300 dead, and counting

Andhra Pradesh is a watershed for agriculture in post-independent India. For the government

Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

-- INDEBTED farmers in Andhra Pradesh (AP) badly need relief. The state's legislative assembly has passed a bill imposing a moratorium on debt recovery, but farmers' suicides are not abating. The distribution of the Rs 1,50,000 relief package announced by the Congress government is very slow, and typically bureaucratic. The media coverage of the relief measures is way off the mark, even in AP. The real reasons for the crisis are not getting enough attention, not just in the media but also among better-informed circuits, like academia.

The new government in AP has been going to town about investing in irrigation projects and cloud-seeding. No doubt, irrigation needs serious attention, given that failed borewells are a prominent cause of indebtedness in the state, especially in the dryland regions of Rayalseema and Telangana. But if all the proposed canal irrigation projects are completed (as if by miracle), about half the arable land would still lack irrigation. If the government is serious about working on long-term solutions, it will have to promote decentralised water management, be it irrigation tanks or watershed development. The previous government had major programmes for this, but it wasn't serious about their implementation.

How the government moves on land tenancy and supply of inputs -- seeds, pesticides and fertilisers -- will be crucial. While the Chandrababu Naidu government abandoned the farmer to the private sector, the Left parties want the government to take over everything -- land redistribution, supply of seeds, pesticides and fertilisers and, to top it all, remunerative prices for farm produce. They argue agriculture is an unremunerative occupation the world over, which is why even industrialised governments subsidise the farm sector in a big way. That's because the Left, like Chandrababu Naidu and the urban elite in India, doesn't truly believe in the Indian farmer -- or in Indian weavers, who are also killing themselves in AP, abandoned by unconcerned governments. This lack of faith has completed the despair of the farmer.

The biggest challenge in Indian agriculture is to cut down the cost of production -- economic and environmental -- without a drop in yield. This involves strong regulation of an unscrupulous market of seeds, pesticides and borewell rigs. It also involves getting the farmer out of abject dependence on the State and the market. Both these dependencies were initiated under Congress rule at different points in time. Today, the party has the power and the mandate to make amends.

This is the moment to mourn and provide relief. This is also the time to carefully plan a better future.

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