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The farmers of India have won an epic victory. For 15 months, they braved the biting cold, cruel heat, misrepresentation, calumny, assault by the police and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 to wage the most disciplined and peaceful protest against government policy that this country – or for that matter any other democracy – has ever seen. More than 500 of them have lost their lives over this period to natural and man-made causes, but they have prevailed.
This is not their victory alone; it is a victory for Indian democracy as well, for the most difficult decision that any democratic government faces is to admit that it has made a serious mistake. This is something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never, done. The repeal of the farm laws is therefore a first step back for him. His courage – and that of the advisers who persuaded him to take the decision – needs to be acknowledged.
But winning a battle is not the same as winning a war. The war the farmers of India still have to fight is against the deepening crisis that grips agriculture and continues to endanger their future. This is born not out of shortages, be it of food or inputs, but of mounting surpluses of produce. It is, therefore, a crisis of overproduction, not of under-distribution.
How has this paradox occurred in a country otherwise besieged by shortages of everything else? The short answer is: it is the unintended product of incorrect policy choices and policy failures in virtually every other sector of the economy. These have resulted in slow GDP growth, averaging just over 5% since 1951 and a highly capital-intensive industrialisation that has created very few permanent jobs and woefully few casual ones.
Slow job creation has prevented the rural population from moving off the land, as happened during the industrialisation of Europe and the USA and, more recently, that of East and South-East Asia. Farm families have therefore been forced to live off ever-shrinking land holdings by cultivating them more intensively. It is their Herculean efforts, aided by the Green Revolution in cereals, that has created the agricultural economy of surpluses that Modi tried to ‘reform’. The measure of their success is that India today is the world’s largest exporter of rice and sugar and the second largest exporter of onions, potatoes and dairy products.
The Modi government’s motives for hurriedly passing the three farm bills last year have been condemned by farmers’ leaders and civil society members as being a pretext for handing over this huge export bonanza to some of his favourite businessmen, who have made no secret of their interest in entering the field of agro-marketing. Had the Bills gone through, the capture of the Indian agro-market by a handful of large companies would have been the inevitable consequence of the so-called reforms, not their purpose.
The official purpose of the Bills was to find a way of halting the ever-rising surpluses of cereals which the government can neither dispose of, nor find a use for any longer. It was based upon recommendations, possibly drawn up in haste, by two standing committees of Parliament in 2017 and 2018; and the recommendations of neoliberal economic advisers for whom The Market is a panacea for all economic diseases, second only to God.
Few of the policy makers who crafted the three Bills realised that the farmers not only understood their predicament but had begun trying to get out of the ‘cereals trap’ almost four decades ago. As a result, the area under cultivation for wheat and rice had first stalled as long back as the early eighties and had then begun to shrink. The first cash crops they turned to were non-perishables, notably sugarcane and cotton. But by the early nineties, farmers with small and marginal holdings but also large families and, therefore, an abundant supply of free family labour, had begun to shift to the cultivation of perishables, notably of vegetables. They were doing so because horticulture, especially vegetable farming, payed more generously.
Manmohan Singh’s UPA government recognised this and set up a National Horticulture Mission in 2006, tasked with creating infrastructure for storing and marketing fruits and vegetables. Under its aegis, thousands of cold storages were built and a vibrant national and international market was developed for India’s fruit and vegetables.
By March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold stores with a total refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres in the country, capable of storing 37-39 million tonnes of perishable produce. But all of these were in towns and cities. Punjab, for instance, had 379 cold storages in 2018, but not a single one in a village. Other states are no different.
As a result, all the benefits from the development of this infrastructure have been going to the traders and cold storage owners who bought and stored the fruit and vegetables. The horticulturalists, nearly all of whom were small and marginal farmers, found themselves in exactly the same plight as before: they had to sell all of their produce within days of its ripening, at whatever price the traders were prepared to pay.
Data on the wholesale prices of onions, potatoes and tomatoes, published annually by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, shows that these prices are lowest from January to April every year – when the vegetables ripen – and rise progressively through the summer until they peak, in October and November. Without cold stores, farmers have to sell their crop as soon as it ripens, between January and April. A study of revenues and costs for potatoes and tomatoes based on a sample survey conducted in 66 clusters of villages in Punjab found that the average price farmers obtained for their potatoes in 2015-16 was Rs. 4.77 per kg.
This gap gets wider as the produce becomes more perishable. The agriculture ministry’s surveys of horticulture in 2019 showed that over the six years from 2014 to 2019, farmers had seldom received more than Rs.4-5 per kg of potatoes and onions and Rs 6-8 per kg of tomatoes. But by the end of the summer, tomatoes were selling in urban markets for more than Rs 60 per kilo.
In the average Punjabi village, cereal farmers grow 9 tonnes of wheat and rice per hectare and sell it to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for Rs 1,62,000. In the same village, vegetable farmers, who usually own about a quarter of the land that cereal farmers own, grow 19.93 tonnes of vegetables per hectare of land but seldom receive even Rs 1,00,000 (gross) for their produce.
That is why, not just in Punjab but all over India, vegetable growing remains the preserve of small and marginal farmers. Cereal farmers who would like to shift out of rice and wheat look at the plight of their poorer neighbours, shudder and buy more fertilisers to sustain their rice and wheat output, clinging even more desperately to the MSP system.
The true solution to the crisis of agriculture is the establishment of a cold stores in every village. But cold stores need uninterrupted, stable voltage power and in the last 75 years of supposed economic development, 17 successive Union and state governments have failed to provide this to any, let alone every, village in the country.
More than six decades of rural electrification have provided villages with an average of 14-16 hours of power supply in a day. But even this is with fluctuating voltages as well as frequent interruptions and break downs. One virtually unnoticed consequence of this has been that there is not a single grid-linked cold storage in any village in India.
This is despite the fact that the solution has been staring us in the face for the past two decades, if not longer. It is to set up a small, 5-10 tonnes-a-day biomass gasifiers in every village (or cluster of two to three villages), gasify the rice and wheat straw that farmers are now burning to clear their fields in simple, air-blown gasifiers and use the lean fuel gas this yields to run a back-up generator for the power supply to the cold store.
Cold stores in the villages are the key to a second Green Revolution that could be far more powerful than the first. By endowing farmers with the power to determine the supply of fruits and vegetables to Mandis, they will double the earnings of potato and onion growers and treble (or more) those of the more perishable produce, such as tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, spinach, salads, and okra (bhindi) and fruits such as mangoes, lychees, guavas and melons .
What’s more, horticulturalists will not be the only beneficiaries. Biochar (the other product of crop residue gasification) is 80-90% pure, sulphur-free, carbon. It can, therefore, not only replace imported coking coal with a non-fossil fuel in the steel industry, but also replace imported oil as the primary energy source for the production of transport fuels, as Germany did during World War II and South Africa did when trade sanctions were imposed upon it in 1986 to force it to end Apartheid.
Last year, the Modi government drew worldwide criticism when it announced that it would set up four large coals gasification plants by 2030 to produce coal gas from 100 million tonnes of coal as a replacement for the natural gas and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) being imported today. These plants will work far better on cleaned biochar. Moreover, the government has sanctioned the establishment of nine such plants to produce transport fuels from coal. Not only will these work much more efficiently with biochar briquettes, they will eliminate CO2 emissions and generate vast amounts of regular, salaried employment in rural areas, where it is needed most.
In the 1990s, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) – then known as the Tata Energy Research Institute – had developed a simple gasifier, complete with its straw-feeding and gas cleaning systems, for less than Rs 12 lakh. But the Union and state governments never even came to know of it. With no demand from agriculture, a few thousand of these got made and were sold to small and medium scale manufacturers of dried fruit and puffed cereals in the food processing industry.
Last year, TERI unveiled a more sophisticated – and only slightly more expensive – two-stage gasifier in a village in Odisha, which can gasify not only straw and other crop residues, but also the carbon-rich sludge that is left behind by biogas plants. But once again, no one has thought of linking this to a cold storage to transform the future of rural India.
The Bharatiya Kisan Union has achieved its immediate purpose and staved off disaster but it should now use the bonds it has forged within India’s vast community of farmers to promote policies and technologies that will enable farmers to break out of the cereals trap on their own and in their own time. Biomass gasification is the most promising of these policies. But as described above, there is a wealth of others to choose from.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and former editor. He is the author of Dawn of the Solar Age: an End to Global Warming and Fear (Sage 2017) and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Environment Studies, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University.