Thursday, May 9, 2013
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Technocratic mindsets continue to suggest unviable scientific interventions when farmers need support for collectives and natural means of production
No tough regulatory measures have been proposed in the case of pesticides.  Source: GOI Monitor

We are happy that the Punjab government has started a process to form an agriculture policy for the state. This is very timely taking into account the numerous fronts on which the farming crisis in Punjab is manifesting itself. However, there are some limitations and problems with this policy which will dampen the effort and may not bring in the desired result.

Punjab in fact is a classic example of the “produce more and perish” paradigm of the Green Revolution. While Punjabi farmers have the highest productivity levels in some crops with adequate market support systems put into place for such crops (rice and wheat), their resources are probably the most degraded, not to mention the environmental health issues which this agriculture policy does not acknowledge in all the seriousness they deserve and the levels of indebtedness and poor income levels despite all the effort by farmers in adopting the Green Revolution paradigm.

What's surprising about this draft policy is its correct placing of all the symptoms of the crisis that Punjab farming presents, but a wrong diagnosis and therefore, same old prescriptions, even though a mention or two is made of innovative institutional approaches.

Diversity based cropping, not diversification

If more income is ensured for a multitude of food crops, farmers will shift towards those (pulses and oilseeds are mentioned in the policy draft). It requires a policy that talks about diversity-based cropping where neither sugarcane is spoken as a single crop nor maize as a monocrop. Diversification is not the same as diversity-based cropping and unless the latter is adopted, there is no real sustainability brought in. It is obvious that price policies and marketing support are being thought of to steer cropping patterns and land use in the state – in such a case, the ideal situation should be pursued and not the quick-fixes that will create additional new problems.

Diversification is not the same as diversity-based cropping and unless the latter is adopted, there is no real sustainability brought in.

“Sustainable Intensification” – Punjab has not understood this yet

Punjab government should realise that there is nothing like “judicious use” of synthetic inputs in reality – one has witnessed indiscriminate recommendations as well as indiscriminate use in the past and there is very little in this policy which shows that “sustainable intensification” is indeed possible without change in fundamental ways in the policy. The notion that organic manures are not meeting the full nutrient requirements of crops is faulty. This shows that the drafting committee has not understood the ecological approach to farming, which does not rely solely on organic manures in its productivity approaches.

The draft policy says that organic farming should be encouraged to the extent of availability of organic manure, forgetting that while sustainability of organic farming is not under question, economic viability depends a lot on marketing support, subsidies, farmers' collectives, farmer-to-farmer extension and a conducive atmosphere for innovation. It is also possible to support in house organic manure production unlike in the case of chemical fertilisers.

While sustainability of organic farming is not under question, economic viability depends a lot on marketing support, subsidies, farmers' collectives, farmer-to-farmer extension and a conducive atmosphere for innovation.

The entire discourse and practice on “Integrated Pest Management” has been disappointing since it does not bring in any significant change, most probably because of the lack of political will around this approach. Judicious use, waiting period, safe use of pesticides etc., are all hypothetical concepts that have not been witnessed in practice. Though the draft talks about new laws against straw burning as well as groundwater abuse and misuse, no tough regulatory measures have been proposed in the case of pesticides. It is apparent that the problem of pesticides is too pervasive than the issue of residues and therefore, suggesting a solution around checking of residues in farm gate samples is not commensurate with the magnitude or seriousness of the issue.

Though the draft talks about new laws against straw burning as well as groundwater abuse and misuse, no tough regulatory measures have been proposed in the case of pesticides.

Promotion of private sector guarantees neither viability nor sustainability

There is no evidence that private sector and ‘facilitating increased investment’ from industry has ever led to sustainability per se. One of the main objectives of the policy, environmental sustainability, is not going to be fulfilled by various recommendations related to promotion of private sector role including through public-private partnerships. In fact, economic viability would erode sooner or later as evidence from developed countries shows that subsidies, not technological feasibility, lead to economic viability.

It is apparent that proprietary technologies and inputs would lead to increased cost of cultivation. Promotion of private sector is never concurrent with greater accountability fixed on them which leads to serious implications for farmers. This has already been witnessed in the case of pesticides and seeds. Whatever losses were incurred by farmers were not compensated and government could not make private companies accountable. Under the head 'Research Infrastructure', the policy draft argues for greater funding for public sector research (which is fine), but what is the point in such investments of taxpayers’ money when the private sector takes over the market?

The policy draft argues for greater funding for public sector research (which is fine), but what is the point in such investments of taxpayers’ money when the private sector takes over the market?

The notion that users of technology should bear a part of the cost of technology development is objectionable, especially if this burdens the farmers. However, private sector should be charged substantially for using various public sector resources, research products and facilities. The proposal around promotion of industry in rural areas to provide employment also holds no ground. Official data from around the country shows that this sector has posted “jobless growth” with no potential to absorb displaced farmers and farm workers. These industries might also add to the environmental health crisis that exists in Punjab. The agri-based rural industries proposal is however welcome, especially if this can be promoted in such a way that farmers’ collectives benefit the most from such initiatives.

Farming as a collective enterprise

There is no mention of making farming as a collective enterprise to make it sustainable as well as viable. Ecological approaches for promoting sustainability are knowledge-intensive and need grassroots collectives for their effective spread. There is no great thrust in putting value addition in the hands of producers’ organisations or support in various innovative ways to direct marketing of farmers, except a mention here or there. The hurdle with regard to direct marketing by farmers is not in the form of any regulatory obstacle as the policy makers would like to think but in terms of practical support. This includes infrastructural and financial support like processing equipment, storage godowns, cash flows for paying farmers at the time of procurement etc.  

There is no mention of making farming as a collective enterprise to make it sustainable as well as viable. Ecological approaches for promoting sustainability are knowledge-intensive and need grassroots collectives for their effective spread.

Farm mechanisation as panacea for labour shortage

The problems with regard to labour availability in agriculture does not need to be dealt only with proposed farm mechanisation on a large scale. Innovative approaches like the “Green Army” concept promoted by agriculture scientists in Kerala has led to professionalisation of labour services to create a win-win situation for farmers and agri-workers.

It should be remembered that farm mechanisation not only adds to unsustainability by increasing use of fossil fuel and cost implications but also often comes in the way of diversity-based farming. Though the idea of custom hiring centres to make farm implements and machines affordable and accessible to most farmers is welcome, any proposals for farm mechanisation should be appropriate and sustainable. Labour costs should also be subsidised by the government for a variety of operations in farming, especially by recasting those subsidies that go to benefit the industry at this point of time, rather than benefit the farmer or agri-worker directly.

It should be remembered that farm mechanisation not only adds to unsustainability by increasing use of fossil fuel and cost implications but also often comes in the way of diversity-based farming.

No GM please

The proposals around research on transgenics are unacceptable. There is no evidence that transgenics are sustainable or safe. In fact, there is ever-emerging evidence to show that they lead to more use of agro-chemicals, in addition to causing environmental damage in numerous ways. Though the importance being laid on diverse sources of farm incomes like dairying is welcome, recommendations are being made only in the form of large dairy farms and high yielding crossbreeds etc. This productivity mindset in an industrial agriculture context is worrisome since it is apparent that sustainability is being paid some lip-service in these instances. Even strengthening of milk cooperatives is spoken only in terms of technology. 

There is no evidence that transgenics are sustainable or safe. In fact, there is ever-emerging evidence to show that they lead to more use of agro-chemicals, in addition to causing environmental damage in numerous ways.

Token mention of farm women

The draft policy ignores the potential role that women can play in turning around Punjab’s agriculture for the better. It makes an unacceptable and objectionable token mention around ‘empowerment of farm women’ and makes a mention of ‘gendered’ activities that women can take up. It talks about preservation of seeds by women, but also wants private sector to take over the seed sector in the state. Lack of seriousness in understanding the importance of farm women is apparent. In fact, a sound agriculture policy should have focused on seed sovereignty and making villages self reliant on this most important farm input.

Some positive points from the draft which can be improved upon: 

•    Assured marketing and remunerative price for kharif pulses and oilseeds price support operation corpus fund besides significant investment for marketing infrastructure for alternate crops.

•    Emphasis on family farms if the policy means this as smallholders for vegetable cultivation. States like Karnataka have progressed in creating urban-based marketing outlets (Hopcoms), while Andhra Pradesh has Rythu Bazaars for direct marketing by producers.

•    Electricity should be charged beyond a certain level of free supply and savings from this should be put into a fund.

•    Legislation for checking the menace of straw burning. This can be combined with a system of incentivisation and extra support to farmers who opt not to burn the straw. The emphasis should be not just on bio-energy and ethanol but more importantly on soil fertilisation given the state of resource in Punjab.

•    Promotion of System of Rice Intensification. Even with sugarcane, Sustainable Sugarcane Intensification (SSI) has paid off in many places and any limited promotion of sugarcane should be only on the basis of SSI.

•    Promotion of multiple cropping systems as an adaptive measure to climate change but the policy should also talk about better insurance products, coverage and implementation.

•    A Water Resources Regulatory Authority for regulating optimum use of surface and groundwater. The Punjab government should analyse the experience of Andhra Pradesh which has enacted legislations around indiscriminate groundwater use before concretising this.

•    Restoration of storage capacity of natural water bodies like Harike and Hussaniwala. Inter-generational equity in water access.

•    Incorporation of legume crops and recycling of paddy straw to enhance soil fertility.

•    Price compensation fund to take care of glut in the market like in the case of vegetables.

•    Strengthening of state seeds corporation.

•    Promotion of farm forestry or agro-forestry but mindset of monocultures and profiteering need to be removed.

•    ‘Licensed cultivators’, an identification system of tenant cultivators to bring them into the radar of official support extended.

•    No land acquisition in the case of fertile agricultural land, and the acquired land should be used only for the purpose stated. The policy should also expressly state that land will otherwise revert to the original owner. This requires regular audits.

•    Revitalisation of extension services.

Read the draft agriculture policy

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