction on storing of agricultural products has been done away with and so now the transaction costs resulting from these have gone.

Similarly, corporate contract farming was already going on but there was some amount of regulation of it. Now the new law has made it easier by reducing the power of farmers vis a vis the corporations and so once again reduced some of the transaction costs. It is farcical to say that these laws are farmer friendly.

Most farmers being small producers are in no position to dictate prices on the markets and are in most cases so burdened with debt that they have no holding power whatsoever to beat the invariable glut of crops coming to the market at harvest time. It is only some big farmers who have become traders, agri-processors and aggregators who will benefit from these laws by aligning with the corporations.

There is no attempt whatsoever to address the serious problems of chemical agriculture predicted by Swaminathan, among others, which have now become a sordid reality or facilitate a switch to sustainable agriculture and local agro-processing and consumption. “Ways and means have to be adopted to achieve ‘productivity in perpetuity without accompanying ecological harm’. M S Swaminathan has coined the term “Evergreen revolution” to denote this concept. Basically, it is eco-agriculture with diverse crops, farm animals, poultry, fish etc., with concurrent attention to strengthening the ecological foundations (viz. soil, water, biodiversity, renewable energy)”. (Cited from the ISC 2008 document page 8).

The Government instead just wants to ease its precarious fiscal situation by reducing farm subsidies while peddling the myth of the efficiency of resource allocation by markets. There is no doubt a lot that is wrong with the APMC system but those problems are not due to the APMCs themselves but due to the distortion of their functioning by traders and agribusiness corporations. The latter have now prevailed on the Government to do away with regulation altogether.

The Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kanth says, his defence published in the Indian Express on Dec 11, 2020 notwithstanding[iv], that too much democracy in India is preventing reforms when actually it is the other way round – too much neo-liberal reform is preventing democracy from flowering.

Rahul Banerjee (rahul.indauri@gmail.com)

END NOTES:

[i] https://www.reuters.com/article/nobel-prize-peace-int-idUSKBN28K1FJ

[ii] http://sciencecongress.nic.in/pdf/Booklet_inner_1403_final.pdf

[iii] https://anar-kali.blogspot.com/2017/05/fifty-years-of-green-revolution.html

[iv] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/amitabh-kant-reform-the-indian-way-7100124/

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