Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a clarion call on February 28, 2016 for the doubling of farmers’ income. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget on July 5 this year mentioned that Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) can help improve farmers’ income and needs promotion. Modi then requested farmers to reduce consumption of chemical fertilisers in his August 15 speech and also endorsed ZBNF in his address at UNCCD on September 9.
However, many in the policy community averred that the doubling of farmers’ income can only be achieved if agriculture grows rapidly. The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences stated that ZBNF is unproven on September 10 — immediately after the PM’s endorsement.
Let’s explore this interesting subject. Eighty-five per cent of Indian farmers are small, and the average land holding is about one hectare. Costs of agricultural chemicals have sky-rocketed, but their price realisation has not. This has led to farmers losing control of production, which in turn resulted their net incomes reducing. Farmers are not thriving, but other actors in the agriculture ecosystem are doing fairly well.
There is a subtle connection between improving farmers’ incomes and natural farming approaches like ZBNF. They reduce the cost of cultivation, improve ecosystems and empower farmers. India has 15 agro-climatic zones, but agriculture is quite diverse. About 50 per cent of Indian agriculture is rain-fed.
The focus on doubling farmers’ incomes reflects a paradigm shift in our thinking, as food production — not incomes — has always been the priority. But the sudden political interest calls for evolving optimal model(s) for a particular region and for particular type of farmers. The model’s components may include crops, livestock, poultry horticulture, agro-forestry, fisheries etc.
Only an open mind to explore, plan and invest can deliver the intent, rather than simply stating that agricultural growth rates need to improve. Efforts precede conclusions.
Consumers desire chemical residue-free and healthy food, and farmers enhanced incomes. The welfare of 12 crore farmers, food, nutrition and the ecological security of the nation is at stake. But apparently, the intelligentsia are not getting the message from consumers, farmers and political intent.
At the heart of the strategy to double farmers’ income lies a three-pronged tatwa (principle): increase the yields to increase income; reduce the cost of production so those savings add to the income; and help farmers receive remunerative prices. Farmers therefore must regain control of agriculture and their investments must stay in the local economy.
While scientists have written tomes — essentially ideas and possibilities — we still lack area-specific models. I hereby propose a tool-kit to help evolve said models:
- Define a region for developing model(s).
- Develop a region-specific inventory of recommended varieties of field crops, horticulture and forestry, livestock, poultry and fish species.
- Develop off-farm skills and crafts prevalent in said region for improving off-farm income.
- Document best-practices if any, where one or more components listed above are integrated and improve upon them.
- Develop crop planning and demand forecasting systems.
- Take stock of existing schemes and budgets. Development is delivered through different line departments across the country. Such silos cannot deliver a multi-pronged strategy. Create empowered teams and allot responsibilities and budgets for the same. It is good to begin with a 5,000-hectare model, at least, in identified regions across the country.
- The journeys of empowered teams and their work need to be taken to farmers from the very beginning. Agricultural extension is crucial, and the newer version must be based on digital technologies and best practices from the advertisement world.
- Create support services and infrastructure required for these interventions, which must be on farmer-centric entrepreneurship mode to retain investments in the local economy.
- Formalising land leasing will help in access to agricultural credit and insurance.
- Setting outcome indicators is a must, and monitoring must be continuous to course correct.
- Involve bankers, as agricultural credit plays an important role.
- Build sufficient funding and oversight mechanisms.
Another important task ahead is deciding the extent of agricultural research for developing models and moving agriculture to the concurrent list to give it much-needed direction. Crunching numbers is important to know how near/far we are to the destination, but unless the journey is planned well, we may never reach the goal.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single-step,” said Lao Tzu; let our first step towards doubling farmers’ income be through integration.