The Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana launched by Chhattisgarh last week aims to supplement the income of the State’s 18 lakh rice, maize and sugarcane farmers by ₹10,000 to ₹13,000 per acre, through direct cash transfers. Besides the Centre’s PM-KISAN scheme that provides ₹6,000 to farm families owning less than five acres of land, Telangana, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have similar cash transfer programmes for farmers. For balancing the interests of the consumer and the farmer, India has an extensive Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime which works in combination with the PDS. But the efficiency of neither MSP procurements nor the PDS is uniform across the country. The Centre says it fixes MSPs at 1.5 times the cost of production for farmers, but this calculation is not free of controversy. Last year, several States including Chhattisgarh and BJP-ruled U.P. and Haryana questioned the Centre’s MSP calculations. Though food is a universal necessity, those who produce it languish at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
These income support schemes target land owners, and bypass tenants and labourers. In Chhattisgarh, there is preliminary evidence that tenants managed better rates from owners last year after the government gave incentives over and above MSPs to farmers. The State is now designing a cash transfer scheme for landless labourers, according to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel. But these interventions are only palliative and cannot address the underlying problem, which is the non-remunerative nature of farming. A more market-driven approach has often been proposed as the solution, and the agriculture-related components in the Centre’s response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic appear to toe that line. However, many previous arguments about the agriculture economy have been rendered questionable by the pandemic. The food supply chain crisis in the U.S. is instructive. Considered supremely efficient, it ended up with wasted produce and unmet demand as the pandemic erupted. India’s agricultural management must take into account such fresh learning from the pandemic, and vulnerabilities arising out of supply chain-dependent food security. The list of pre-existing morbidities in the agriculture sector is also long, including messy land records, unscientific and unsustainable crop patterns, market linkages that make the farmers vulnerable to exploitation by officials and middlemen, inadequate irrigation, adoption of technology, conflict with wildlife, and changing weather and climate patterns. For now, the Centre must announce the MSPs for the current season at the earliest — late announcements have added to the uncertainties for the farmers in recent years. The creation of a buoyant agriculture sector will take much more, and those efforts must be made on a war-footing.