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Cultivating discontent

The death of a farmer in police firing on protesters in Karnataka reflects the simmering unrest over fertilizer shortages, a situation that could turn more ugly quickly. The disquiet in the countryside is not restricted to Karnataka. Amravati in Vidharbha has seen similar incidents; and in Latur in the Marathwada region, the constituency of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, spontaneous protests broke out in the marketplace. There are also complaints about a shortage of seeds. Such shortages in monsoon season hit farmers cruelly: they’ve got the rains — but no inputs. With fertilizer, the shortages are real and grim. The re-jigging or reduction of transport subsidies — in a time of rising fuel prices — means producers, input dealers, and others try to pass the buck on that count. The milking of scarcity begins, as some inputs go to the black market. This is happening even with seed, where there is much less of a real shortage. Meanwhile, the post-loan-waiver farmer faces a credit crunch. Banks, seeing no growth in the income of farmers, are reluctant to give out new loans. For large numbers of farmers, there is no choice but to turn to informal sources of credit — now increasingly the input dealer, who is involved in the scarcity game.

The crisis of agriculture has been long in the making. The cornering of inputs by privateers, the decline of agricultural universities in bringing cheap seed varieties to market, the virtual demise of the extension machinery, the tightening of credit, the crisis of smallholder agriculture — these have been debated for years now, in a systemic syndrome that India’s top expert in the field, Professor M.S. Swaminathan, has named ‘Analysis-to-paralysis.’ What can government do at this point? Procuring and sending inputs to where they are needed must not be delayed any further. If this requires additional spending, the resistance that can be expected from a conservative Finance Ministry must be overruled politically. There must be a no-nonsense discussion with fertilizer producers, who must be given a clear message on what is expected of them to alleviate the shortages. What is clear now is that better, more farmer-friendly, alternatives to the producer-based subsidy scheme in fertilizer need to be worked out. Going beyond producers, government policy needs to ensure that inputs are actually available to India’s farmers. This means provisioning of affordable and reliable inputs through public channels and no toleration of hoarding and speculation. There is a grim political message from the rural crisis: do not take the plight of millions of farmers lightly, remember the fate the ‘India Shining’ slogan suffered in the 2004 general election.

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