Farming in India and Erratic Power Supply

My dear Dr. Manmohan Singhji,

I write this letter to you based on personal experience in farming. Nirmal and I own a thirty three-acre farm located about twenty-three kilometres away from Bhopal. We have five tube wells on the farm and there is no shortage of water. However, despite the fact that we are on two different feeders, power supply continues to be erratic, intermittent and with no guarantee that three phase supply at constant voltage will be available. In the absence of assured three phase supply the pumps and their motors burn out. The local solution is to put in condensers and do heavy rewinding of the motors, which enables them to work even at low voltage and with two or even with single phase current. However, power consumption immediately increases and there is much higher amperage, well above the prescribed rating of the motor and the efficiency of the pump drastically decreases. Any motor of standard make burns out because it is designed for constant voltage and phase. What is true of our farm is true in of almost every farm in this State and in all States, where rural power supply is, give or take, of poor quality. Can you imagine millions of pump sets at work in India operating at well below their rated capacity? The wastage of power because of the inefficiency of the prime mover on account of qualitatively poor supply of power is so enormous that if this wastage were eliminated we would be almost self-sufficient in electrical energy.

Because power supply is erratic in rural areas resort is had to diesel driven generator sets. We have a 10 KW set on our farm. Apart from the fact that it causes pollution, the set is expensive to run. If we were to use it for ten hours a day it would cost us something like Rs. 750 per day. No farmer can afford to irrigate his fields at such cost. It is imperative that we revert to the priorities of the first three plans in which irrigation and power received a major share of development funds, we substantially improved our irrigation potential and went in for a major programme of rural electrification. If we look at our present rural development priorities they are centred on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP). The objective of this programme, notwithstanding the high flowing words used by government to describe it, has employment as its objective and not genuine infrastructure development. The results of such a programme are bound to be short-lived. Let us be realists and accept that this programme is only a rehash of the old scarcity relief programme in which people dug pits and then filled them in again, while being paid wages for this futile exercises. I know I am being harsh about a programme beloved of the National Advisory Council, but why be afraid of facing the truth? Had the main thrust of the programme been sustained water shed management, I would not have used these strong words.

There is a belief that farming is a simple process in the primary sector and if the farmer can produce a good crop all will be well. The fact is that farming is a very complex process, involving as it does security of tenure, size of holding, accuracy of the land records, capital inputs into infrastructure development and working capital inputs into meeting the cost of farming, the availability of water in order to obviate monsoon fluctuations and dry season moisture draw-down, proper availability of seed and fertilizers, immunization of the farmer against crop loss through effective insurance, good farming practices, including crop rotation, timely market intelligence, availability of transport for movement of farm produce to the market, development of a market in which the producer is saved from exploitation and has a fair deal, setting up of a proper infrastructure of warehouses where a farmer can store his surplus produce, the availability of adequate cold storage facilities, encouragement of agro industries which process agricultural goods and pass on a part of the value added to the primary producer and a networking which enables farmers to take up related activities such as horticulture, floriculture and animal husbandry in order to supplement farm incomes. Our credit policy and institutional arrangements should be such that a farmer is able to get threshold level of credit for completion of whatever improvement projects he undertakes rather than the present one in which creditworthiness and quantum of credit are correlated. If, for example, a farmer needs Rs. 50,000 for construction of a well it serves no purpose if he is given a much smaller loan because that is what his entitlement is, based on the size of his holding. Investment below threshold level means that the work of improvement is left incomplete, no returns flow from it, the amount of credit taken is wasted, the farmer remains in debt and if he is unfortunate enough to be born in Vidharbha or Rayalseema he will be subjected to the risk of suicide.

We have had a number of Commissions on agriculture going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. None of them take a holistic view of agriculture, with the result that we do come out with policies relating to floor prices and procurement by government, but none address the basic malaise of why much of farming is economically nonviable. I know that some of the so-called liberal, capitalist oriented economists will rush forward with the solution that the marginal farmer be eliminated and forced into urban occupations, but I reject the shibboleth out of hand. The day our educational system, our agricultural research and extension establishment develop a programme by which we are able to tell the son of a marginal farmer how to produce a crop worth Rs. 20,000 on the two acres of unirrigated farm owned by his father who does not get even Rs. 2,000 gross from that land, we shall break the back of poverty in this country and ride a massive agricultural wave to prosperity.

Even the best of agricultural scientists have been unable to develop a holistic vision of agriculture, nor have our civil servants been able to break away from the stereotype and suggest those policies which would make even small farm agriculture a viable economic proposition. Does this mean planning is being done by people who are wise in the classroom and blissfully ignorant about what goes on in the field? My submission is that perhaps this ignorance is a fact of life, which is why agriculture stagnates, the secondary sector limps along and the tertiary sector, in what is ultimately an ephemeral balloon, pushes forward the economy and gives us a feeling of well being. I would submit that till the primary agricultural sector becomes one of the prime movers of progress India will continue to suffer from the duality of rural and urban, agricultural and industrial, rich and poor. Agricultural development can end this duality. This cannot be done by armchair economists, ivory tower scientists and lazy, hide bound bureaucrats. For overall agricultural planning and development which tackles the problem in totality, we need practical, hands on, forward looking planners and administrators, backed up by a scientific research organisation which is treated with the same respect as we accord to nuclear and space research scientists.
Thanking you,

Yours faithfully, 
(M N Buch)    


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