Vulnerable India 7: Learning from India’s agriculture policy

The threat to agriculture is one of India’s top concerns when it comes to climate change. More than half the country’s population depends on agriculture for livelihood, and more than half of this agriculture, in turn, depends entirely on rain, with little or no access to irrigation. It is not without reason that the Indian monsoon, which brings this rain, has been described as the final arbiter of India’s GDP. The country’s economy is finely tuned to the stability of the monsoon, and vulnerable to even small changes.

However, this is not a blog on the impacts of climate change on the monsoon, or on Indian agriculture. Instead, it is a reflection on how India has sought to address the existing vulnerability of its rain-dependent farmers, and what lessons this experience holds for future responses to climate change.


Causes of farmer vulnerability

The majority of Indian farmers are poor, and rely either on small farms, informal leasing arrangements, or agricultural labour. Although small farms have a higher rate of efficiency per hectare output and cropping intensity compared to large farms, small and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers remain among the poorest in India. Their poverty is generally attributed to economic, ecological and social causes: the farmers have little or no land; live in areas that are arid, semi-arid, rain fed, disaster prone, poorly irrigated, or geographically remote; and/or belong to socially disadvantages groups (due to gender, caste or tribe). These causes sometimes intersect, resulting in deeper poverty.

The reliance of India – and India’s poor in particular – on agriculture has been recognised by policy makers since Independence, and taken into account in successive Five Year Plans and national development policies and programmes. Despite numerous and expensive interventions in agriculture and related sectors, however, the mainstay of India’s poor is in a state of crisis today.

Farmers contend with stagnating agricultural productivity, increasing costs of production, and near stagnant prices for most crops. Agriculture is turning into a non-viable livelihood option particularly for small and marginal farmers, who have few other livelihood options because they lack the skills for non-agricultural livelihoods.

Why have government interventions over the six decades since Independence generally failed to address the vulnerability of India’s poor farmers?

This question is a useful starting point for any discussion on addressing the current and future climate vulnerability of these farmers.

Blind spot for people

For several decades after Independence, agricultural policy in India focused more on increasing agricultural productivity, and less on improving the lot of poor farmers.

The Green Revolution in the 1970s relied on high-yielding seeds, irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides to increase agricultural productivity, but took a heavy toll on the land and water resources of the country, reducing long-term productivity levels. (States in India that were the frontrunners during the Green Revolution now suffer from soil degradation, ground water depletion and contamination and declining yields.) A National Agriculture Policy introduced in 2000 also aimed at increasing agricultural output, although it did make mention of sustainability concerns.

Other efforts aimed at poor farmers, by other ministries, also tended not to factor people into the equation. For instance, the 1974 Drought Prone Area Programme initiated in 70 chronically drought-prone areas was found to be “more concerned with drought proofing rather than livelihoods and growth-focused development of natural resources”. The 1995 National Watershed Development Programme (NWDP) was found to have “a pronounced conservation bias thanks to its origins in river valley conservation schemes where the goal was to reduce siltation of dams, and people, productivity and livelihoods did not enter the calculus”.

In response to criticism that agricultural policies were overly focused on productivity and not the poverty of farmers, a National Commission on Farmers was set up in 2004. Its final report in 2006 attributed the dissatisfaction of India’s farmer community to the need for further land reform; the quantity and quality of water; technology fatigue; access; adequacy and timeliness of institutional credit; opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing; and “adverse meteorological factors”.

Based on the recommendation of this Commission, India adopted a National Policy for Farmers in 2007, which recognised the need to address the economic well-being of farmers. The Policy aims to improve farmer income, with an emphasis, among other things, on increased productivity, profitability and institutional support; an improvement of land, water and support services; an improved price policy; and risk management measures. It also aims to increase job opportunities in the farm sector through increased investment in irrigation, watershed development, wasteland development, land and reclamation.

Despite the 2007 Policy, however, the overall focus and performance of agricultural policy-making in India continues to come under criticism from farmer unions for not addressing their concerns. Implementation is clearly a problem – for instance, measures such as bank loan waivers failed to hit their mark, and small and marginal farmers who are most in debt still do not have access to bank loans. A 2008 survey indicates that barely 22 per cent of small and marginal farmers borrowed from ‘institutional credit systems’ such as rural banks – the rest relied on moneylenders, friends and relatives, often at interest rates higher than 36 per cent.

Jai_KisanPiecemeal approach

The Ministry of Agriculture is not the only government agency working to address the concerns of poor rural farmers in India. There are a number of other ministries involved – including the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, and the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. Each of these ministries fund a bewildering array of “centrally sponsored schemes” to benefit the rural poor, mostly farmers or farm labourers. In addition, both agriculture and water are state subjects – states have their own schemes and programmes, and the approach taken by each state varies.

The inputs into all of these efforts have not necessarily been commensurate with the output, mainly because their conception and implementation has been piecemeal. The efforts have focused on mitigating individual symptoms, instead of promoting a cross-sectoral integrated strategy – one, for instance, that addresses livelihoods, poverty, ecological sustainability, and long-term food security at the same time.

For instance, the Fourth Five Year Plan (1969-74) initiated Small Farmers Development Agencies, and Marginal Farmers and Agricultural Labour Development Agencies to help small and marginal farmers and landless labour by subsidising small irrigation, land development and soil conservation measures, livestock acquisition etc. In 1980, these two programmes were merged into the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), to help poor rural households to acquire productive (non-land) assets through bank loans and subsidies. Despite its name, IRDP was not sufficiently integrated with other programmes to promote services and infrastructure, and the scale of assistance it provided per household was too small to make a difference.

In 1999, IRDP was replaced by the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), focused on self-employment and micro-enterprise development through self-help groups (SHGs). It incorporated measures such as infrastructure enhancement, technology support and market linkages that were missing in the IRDP. However, the programme failed to build the capacity of the poor to take up self-employment activities, and to identify and support economic activities that could be viably run by the poor, and integrated with the mainstream economy for sustained viability.

There have also been a number of supplementary wage programmes for rural farm labourers, who do not have gainful employment for a considerable part of the year. These include the 1980 National Rural Employment Programme (NREP); the 1983 Employment Assurance Scheme; the 1990 Jawahar Rozgar Yojana; and the 2001 Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana. These programmes were able to meet only a small part of the demand for supplementary employment, and contributed little to the creation of infrastructure or durable assets.

In 2005, the wage-employment programmes were transformed into a rights-based programme through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every rural household whose adult members are willing to do manual work. NREGA has since emerged as the world’s largest job guarantee programme, and has had some successes. However, as one commentator put it, it still suffers from “a bureaucratic approach to livelihood security” – including a resistance to decentralised decision-making (a key component of the Act to ensure prioritisation of local needs); a myopic approach that is more focused on creating livelihoods every year than with using the opportunity to create further opportunities and build long-term assets; and a preference for activities such as road building, which can be outsourced to contractors with greater opportunities for siphoning funds.

In 2010, the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) was launched, mainly with the goal of livelihood diversification for “gainful self-employment and wage employment opportunities”. Activities (including promoting self-help groups, improving existing occupations, and skill development and placement) are through decentralised District Rural Development Agencies (DRDAs), which receive the funds directly. A report for the Planning Commission notes that the Mission can be a success “if it can overcome the target‐oriented and top‐down approach generally followed in many centrally sponsored programmes”.

Overcoming bureaucratic and top-down approaches

The focus on decentralisation in NRLM was in response to the Eleventh Five Year Plan (FYP 11, for 2007-2012), which focused on inclusive growth, and brought people-driven, decentralised governance to the forefront. FYP 11 also called for agricultural planning to be devolved to the district level. It launched the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY), or National Agricultural Development Programme.

Under RKVY, each district was allocated ₹10 lakh (approximately US$ 16,360) to prepare Comprehensive District Agriculture Plans (C-DAPs), with an integral role for Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Village assemblies (Gram Sabhas) were to make their own plans, assisted by Agricultural Planning Units and Technical Support Institutes and taking into account all programmes and schemes, financial sources and disciplines in the agricultural sector.

States were cautioned that for each district that did not formulate a C-DAP, ₹1 Crore (US$ 163,639) would be deducted from their budget allocation. Although most districts did formulate C-DAPs during the FYP 11 period, a number of problems were identified by a review, mainly to do with the implementation of decentralisation in letter and spirit, integration, local capacity, and monitoring:

  • A few states did not have PRIs in place, while in other states these PRIs did not function properly.
  • In some places, a minister or district collector chaired the process, at odds with the spirit of decentralisation.
  • State-level officials were not sufficiently sensitised to the bottom-up participatory approach, and in many cases the process was a mere formality to access funding. State Level Sanction Committees, which were meant to ensure that the spirit of decentralisation was adhered to, failed to do so and dictated allocation on the basis of state priorities instead of local needs.
  • The capacity to plan is lacking at various levels. In some cases, instead of providing technical capacity as they were meant to do, Technical Support Institutions themselves prepared the C-DAPs without consulting stakeholders.
  • The plans failed to reflect the needs and aspirations of the farming community and were wish lists in many cases, with no bearing on available resources, and the viability and sustainability of projects.
  • Convergence was not sought or achieved with other sectors; programmes and policies (such as NREGA); sources of funding (such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development); and departments/ disciplines/ and institutions. The Department of Agriculture has, in most cases, received the lion’s share of funding while other sectors failed to get even 20 per cent of their budgetary requirements.
  • The plans were completed almost by the end of the 11th FYP period, leaving no time for implementation.
  • Processes to monitor progress periodically were lacking.

The review included a number of suggestions to improve the process, including making the C-DAP the basis for all interventions in agriculture and allied sectors. It proposed that no development intervention other than the one identified and included in the C-DAP should be taken up under any scheme by any nodal department, and the C-DAP should be prepared in relation to local needs, without any relation to a specific scheme or programme. Several measures were suggested to ensure a participatory process, including independent observers to monitor and evaluate the process.

Lessons for climate vulnerability

It is ironic that in a populous and poor country like India, poor people are often missing from the equation when it comes to identifying solutions. For several decades, the agricultural sector has been caught in the inertia of centralised, big engineering solutions that focus on agricultural production but fail to target people’s needs; and a “collection of discrete activities by different departments” that do not amount to an effective whole.

The resulting top-down, ‘silo’ approach is not only ineffective as different sides pull in different directions, but also economically inefficient as resources are spread thin across the different sectors even when they are trying to address essentially the same problem.

Decentralised and integrated responses to climate change are therefore critical. FYP 11 and FYP 12 were well advised to shift the focus on inclusive growth and give people a voice through decentralised governance, but several hurdles remain in implementation – as we saw in a previous blog on decentralised governance, and by the performance of the C-DAPs during FYP 11.

Climate change responses will require the state machinery to step back and take on the role of facilitator, providing the capacity and information that Gram Sabhas need to make their own plans, taking projected climate impacts into account. As we saw in a previous blog, this will happen only when accountability is flipped, and line departments are made accountable to the PRIs rather than the other way round.

The key role for both government and non-government actors will therefore be in providing much-needed capacity to Gram Sabhas to promote informed decision-making. There are already a number of sterling examples of grassroots organisations performing this task. However, a great deal more investment is needed to boost local capacity – for instance, in adequately funding state agricultural universities, which can then provide Gram Sabhas localised information on climate impacts and potential solutions.

FYP 12, under the previous government, made a start on strengthening PRI capacity by increasing the budget for the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and launching a programme to build PRI capacity. It is still too early to assess whether the current, relatively new, government will continue with this commitment to build local capacity and further decentralisation. Early indications based on the schemes announced so far would seem to indicate a rather overly prescriptive and centralised approach!

Unless these many lessons, learnt the hard way over more than half a century of policy making, are taken on board, we will almost certainly lose the race to address the existing and future vulnerability of India’s small and marginal farmers.

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1 Response to Vulnerable India 7: Learning from India’s agriculture policy

  1. raghavan1507 says:

    A detailed note on the plight of small and marginal farmers

    1. It is generally seen that agricultural activity currently is unsustainable for small and medium land sized farmers. The problems they face, stem from fragmented lands with low potential for using technology, perpetual indebtedness of the farmer that is inhibiting him to provide the inputs, difficulty in securing sustained labor and managing them productively. Further, poor marketing strategy, poor storage facility, strings of middlemen, all take away the cream of the value of their produce. Bureaucratic ineptitude to tackle their problems, to mention a few.

    2. Government with all good intentions is pouring money into this sector year after year. However the effects of these efforts do not seem to resurrect farmers. Multitudes of agencies in the non-government sectors, like NGOs funded by foreign institutions are all engaged in this sector spending enormous money and time. Even these efforts do not seem to save farmers from penury.

    3. It is virtually impossible for individual farmers to tackle the problems cited above and emerge out to unshackle the dungeon they are trapped into. Farmer’s suicides are rampant due to the destitution of their profession and more than two lakh farmers have so far ended their lives. Added to these vows, the weather, water resources and availability of the farm labor, all collapse the farmer today in India. Disillusioned and ridden with extreme poverty and lands not lending them to make a decent living, the youngsters leave their older ones in the villages and migrate to larger towns, seeking employment. However as they have poor education they do not find a proper fit in cities and towns. This breeds discontentment and drive them to engage in disreputable activities. Even some farmers with large land holdings up to 10 acres of lands are finding agriculture unsustainable.

    4. Another daunting issue is how does one communicate with farmers? For example, if there is shortage of pluses, how will they communicate with farmers to grow more pulses? What mechanism will the Government adopt to engage with farmers? Is it possible for anyone to make them work towards this goal? It is just impossible. Even if it is possible in a small area by some skillful communications, what guarantee it provides that farmers will grow pulses dropping what they has been growing traditionally? What price will they secure? There is fear to taking risks in such new ventures. There is a lack of organizing skill that is yet to develop to tackle such eventualities. Hence Government has no other alternative but to import. So to calculate the food production in India, it is the collection of data at village level and pass on to the higher ups. With a generally poor administrative system one wonders if the statistical information provided by the Government is fully authentic. It is thus clear that the Management of the affairs of agriculture needs refurbishment to get around the issues eluding the existing situation.

    5. Many models have been tried in this area but they have failed to find a viable and sustainable solution. For instance, Pepsi’s contract farming in the Punjab State initially showed promise, failed for a variety of reasons. The plant was sold away to Hindustan Lever!. The experiment of growing wheat and conversion to flour in Horshangabad in Madhya Prades could scale up to 1000 acres only at the time they did this experiment. Lack of consistent quality produce, problems of scalability, competition from exiting channel, corruption with corporate dealers (corporate do not soil their hands in the venture directly) who administer the activities, to mention a few. If corporate needs to make money some passion needs to be shown at the heart of the operations. They must engage themselves into agricultural production using lands of farmers and by their domain skills make profits and share with all farmers. Seleting a few and getting their business going, like in the cases mentioned above will mean exploitation.

    6. I have seen that large farmers in our country with large tracts of lands, conduct profitable agri-business. They have large money resource and can organise local labor easily. This enables them to make abundant profits from agricultural operations. They also benefit from Government’s largess in terms of waiver of Income Tax, fertiliser / seed and implements’ subsidies, loans from Nationalized Bank [even thought they may strictly not need one and but they take it to expect “ loan waiver “ that happens many times]. One can appreciate the contrasting lives for two types of farmers in one country!
    7. A national shame is that enormous volume of decay that happens to food grains stored in the open by the Government. It is indeed appaling. Several mouths could be fed if waste could be avoided, export could be explored, imports could be avoided. As much as 30% of the food grains are wasted every year as there are insufficient storage with Government’s Food Corporation of India the agency to safe keep. Even when kept in godown, rodants devastates due to poor staking and inspection and taking measures that can be easily controlled. There is poor accountability on those who are in charge of management of this area.

    I have been studying these issues for the past over five years and have met many farming communities, associations and find that these observations stand validated.

    Institutionalisation of the farming vocation, appear to be a possible alternative. This could be in the form of creating a corporate enterprise between the farmers and an investor, who can be an individual or a corporate body that is interested in sustained development of rural interiors and aim at a for-profit venture. To be clear the model is not any charity or philanthropy to mention the least. It is to resurrect the small and marginal farmers from penury. This will support a sustained development and will truly benefit the constituents forming such a corporate body. This process will unleash the farmer from fire-fighting for his daily bread and cooperate with the entity in charge of agriculture. The way it is designed to work is:

    1. Create and enterprise as a producer company or a Limited Liability Partnership form of enterprise.
    2. While the investor brings in cash converted to equity shares, the farmer’s land is valued at the Government recognised rate and equity shares are used to the farmer on conversion to cash value.
    3. The company so formed shall engage professionals in Managing the business of agriculture.
    4. The share-holder farmers are provided with employment as labor and wages paid in accordance with the NREGA rules for guaranteed all year around.
    5. The company can also induct farmers with special skills as part of advisors in the operation and pay wages.
    6. People without land can also be employed as labor. Other non-farm activities can also be started to ensure full employment to all employable in the villages. This way employable men and women will get work and earn wages.
    7. The company can also initiate non-farm activity to generate greater employment to those nearby. Many activities, like workshops for tractor repair, making implements for farming and the like.
    8. The company can embrace the cows of farmers and create dairy farming activity and make value added products for sale to nearby centers of consumption. The dung can be used to create supplemental energy like Gobar Gas and also used as organic manure for the agricultural activity for organic manner of production.

    The above activities can generate profits and will be mutually beneficial. This activity can be called a true CSR initiative even though it is on a for-profit model.

    Two operating examples will add strength to this argument. What is also brings to bear is that such activities will erase the notion of suicides of farmers and peace and tranquility will descend in villages.

    In recent times, the Tamilnadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore has successfully experimented Precision Farming technique and applied this technology in the lands of 200 farmers of Dharmapuri district in Tamilnadu. At the initiative of this University, farmers in Dharmapuri formed Precision Farmers Agro Services Private Limited, three years ago with 200 farmers each forking out Rs 10,000.00 as share capital. They grow essentially vegetables and fruits. Collectively, the farmers produce 23 varieties of vegetables and in the last two years, they have reported a 60% increase in yield. This is a first example of a form of corporatizing the activity of farming. However here the farmers themselves are doing the farming on their land and pool the produce and market them collectively and not individually. It is learnt that they refused to supply to the corporate that have set retail chains in cities and preferred to sell on the NH going through their villages. While this practice is a minor deviation from what is suggested, yet the benefits are immense and have turned the lives of these farmers into a bright future. Scalability impeeds growth of such initiatives.

    The second example is partnering between Spice Board of India and villagers in Tikka-Karbi. It has contributed Capital with farmers in the North-East of Assam to form a company, Coinonya Farm Producer Company Limited, in Tikka-Karbi village to produce spice and market them through the Spice Board. These two towering examples demonstrate that Institutionalization is a better answer to the bugging problems of agriculture. Both these are thriving examples working very satisfactorily benefiting farmers and the corporate.

    There are other benefits of this type of initiatives that I foresee.

    1. Once the corporate gets into a rural environment, it can be energized into taking up rural uplift in a numerable manner. It can create health centers, schools, vocational training for youngsters in related activity, overtime create food processing centers and market value added products.
    2. For example training able bodied men to create a cadre for tackling Security Issues that today has become a social menace. They can be sent to cities for employment and supplement income of the parents in villages.
    3. Promote animal husbandry by embracing all the cows of the villages around; provide milk to young children and build their health.
    4. Encourage sports activities to build future sportsmen; build them for partaking in Olympics!
    5. Once the farmers have money with them through the activities of corporate farming, peace will descend in villages, Naxalites’ movements will wither away and prosperity will transcend. This will make the rural area prosperous.
    6. Many replications of such models can generate greater momentum that will get kindled all over India, to make the country in unassailable position.


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