Agriculture crisis priming Punjab for fresh unrest

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Most economists agree farming at the present levels of profitability is not sustainable for marginal or small farmers, and yet the sector is serving to hold more than 10 lakh families at bay

-Kuljit Bains

The Central government has revealed a startling new approach towards Punjab in which the state apparently does not figure in the national scheme of food security. The SAD has been chiding the Congress government in the state for the very mess the former created while in power for 10 years. And the Capt Amarinder Singh government in its one year has miserably failed to give even a hint of how it intends to change the way the farm economy works in the state.

Between this deliberate stonewalling of Punjab’s agriculture issues for political reasons on the part of the Centre, pressure sustained by the Opposition in the state for unsustainable subsidy structures, and the planning and governance failure of the state government, the state is being primed for major unrest, if not upheaval, in a not very distant future.

The indicators are there, and with clear basis in statistics. By some estimates well over 300 suicides have taken place in the past year in the state. Farmer agitations demanding a greater viability are getting more and more frequent, even if they are systematically defused. Most economists agree farming at the present levels of profitability is not sustainable for marginal or small farmers, and yet the sector is serving to hold more than 10 lakh families at bay. Both ruling and Opposition parties in Punjab, and the Centre, must realise the seed of all social unrest lies in economics.

NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar’s suggestion to Punjab that it should stop harping on its role in ensuring national food security to get help, and leave the matter to the Centre, not only smacked of low politics but also selective amnesia regarding the food history of the country. Punjab has not ended up growing wheat and paddy with the highest yields in the country just because the farmers one day decided to do so. It was a deliberate effort from the Centre — nearly entirely funded by it with endless amounts of cash spent on research, farmer education, agricultural inputs, and finally procurement — that created this food production machine. This was done to save the country the repeated famines that struck India in the first two decades after Independence.

In an economy where procurement prices, input prices, as well as the price for a huge section of consumers, are controlled by the Centre, to suggest the state’s agriculture is independent can only be a joke. Simply pulling the plug now would be akin to deliberately getting someone hooked to drugs and then not even providing rehab.

The Centre also wants the state to club all farm subsidies and pay those to the farmer in cash in his bank account. This sounds like a reformist push towards accountability and digitisation. In reality it only shows how out of touch the government is with the farming community in the state. There is a huge population of tenant/landless farmers — mostly poor — who will be denied the subsidy as only landowners can be reliably tied to a bank account.

Both SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal and Leader of Opposition (AAP) Sukhpal Khaira have maintained pressure for continuation of power subsidies under the same model which has failed farmers miserably. They have to be blamed for blocking any scope for a larger discussion on what alternatives may be found. This is intellectual and political insincerity at the cost of farmers.

The third and most crucial entity in changing the course of this ship, the state government, has reduced its role to merely pleading with the Centre and fire-fighting to pay the power utilities for the subsidy and find money for procurement. Such has been its preoccupation with crisis management that it seems to find no time (or money) for even proposing alternatives.

Parkash Singh Badal in his time often used the “sensitive border state” card as a threat to extract money from the Centre. It seemed a very cynical approach, but it was not entirely a lie. If all political stakeholders do not overcome their short-sightedness focused on the next election, and start talking to find solutions with a common intent immediately, they will have deliberately pushed the state towards a new abyss.

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