Opinion: Unintended implication of policy perception

Here's our Flavor of the Month article on Sustainable Agriculture! The author, Ajay Jakhar is an agriculturalist and Chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, shares his perspective on the implications of policy decisions especially in regard to shaping sustainable agriculture in India.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth”, said the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. This holds true when we evaluate any policy implementation as well. At the beginning a decision may appear correct and foresighted, but later the same decision may seem wrong or even a complete disaster. As our perception changes, our views on a subject also undergo a change.

Consider the green revolution, it was a boon to the nation and helped us survive as an independent sovereign state. Any state that cannot feed itself can never remain independent. But today many NGOs criticize the very revolution which was possibly the most important event in Independent India’s history after the Constitution. They claim that the green revolution is responsible for destroying soil health & cause of excess use of water, chemical & fertilizers etc. The truth of the matter is that post the green revolution success, a complacency of sorts set in and with it the collapse of extension services took place. Without proper advisory services to the farmers, the farmer in a bid to attain net profitability is incorrectly using excess inputs in the hope to attain a higher yield. These are two different perceptions of the same issue. The line demarcating different is never straight.

Let me illustrate by providing a few examples on how some government policy affected my village Maujgarh in Punjab. The physical area is easy to find on a political map - we are at the point where Pakistan, Punjab, Haryana & Rajasthan meet. This confluence of culture has seen invasions & raids for centuries from people across the Hindu kush.

But nothing affected the life as much as the policy of the British Empire to bifurcate the sub-continent in 1947 which left us divided from our neighbours across the fence today, forever.  The second change that took place was positive: the laying of an irrigation system that provides water to our fields and we now profitably grow crops.

But one thing never changed and was never really given much thought - the availability of fuel for cooking & fodder for animals. Before the supply of canal irrigated water, fuel & fodder was collected from the wilds or from one annual crop, as the population was small & there was just about enough for all.

After constant supply of canal water for agriculture was more or less guaranteed, the crops grown changed to wheat and cotton. The basic fuel and animal feed being husk of wheat, mustard & cotton sticks. Over five years ago, a policy was announced by the central government for renewable energy resources from bio waste. The government provided incentives to put up units to convert agro waste to electricity. Suddenly something that was free was commoditized and no longer available to the landless labour. The commoditization provides additional source of income to the landed class however small but the landless labour is left to beg or steal for fuel. At a seminar of the World Bank on ‘funding for renewable energy sources’ which I attended, such programs were projected to provide clean energy and beneficial to the environment. When I asked about the fuel problem for the landless people, the vice president answered that the government is supposed to provide them with LPG Gas cylinders. I was left speechless, & that is a policy perception from those who influence policy.

Maujgarh is a dry area and the underground water is saline, therefore rain-fed dry land agriculture was practiced here for generations before irrigation was provided in the 1960-70’s. The staple diet was mostly millet like cereals grown in the area such as Sorghum (Jawar), Barley (joe’), Pearl Millet (bajra), Oats (javi) and Gram (channa). Wheat was rarely grown or eaten & was only introduced when Norman Borlaug arrived with 16 tonnes of short staple wheat from Mexico. Today everyone grows wheat & the staple diet has changed to wheat.  So, while the area gained economically unintentionally the diet of the farmers also changed. Every action has a reaction; every good deed will have a repercussion. All benefits come at a price.

Announcements of Minimum Support Price (MSP) impacts what farmers grow. 90% of the purchase under MSP purchase is of wheat & Rice. We are incentivised to increase productivity for these two crops to feed the nation. So naturally most of the country is growing these crops. But, this monoculture has led to a few unintended setbacks in terms of excess use of water, depleting the water table and slowly destroying the bio-diversity of the nation. The policy has helped provide food on the table and changed the culture of the whole nation after all diet is an integral part of every culture. There has been not much analysis of long term costs to the farmers & the nation which are very difficult to comprehend and quantify. The focus on wheat and rice has led to an increase in availability of carbohydrates and loss of protein availability. To reduce cost of expensive imports of proteins, the government is now increasing the MSP of legumes or dals of various kinds.

In a bid to control inflation and keep prices low for the urban consumer, the government has banned the export of agriculture commodities. Subsidy is forcibly imposed on the farmer. The farmer is denied access to international markets where price of most commodities is higher. Therefore the farmers unable to get a better price for their produce use more inputs (fertilizers & chemicals) to attain a net profit. Short term gain to increase productivity & help the urban consumer is leading to destruction in the soil health and depletion of the ground water.

A social impact analysis is necessary to understand the implication of any policy. Reliable data is unavailable and the science of socio-impact analysis is still not developed in India. We also need to calculate the cost of lost opportunities imposed upon us by bad policies as also public interventions by NGOs.

One way to reduce use of fertilizers and chemical pesticides is to invest in new plant bio-technologies that develop plants that maximize use of applied inputs and possibly manufacture their own nitrogen requirement and are pest resistant. The agriculture ministry proposes while the ministry of environment disposes forcing farmers to continue to use excess pesticides and fertilisers while competing farmers in other countries get access to latest technologies. Farmers in India are disadvantaged by urban perception and policy.

What would proponents of organic farming say if a major crop like wheat, rice, corn or soya bean would increase efficiency of nutrient intake by 50%, thereby reducing fertilizer application by 50% or that like many legumes plants would manufacture their own requirement of nutrients.  What if we could reduce overall utilization of pesticides by modifying plants to be pest resistant that require fewer pesticides like 50% less for BT Cotton.  Brinjal which has been much in debate and is widely consumed in India has more than the double the permissible pesticide residues. We should not be forced to continue to eat such unhealthy brinjal. There is a perfection of means and a confusion of aims and that is the problem.

There is nothing black & white: every policy and decision has a grey tone, some with more shades of black with others having more shades of white. Everything is a trade-off: with benefits accruing to one and losses to others. Policy makers, opinion makers and NGOs incorrectly look at the issues in terms of just right or wrong. Their arrogance and ignorance is fatal to a nation, after all perception leads to an action of a kind.

The author, Ajay Jakhar is an agriculturalist and Chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj.

Check out our Flavor of the Month video 'A natural system and an agricultural philosophy' by Jason Taylor and Chintan Gohil from the SOURCE Project.

Image(s) Courtesy:
Diganta Talukdar

Video Courtesy:
Jason Taylor & Chintan Gohil - The Source Project