The budget announced recently has a lot of promises and offerings for agriculture and farming, as it always does and should. It’s only in the last few years that “organic” has started appearing as one of the sectors the government talks of encouraging. While looking at the amount of money allocated to organic compared to conventional agriculture as a percentage is in decimals, but the fact that in speeches the government not only talks about it but also highlights it, is an extremely positive sign.
Early last year, a friend and I happened to speculate in a very brief conversation, what role governments play today. When I think from the view of social change and development, I feel the real change makers are people and organizations that are implementing new ideas. The government’s tangible role seems largely that of providing money for infrastructure and social welfare, and ensuring law and order. However, what we all rightly want, and often expect governments to deliver, is social change and development. On this front, in my opinion, the government’s role is more intangible and that of creating rhetoric to make the public realize what the leaders feel should be the priorities for their country, as a means to unite in moving towards our shared goals. We can debate endlessly on the good and bad, some of us think some rhetoric is dangerous, others don’t think much of it. And likewise, what charges up some people, doesn’t do much to motivate others. An effective and smart government would be able to read the pulse of the majority and create its rhetoric around that. Clearly, Indians wanted development without scandals and corruption and our current government made that the center of their campaign very effectively.
However, who really drives change? Is it the 64,000 crore allocated to agriculture in the budgets, of which the majority will just go as subsidies to agri-input companies? Or is it the local farmer collective that will find opportunities in the current landscape? I am of the opinion that it is not the few thousand crores allocated to building toilets that will make the difference, but the large awareness campaigns around the importance of sanitation that will. It’s not so much the subsidy that will build toilets, but the local entrepreneur or organization that will figure how to effectively use that money. My knowledge on how governments work is very limited, but I really think that more than the money the government allocates it’s what it emotionally prioritizes that’s more important. How much money what priority gets, is largely not in sync with the emotion. By nature of how economies and governments are structured, old but dominant ways of doing things will get more money. Which is why chemical companies will continue to get Rs. 50,000 cr. of subsidies, while organic agriculture will get Rs. 500 cr. It’s a valid concern that while the Finance Minister highlighted “Operation Green” to make supply chain of produce better and reduce wastage, this gets only Rs. 500 cr. However, the fact that this is one of the key things highlighted in his speech will perhaps make a few people realize the opportunities in handling produce better, and create companies that will have made a significant impact a decade later.
In no way am I happy seeing the amount of money given to organic agriculture. There are also concerns that while the government has announced funds for things from “gobar dhan”, to irrigation, to “agro hubs”, there isn’t money allocated for these funds in the budget yet. However, I’m happy to see that at least organic farming gets highlighted in speeches. Inherently, even the biggest skeptics of organic food want to eat organic. They are skeptical because they don’t trust it, or think it will never be for the masses. I believe as organic gets more and more prioritized, it will start occupying the mind space of more people, who will educate themselves and realize that it is profit viable and a far more sensible and superior way to grow food.
I’m happy to see that Farmer Producer Organizations have been encouraged to do business (tax exemptions) and also to convert to organic. I haven’t managed to find out exactly how they will be supported, but I know that this has created excitement at the farmer level.
The one thing I am quite disappointed by, where I feel the rhetoric should shift is that “farmer income” is and always has been the focus of all policies. I really think this needs to shift to “profit”. When I spent 6 months in eastern UP before starting I Say Organic, I was surprised that farmers didn’t even know how much profit they made. They would judge their success based on income, but were aware that they would make losses from farming. But success to them meant more production. Last week, a cab driver who drove me home from the airport happened to be a farmer. He was young and educated, and I get excited when I see the new generation in farming, so we got chatting. He wasn’t an organic farmer but was eager to learn. His dominant concern to shift to organic was, that if his production drops, he’d be the laughing stock of his village. With increasing input prices and declining fertility (which demands more inputs), increasing fuel costs (for irrigation and farm equipment), increasing income is not enough. It will not automatically put farmers out of losses. This doesn’t come through as a focus for the government, and that is worrisome. When “profit” is made the priority, I think a bigger thrust towards organic and ecological agriculture and fair prices will follow. Currently the plans talk of making price discovery easier for farmers (digitally), which is great, but there isn’t any concrete offering on how the farmers will get a higher share of the prices consumers pay. If the farmer is to make profit, just knowing what the prices are in different mandis isn’t enough! I’m not undermining the importance of transparency, it will have some impact, but it is not a holistic solution, which it is often pitched as.
I was recently at a roundtable where someone mentioned they were meeting the agriculture ministry, and was asking the participants what they should ask on behalf of us. I was asked how the government could help companies like ours in marketing, and I had no ideas. I often get asked if I have ever seeked any support from the government, and the truth is I have no idea what I should even ask for. If any of our readers have ideas, I would welcome them!
To end with, here is a happy, fresh image of our farmer Pinku with his produce :)