‘The target was always unrealistic.’
One of the most significant promises that Narendra Modi began his prime ministership with was that he would introduce reforms to finally make the economy work for the country’s farmers. He pledged to double farmer incomes by 2022-23, his gift to the country in the 75th year of its independence. However, on May 31, 2021, Ramesh Chand, a member of the government’s think tank Niti Aayog, declared that Modi’s promise can’t be fulfilled. Why? Because state governments hadn’t taken adequate action, he claimed.
But this can’t be chalked up to a near miss just because one variable in the equation fell through. As late as March 2021, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar told the parliament that the government’s “latest” farmer income numbers were for 2012-2013; they had not started any process to collect this information; they also did not have any way of tracking if the said income was rising due to the policies introduced by the government.
The government maintains they don’t actually need the income details to fulfill the promises they have made about increasing farmer incomes. How then is this impossible feat achieved?
The ‘invisible’ data hack
The government has proposed an easier hack for proving that farmer incomes have been doubled. In the March 2021 session of the parliament, questions about doubling farmer incomes led to the agriculture ministry breaking open a list of schemes it had launched. It suggested that monitoring the performance of these schemes was enough to show that action was being taken and that the goal was within reach.
This impression belies the truth. The ministry shared a long list of 17 schemes with a cumulative budget allocation of Rs 17,540 crore for 2020-21. A closer look indicates that a measly Rs 5,787 was actually spent. This is just 33 percent of the total budget. In case of three of the schemes, not a rupee had been spent.
The ministry’s responses to the parliamentary questions suggest that its schemes reach only about 10 percent of the total farmer population on an average.
As per the last government estimate in 2013, there were 90.2 crore agricultural households in India. The Modi government’s highly publicised PM Kisan scheme, which provides an income support of Rs 6,000 a year in three equal installments to farmer households, has so far benefitted 10.74 crore, or 10 percent, of the farmer households in the country.
The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the central government’s flagship crop insurance scheme launched in 2016, covers only 23 crore farmer households as of today. The soil health card scheme, introduced in 2014-15 to test soil samples of individual farmers and inform them about the nutrient deficiencies, has so far reached only 11 crore farmers. The coverage of other central schemes is even more limited.
Given these numbers, the government ought to be realistic about the potential of these schemes and, perhaps, change course. While these schemes can serve as measures of some development and relief for the farmers who choose to enroll, to assume blanket participation of farmers can blindsight the Modi government.
Not surprisingly, the actual income progress has also been limited since 2016. In the absence of updated farm income numbers, one can perhaps look at the per capita value of output from crops to ascertain the increase in farmer incomes. Calculated this way, it is not difficult to ascertain that the annual income from farming of a farmer household has risen by just Rs 10,000 between 2016-17 and 2019-20. In other words, a farmer earns an additional Rs 860 a month now than what they earned in 2016-17.
Though it’s true that the current agrarian distress is a result of troubles that predate the Modi government by two decades at least, it has not arrested the slide. As Prof R Ramakumar of the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, explains, the problem is that “farmer incomes have not grown; profitability in agriculture has stagnated, if not fallen in certain crops; cost of farm inputs has risen; and the burden of indebtedness has become more acute”.
And when the burden of social and economic instabilities and depressions fall on the most disadvantaged people, the results will be drastic.
“The target was always unrealistic. Many of us had pointed it out then,” Ramakumar says, referring to the promise of doubling farmer incomes. “Yes, it would have been possible if the government had instituted a sharp course correction in agricultural policy. It should have included a major rise of public investment; increase in subsidy support to farmers; more credit supply; and a rise in minimum support price to 50 per cent above the cost of production. At least we could have raised farm incomes substantially even if not doubled them. But the government did nothing of the sort. Demonetisation and GST reform harmed any prospect of income rise in agriculture. The only thing the government did was to begin the PM Kisan scheme, but the extent of cash support to farmers here is just Rs 500 per month. The other intervention of PMFBY has been tied up in multiple implementation issues, leading to a fall in the number of beneficiaries over time.”
The farmer’s conundrum
In the past five years or so instances and intensity of farmer protests have increased in the country, and farmer suicides, already uncomfortably high, refuse to ebb.
In 2019, at least 5,957 farmers/cultivators ended their lives, an average of over 16 per day, according to the Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India report of the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2018, the number of farmer suicides was 5,763, preceded by 5,955 in 2017 and 6,270 in 2016. The report defines farmers/cultivators as people farming either on their own land or on leased land, with or without the assistance of agricultural labourers.
There has also been a surge in farmer protests in recent years. The country reported 35 big protests in 2017, according to the State of India’s Environment in Figures 2021, released by Down To Earth. Between January 2020 and May 2021, the number rose to 165, as per the annual book’s latest edition. It says 22 states and union territories have seen protests since the beginning of 2020, up from 15 states in 2017.
There were three broad reasons stated for the protests in 2017 – crop loss, demand for fair prices, forcible land acquisition for developmental projects.
In 2020, over half of the protests were reported to be against economic and farm policies of central and state governments, indicating that the policies aren’t helping the farmers as much as official statements assert.
Procurement and fair price demands were the second most common reason for the protests, accounting for 23 percent of the total, followed by issues of land acquisition, insurance and loan waivers, and poor farm infrastructure.
If their incomes had indeed increased, then perhaps some of the pressing grievances of farmers should have been addressed, and general improvement in the quality of life should have kept them from risking limb and life to scatter on the streets in protest even amidst the Covid crisis.
Even if one chooses not to correlate the ongoing farmer unrest with farmer incomes, the government should probably take cognizance of the increasing instances of protests by them.
The farmer protests have indicated that the farming community wants to play a significant part in policymaking, as it should in a representative democracy. The government should bring them in, showing sensitivity to their real needs and taking their input instead of declaring schemes it deems fit for them. In this context, doubling farmer incomes is a rather obtuse aim. Based on data available to it, the government should take stock of the situation and, with the help of representatives of farming communities, design specific programmes to improve the quality of their lives. Farmers are, after all, the heart of India’s economy, and its backbone.
Rajit Sengupta is assistant editor at Down To Earth magazine.
This report is published as part of the Newslaundry-India Data Portal Data Journalism Fellowship 2021.