Balsher Singh Sidhu, The Wire

On the morning of Friday, November 19, Prime Minister Modi made a surprise announcement about his government’s decision to repeal the three controversial farm laws which have been at the heart of the biggest protest India has witnessed in many decades.

The proponents and opponents of these laws may continue to argue about their purported benefits or drawbacks, but one fact is undeniable: the laws have been relegated to the pages of history with the same haste as they were pushed through the parliament. They are now, essentially, a thing of the past. However, the agricultural problems these laws were allegedly enacted to solve are still alive.

For decades, agricultural incomes have witnessed low growth rates, leading to economic hardship for the 40% of the national workforce currently employed in this sector. National yields for many major crops are lower than those in Europe, the US, Brazil or China. Half of the national net sown area is still rainfed, leaving it especially vulnerable to erratic weather and climate change. Farmers across India continue to use more fertiliser than required, leading to air, soil and water pollution (apart from monetary loss). North-west India has become a global hotspot of groundwater depletion because of unsustainable farming practices. More recently, stubble burning in this region has been linked to the deterioration in Delhi-NCR’s air quality during winters.

There is no denying that Indian agriculture needs major reforms, urgently and at multiple fronts: economic, social and environmental. However, a new and broader outlook is required for that, unlike the one that was adopted by enacting the three farm laws.

To make agriculture more profitable, large investments are needed in targeted products and services including education, training, credit access, improved seeds, inputs, irrigation and farming equipment. Equally important are government policies that encourage and strengthen capacity building through farmer cooperatives and value addition services. The latter includes access to packaging, processing, cooling or drying facilities and vocational courses for farming families to increase profits and develop essential skills.

Instead of just selling raw materials, farmers can then receive higher returns from their value-added agricultural sales. Such empowerment needs a bottom-up (instead of a top-down) approach. Stating that corporatization alone is enough to increase farmers’ income is naïveté at best, treachery and corruption at worst.

An oft-ignored but extremely important tool for improving farmers’ livelihoods is quick and efficient information dissemination services. Widespread cell phone ownership and affordable mobile service subscriptions should be leveraged to strengthen data-driven farming through accurate weather advisories, precision input information, in-field pest and disease diagnostics, knowledge translation, price discovery mechanisms and the like. 

Indian agriculture is too diverse to regulate centrally from Delhi using a one-size-fits-all approach and nowhere is this more visible than in the environmental ramifications of current agricultural practices. Punjab and Haryana need to be weaned away from unsustainable paddy cultivation that currently uses too much groundwater and electricity. Farmers here were previously encouraged to cultivate paddy through government subsidies and assured procurement. The same economic instruments should now be used to motivate a shift to less water-incentive crops like maize or coarse cereals, while ensuring minimal impact on livelihood of farmers, especially those in the small and medium category.

For example, adivasi farmers in Chhattisgarh recently switched from rice to traditional millet varieties when the government started procuring millets at MSP (minimum support price). Simultaneously, farmers in groundwater-rich states like West Bengal could benefit from increased access to groundwater while ensuring they do not end up over-exploiting this resource. Other incentives such as empowering farmers to sell ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and increased biodiversity can also encourage sustainable practices, but would need the establishment of a proper framework to assess and quantify the environmental benefits of sustainable agriculture. 

In his Friday address, the prime minister stated his desire to refrain from engaging in futile “blame games”. Instead, he requested farmers to join him for a fresh start. His government intends to form a committee comprising central government officials, state governments representatives, farmer leaders, agricultural scientists and economists and will provide advice on improving crop choices and patterns, increasing yields, making MSP more effective and transparent and securing the overall future of India agriculture.

One can only hope that the experience from the three farm laws serves as a lesson and the powers that be do not adopt such a high-handed approach again in the future. When the policies being formulated can affect hundreds of millions of citizens, inviting their organizations to the discussion table is not only a moral imperative, but is also essential for avoiding another debacle like the one we just witnessed.

Balsher Singh Sidhu recently completed his PhD in the Resources, Environment and Sustainability programme at the University of British Columbia, Canada. His research focuses on the relationship between climate change and agriculture in India

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