Twenty million connected farmers

11th December 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

India has over 140 million farm holdings of which 20 million account for 80 percent of the area. Imagine a community of these twenty million farmers connected digitally—as change agents, as leaders,

11th December 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

India has over 140 million farm holdings of which 20 million account for 80 percent of the area. Imagine a community of these twenty million farmers connected digitally—as change agents, as leaders, as a consumer community. It should be the most thrilling start-up in India and should dominate the national narrative.

Apathetic folks tend to be cynical about new ideas. The word is derived from the Greek school at Cynosarges (hence the word, cynic) run by philosopher Antisthenes, who lived around 400 BC, was a pupil of Socrates and famously said, “In public life, you must be guided by virtue and not by laws.”

In my last Innocolumn, I referred to a paper co-authored by Dr YSP Thorat and myself, and which has been circulated to over 100,000 agri-interested people (Sarthak Krishi Yojana*). Agriculture is staid compared to magical themes like start-ups, so I expected a weak reader response. Surprisingly the column got the strongest response compared to my earlier thirty columns. Readers’ responses reminded me never to be cynical or apathetic.

Most commented positively about Sarthak Krishi Yojana and hoped that the current crisis in agriculture would serve as a wake-up call to governments at all levels. Other responses were doubtful or cynical. A senior journalist observed that we should not rely on government; one agricultural scientist berated me, “You should give practical suggestions instead of writing about frameworks”; another tired moan was “another yojana will not succeed because there are already 445 yojanas (institutions, schemes, awards, stadiums, airports) bearing the names of a celebrated father, his daughter or his grandson.”

Apathy is a poison for innovation because it leads to low expectations and the ‘broken window’ syndrome. New York was bedevilled by crime in the 1980s and citizens were cynical about a solution. When Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in 1994, he was determined to break the apathy. His team invoked the work of two criminologists, James Wilson and George Kelling, “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and that no one is in charge…the impetus to engage in a certain type of behaviour comes not from a certain type of person but from a feature of the environment.” The story of how the environment was changed and New York was repaired of crime has been told by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point.

Farming is the nation’s broken window—regrettably, not the only broken window! The general public interest about how food gets to the table is low; Indian farming policy has been unfocussed despite governments being well-intentioned because there has been no overarching and integrated framework for agricultural development as there had been for industrial development. Political and economic institutions make the difference between a system’s success and failure, and systemic change requires a holistic understanding of the problem.

In The Turn of the Tortoise, TN Ninan wrote, “What commentators often ignore is the enormous untapped potential of Indian agriculture…..changes in agriculture will directly affect half of the country’s workforce… the reform of factor markets (land, labour, capital and technology) and improvement of governance standards are central to the question of rapid growth….China began under Mao by emphasizing change in the countryside while India sought industrialization…”

Two questions arise: does our nation have a holistic approach to farming and agriculture? If not what could constitute a holistic approach? Sarthak Krishi Yojana attempts to address these.

Although agriculture is a State subject, there is political sagacity for both Centre and States in strategically (not mendacious subsidies) promoting rural and agriculture. Look how Gujarat, MP and Chattisgarh grew agriculture about 8-10 percent per annum during the last decade and how the ruling party got repeatedly re-elected. Writing about MP, Infosys Chair Professor Gulati of ICRIER stated, “There are several factors driving agri-growth but the most important is leadership and its focus.”

The focus should be on farming, not farmers. The passion of the governments, both at the Centre and States, should shift from the yogic state of kshipta (unfocussed and scattered) to nirudha (focussed and controlled). Sarthal Krishi Yojana suggests how. The Centre must embrace States, irrespective of political differences. There will be huge gains by giving farming and agriculture disproportionate priority and attention, even more than the very important GST.