No Ease of Doing Business for Farmers?
“The agriculture has been the area of least reforms… India does not even have a common market in agricultural produce.”
Dr Parth J. Shah
Founder, Centre for Civil Society and Director, the Indian School of Public Policy
During his visit to France last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the BJP has been given the mandate to “not just to run a government, but to build a new India… A new India that focuses on Ease of Doing Business and which also ensures Ease of Living.” The government has also reiterated its wish to be ranked in the top 50 nations in the annual Ease of Doing Business index prepared by the World Bank.
Given these ambitions of the government, one must wonder for which of the groups the government wants to make it easy to do business. A cursory look at the EoDB Index tells us that this ease is only for the organised sector based on a narrow set of indicators such as registration of property, ease of foreign trade, enforcement of contracts among others. What about the EoDB and Ease of Living for farmers? One would think that it would be a top priority of the government, especially as more than 50 percent of the Indian population relies on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihood. But unfortunately, that is not the case.
Agriculture has been the most regulated sector in India since independence. Governments of all hues and colours have made sure that the Indian farmers cannot cut off the chains and free themselves of various government controls. From buying the seeds and fertilisers to storing, transporting, and selling the produce, farmers are not free to do as they please, possibly with the exception of tilling the soil.
Decades of handouts and loan-waivers have failed to increase the income of farmers. The average monthly income of an agricultural household was only ₹8,931 in the financial year 2016-17 against over ₹42,000 for an average Indian household in the same year. The agriculture sector could provide a sustainable livelihood for only 14 crore people, and yet 50 percent people in India remain dependent on the agriculture sector. In fact, in a study conducted by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi based think-tank, 76 percent of farmers showed willingness to leave farming. Even more shocking is the fact that only 19 percent farmers want subsidies to continue in their current form as most small and marginal farmers do not get them.
Our leaders try to relieve the stress in the agriculture sector by offering sops, loan-waivers, and schemes while not focusing on the fundamental problems in the sector. All the energy of the government in increasing the EoDB is targeted towards registration of companies, ease of cross-border trade, ease in getting water and electricity connections for new businesses, etc. However, the farmers are conveniently ignored by the government as they are not considered businessmen. They are annadata, not people who are engaged in doing agriculture business.
It is high time that we treat our farmers as responsible adults who can take their own decisions and do not need the crutches of the government to stand. That can only be ensured by enabling them to do their business on their own terms. This would involve letting them choose which crops to grow, which inputs to use, whom to sell to and how to use their land. If the Ambanis and Tatas are allowed to enter freely into contracts of buying, selling or renting land, why not a farmer? If they can sell to any customer, domestic or international, at a mutually agreeable price, why not a farmer? If they can buy the latest technologies, why can’t a farmer get access to modern seeds?
Why should farmers continue to do their business with crushing unease?
Sudhanshu Neema is a constitutional lawyer and an economist. He currently works as Manager, Advocacy at the Centre for Civil Society, a New Delhi based think-tank.