By Sakhi Nair
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
In a country where agriculture contributes to around 17 per cent of the GDP, and employs more than 50 per cent of it’s population, one would expect an effective food supply chain, fair prices paid to farmers and stable food prices. In the country which ranks 2nd in the world in terms of farm output, 230 million people go to bed on an empty stomach, everyday. Statistics aside, let’s take a look at the faulty practices in the food supply system in India.
It starts with faulty farming practices. Due to greedy dealers and increased subsidies on chemical fertilizers, farmers overuse them. Spraying more chemicals than required results in a yield that is harmful to health. Further, use of traditional farming techniques, improper irrigation and lack of knowledge of improved modern and mechanical methods leads to less and inferior quality yield. Next comes storage and transportation of harvested crops. Instead of being stored in godowns, heaps of food rot while they are kept in open spaces. Transporting the produce to regulated markets, the farmer is paid only a quarter of the money that the consumer is going to pay, while his buyer will make a hefty profit on selling the produce to the next in line of a slew of middlemen. These middlemen add up to 75 per cent of the entire chain. With food inflation at an all time high, these middlemen are only boosting the soaring food prices further. Gaining from these profits, the middlemen deprive farmers and consumers of a fair price. Wholesale market fees, taxes, weighing and transportation charges further add to the costs. They not only lead to inflation but also a high rate of spoilage as the channel between farmers and consumers widens. When this produce finally reaches handcarts and provision stores, we gawk, as our wallets get lighter, paying high prices for daily necessities.
The farmers are the biggest victims of this system. Sometimes our food producers themselves cannot afford two square meals and live in poverty. Farming is considered a business of loss. Even though there are several policies for the welfare of farmers, they are hardly implemented as greedy politicians and landlords fill their pockets with funds meant for them. Farmers barely have any knowledge of these schemes, and corruption further prevents the benefits from reaching them. Ridden by various scams, the plight of the Indian farmer is only getting worse. Agriculture is nothing short of a nightmare for them, as they prefer to quit farming and move to towns, and dissuade their children from taking up farming as an occupation. Subsidies, procurement policies, Minimum Support Price (MSP) and loan waivers have been failures. Supply of power and water continue to be expensive. Fake assurances from the government have been of no help. The farmer can’t afford tube wells and tractors and if he’s unable to sell the crop at the market due to inferior quality, he cannot afford to go home. Under pressure of financial distress, he has no choice but to commit suicide. And farmer suicide is endemic in India, with 2.84 lakh farmer suicides in 18 years.
In order to prevent this problematic situation, Modi’s food and finance ministers are trying to revoke the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act, which requires all produce to be sold through regulated markets in most of the states. This act has lead to too many people in the supply chain seeking their commission. The new government, in order to avoid the mistakes of it’s UPA led predecessor, is now urging states to allow fruit and vegetable farmers to sell to anyone they want. But bringing this into effect will be tough as the government needs to retain the support of those middlemen ahead of assembly elections in Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra this year. Food and Public Distribution Minister Ram Vilas Paswan favours a uniform market in which farmers can sell whatever, and wherever, they want. Excluding fruits and vegetables from the APMC Act would really cut costs, as direct selling would benefit both the producers and consumers, giving them the opportunity of fair prices. Originally meant to protect the farmers against exploitation bygreedy landlords, the act has outlived its effectiveness, and has now proven advantageous to middlemen.
It is important to protect our foremost necessity against inflation and proper measures need to be put in place for the same. Quality food has to be made affordable to all and our ultimate target should be to end hunger and malnutrition in India, which is worse than most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In an agricultural country, which proudly proclaims ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, it is imperative that we truly respect our farmers.
Sakhi is a 12th grade student planning to pursue Mass Communication. She is a keen observer of everything that her eyes can see and never leaves herself out of a stimulating conversation. She considers the freedom of expression to be the fourth necessity of life and believes the world could be a better place if we could just listen. Her interests include photography, music and satire. You can wade through her musings at http://www.neuroticpeanuts.blogspot.com.