'Government has caused the crisis'

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

Interview with K. Varadharajan, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha.

The All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) has been one of the rallying points for the farming community in the country. Perturbed by the decline in the demand for agricultural commodities, decline in prices as well as suicides by farmers in distress in some parts of the country, the AIKS, along with other Left-led farmers' organisations plans to launch a series of agitations to safeguard the rights of the farmers. Excerpts from an interview K. Varadharajan, AIKS general secretary, gave T.K. Rajalakshmi .

How would you characterisee the state of Indian agriculture today?

In recent months, there have been hardly any takers for a range of agricultural crops, including coconut, paddy and groundnut. Prices have fallen for the majority of crops. In 1999, peasants received Rs.19 a kilogram for tea. In 2000, the price dipped to Rs.5 a kg. Coconut growers who were paid anywhere between Rs.8 and Rs.10 a nut today get only Rs.2 or Rs.3. Similarly, the price of paddy has crashed from Rs.650 to Rs.450 a quintal and that of coffee from Rs.58 a kg in 1999 to Rs.30 a kg in 2000. Peppe r prices have come down from Rs.2,600 to Rs.1,300 a quintal; Rubber prices from Rs.60 to Rs.16; and copra prices have fallen by 75 per cent. The prices of other products such as cocoa, soyabean and cashewnuts have also registered a slump. The collapse in price is not a result of increased production or higher productivity. In fact, prices are falling even as the rate of production is falling, though the reverse should happen if the forces of demand and supply were in full play. Significantly, prices hav e fallen even as the cost of production has gone up. The cause for this unprecedented fall is the wrong export-import policies followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government. Although India has a 2003 deadline for remo ving all quantitative restrictions (QRs), Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran entered into an agreement with the United States in December 1999 for lifting them with immediate effect. This covers some 1,429 items of agriculture, livestock and other products . The agreement, which comes into effect in April, will ensure the virtual pauperisation of the farming community.

How has the crisis affected the farming community?

Recently I visited parts of Andhra Pradesh. Last year, 111 cases of suicides by peasants and agricultural workers were reported. Fifty peasants have had to sell their kidneys. I spoke to some of them. Also at some paddy procurement centres in A.P. and Ta mil Nadu, I found that peasants had been waiting for more than a week to sell their produce. As the government has not come forward to procure the commodities, they have been forced to sell them at arbitrary rates.

The demand for agricultural products has been on the decline and it is not because of over-production. There is no purchaser for paddy or wheat in the market. Besides, several lakh tonnes of grains are lying in reserve with the millers. Thousands of tonn es of chilli produced during 1999 and tobacco stocks are lying unsold.

Have extraneous agencies that have benefited from the government's policies influenced the prices?

Dumping is one of the reasons for the price decline. During and after the White Revolution India was self-sufficient in milk, but in 1999, utilising the exim policy route, European producers dumped more than 40,000 tonnes of milk products in the country. Naturally, that reduced the prices for dairy farmers. More than 85 lakh peasants have been affected by this in northern India alone. Two lakh tonnes of sugar was imported although there is a surplus in the country. The main reason for the slashing of oi lseed prices is oil imports. Palm oil is imported and sold at much less than the prices of oil in the country. Worse still, when we have 42 million tonnes of rice and wheat in our godowns, the government, while refusing to procure paddy and wheat, has sa nctioned the import of both paddy and wheat this year.

How has the WTO agreement impacted on Indian agriculture?

Under this agreement one is expected to import 5 per cent of the total value of production. But, one can and should import what one wants and not what the WTO wants. When the new agrarian policy was introduced under the dictates of the WTO, it was said t hat the country would export agricultural products but our experience during the last six years has shown that agricultural exports cannot be improved. The main reason is that the international prices of several crops have been slashed. In 1999-2000, the price for winter wheat was down by $20 a tonne; and prices for coffee declined by 28 cents a pound in January 1999 and by 72 cents in September - now the prices are the lowest since 1993. Similarly the prices of cotton are the lowest in the last 13 year s. The main thing is that while multinational companies and traders control most of the trade, they are not the producers. Competing in the world market with these kinds of players does not make sense at all.

On the one hand, there is abundance of stocks in FCI godowns, while on the other there is poor offtake for the public distribution system. Is something wrong with the procurement policy?

We have to be clear that agricultural prices did not crash because of any surplus production. In fact, production has been rather moderate. Groundnut and cotton production has been less than 23 per cent. Similarly, there has been no surplus production in the case of paddy and wheat. We have been just about able to maintain some growth.

It is evident that the stocks are lying around because of lack of purchasing power among the poor and the NDA government's plan to destroy the PDS by introducing the demarcation on the basis of income into 'above poverty line' and 'below poverty line' ta rgets. Recently it was announced that stocks would be exported at a rate not less than what is supplied to the BPL category. Even local millowners have bought stocks at good prices but the government does not think it fit to give paddy or wheat to those who need it. The stocks were procured with enough subsidies and as the APL sections were cut off from the PDS, foodgrains began to pile up in the godowns. If the government were to implement the food-for-work programme and get local people's committees a nd panchayats involved in the process, unutilised stocks will get used up.

The government has announced the minimum support price (MSP)and even increased it every year but it has not made arrangements to procure the same at those prices. This is a fraud. The principle of MSP is that if the peasant is not able to sell it, the go vernment should intervene by procuring it. Every year the price of cane is announced. For the last two years, factories have not been giving the price announced by the government. In fact, according to an agreement between peasants and factory owners, th e latter are supposed to pay the price within 15 days of buying cane. After that period, they are supposed to pay interest as well. This system is not followed anywhere. The MSP for paddy was announced but there was virtually no procurement. Peasants wer e therefore forced to sell their stocks at throwaway prices.

Have yields tapered off in the traditional Green Revolution areas?

Indian agriculture is going through its worst phase since Independence. There was some problem until the end of the 1960s when the threat of famine loomed large. Despite the Green and White Revolutions, neither has poverty been eradicated, nor has food s ecurity improved.

Ours is entirely a man-made crisis caused by the government and its policies with a totally wrong understanding of export-oriented agricultural production. The AIKS and other Left farmers' organisations are not against exports. We are for exporting exces s stocks. The main purpose of agriculture is to feed your people in a situation when we have much less than what we need. Moreover, what is to be cultivated or exported should be decided by the people, not by multinationals.

When 80 per cent of the peasantry comprises small and marginal farmers, an agricultural policy should be mainly based on the needs and gains of this section. Production and productivity strategies should be worked out keeping this section in mind. Yield s have reduced in the traditional Green Revolution areas of Punjab, Haryana and parts of Andhra Pradesh. The use of technological inputs led to big increase in production. The thrust of the Green Revolution was advanced seeds, irrigation and the use of f ertilizers and pesticides. After some years, we found that yields had tapered off and today it is West Bengal, a non-beneficiary of the Green Revolution, which is leading in rice production. This is primarily because of land reforms. Barring West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, the number of people in the BPL category in other States has increased.

The basic thing about the agricultural economy is that 40 per cent of villages do not have land or have very little land. That determines their purchasing power as well, which is very low. Growth without employment is taking place and even 100 days of wo rk is not assured for agricultural workers. They are moving out to cities. The growth of slums around our cities is evidence of the crisis that has struck the agricultural community.

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