Yesterday's  Economic Times carries an article that brings to light that in the FY07, the actual fertilizer subsidy expense of  $12 billion was double that budgeted by the state. The article goes on to suggest that it's probably time to look at the much talked about organic farming which can potentially lower the subsidy bill to its one-fourth. If this claim is even partially true, then this definitely calls for policy stances favoring organic farming. But, is this one of those tall claims about organic farming's potential?

Many reputed organizations such as CAPSA, UN's subsidiary agency, claim that organic farming can reduce rural poverty. It seems to be an ideal solution for poverty especially in Asia Pacific region because it is labor intensive, uses no chemical and has higher return on investment, with a price premium of 25-30% that it can command. However, with 85% of the organic production in India exported due not so attractive domestic demand, the paradox is, it is mainly the rich farmers who are already producing for export who are benefiting from this booming sector. In a global market where certification is needed to show and guarantee the consumer that the product has been produced in consistency with organic standards, small farmers, who are often denied government's assistance in storing, processing, certifying and exporting their produce, fail to realize the potential benefits of organic farming.

The sad irony however is the need for certification given that most of India's farms are organic by default. Traditional agriculture which dates back to 7500-6500 BC in India has relied on scientific approach to organic farming. The seminal works of Vedic period (1000-600 BC) such as Vrksayurveda and Krishisastra , have a corpus of textual knowledge on organic agriculture practices. Sadly, in the last five decades, with our traditional knowledge and organic practices eroded with the influx of modern practices, small farmers have to pay extra to certify their produce.

The strong proponents of organic farming's potential to cure poverty claim that if the state comes up with a policy that supports these small farmers by say subsidizing the certification cost, then majority of the farming community would switch to organic farming to pocket the extra premium. However, what about those consumers, either below or just above poverty line, who cannot even afford to pay for the subsidized ration? Can those who struggle to pay even 4 Rupees for a Kilogram of Rice be expected to pay for the "organic premium" for the claimed extra health advantage? Would majority of households in the low and low-middle income class categories be able to afford the near 25% rise in her shopping bill?

Well, for now,  it evades my comprehension as to who are the true beneficiaries of organic farming.

~ Santosh

 
 

I wonder how many would today resonate with the then Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's slogan "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan" (Hail the soldier, Hail the farmer). While the country still honors the many soldiers for their sacrifices, I have my own doubts on whether the Kisan has managed to garner the same attention let alone the much deserved respect.

As the nation booms in the digital economy, agriculture - the once backbone of the country - seems to be pushed into the backdrop. One forgets that it is Kisan, the lost soul, who still contributes about a fifth of economic output. The sector that employs about a 2/3rd of India's billions seems to not get the much deserved priority, status and respect in the eyes of the elected and bureaucrats, let alone the common man. 

Even the unprecedented deaths of farmers - on an average, one farmer dies every 30 minutes -  in the recent past has presumably not evoked the actions or emotions in our minds. Are these deaths a desperate attempt by the Kisan asking us to juxtapose the rate of farmer suicide with that of killings in the defense? Are these uncalled deaths not enough to bring to light our failed policies and inability to provide access to affordable credit? Do they not tell the tales of greedy middlemen and corrupt administration?

Probably the wake up call would come when this continued passivity hits the food security. It's an irony that we, despite being the world's 2nd largest wheat producer the world, had to import wheat from US and Canada last year.  With the rate of agricultural growth falling from 5% in the mid-1980s to less than 2% in the past 5 years, the demand-supply gap for the staples seem to be rising. For rice alone this gap was around 4 million tonnes.

For now, the good news is that the Prime minister Manmohan Singh has at least acknowledged that the agriculture in many parts of the state is in crisis.

(More on the Kisan story in the coming blogs..)

~Santosh

 

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