You Have Heard the Good News About GDP, Here’s the Slightly Better News

The gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the period October to December 2020 were declared earlier in the day today. GDP is a measure of economic size of a country.

The good news is that the Indian economy is back on the growth path. It grew by 0.41% during the period. While the growth rate itself isn’t great, it comes on the back of six months of a covid led economic contraction. And that’s clearly good news.

But this bit most of you who follow the economy closely on the social media, must have already heard by now. So, let me give you some better news than this good news.

The Indian GDP is measured in two ways. One way is by adding up private consumption expenditure (the money you and I spend buying up things), government expenditure, investment and net exports (exports minus imports). If we leave government expenditure out of the GDP, what remains is the non-government GDP, which forms a bulk of the GDP. In the October to December period, it formed around 90.3% of the GDP.

For the GDP to grow on a sustainable basis, this part needs to grow. Given that the government is a small part of the Indian economy, it can only create so much growth by spending more and more money.

The non-government part of the GDP grew by 0.58% during October to December 2020, after contracting significantly during the first six months of the financial year.

What this tells us is that the private part of the economy recovered quite a bit during the period without the government trying to pump up economic growth. The government expenditure during the period was down by 1.13%. This is the slightly better news I was talking about.

The private consumption expenditure, which forms a major part of the non-government part of the GDP contracted by 2.37%, after having contracted much more, during the first six months of the financial year. This tells us that the consumers are gradually coming back to the market even though some apprehension still prevails. This apprehension is probably more towards going out and spending money in the services part of the economy.

The other important part of non-government GDP is investment. It grew by 2.56% during October to December, which is the best in a year’s time. For jobs to be created, this growth needs to be sustained in the months to come.

The other way of looking at size of the economy is to add up the value added by the various sectors. Of this, the services sector, from hotels to real estate to banking to trade to broadcasting to transport to public administration, form nearly half of the economy. And if economy has to get back on track, it is these sectors that need to get back on track. The services sector grew by 0.98% during the period, though this was better than the contraction seen during the first six months of the year.

Agriculture was the standout sector and it grew by 3.92% during the period. In fact, October to December is the biggest period for agriculture during the year and the sector has done well during its biggest quarter. On the other hand, manufacturing grew by 1.65%.

What this tells us is that the economy is gradually coming back to where it was before covid. It is worth remembering here that even before covid the Indian economic growth was slowing down. All in all, the real challenge for the Indian economy will start in the second half of the 2021-22, once the base effects of the covid led economic contraction are over. As I have said in the past, the economic growth rate during the first half of 2021-22 will go through the roof, but that will be more because of base effect than anything else.

Nonetheless, even with this recovery during the second half of the financial year, the Indian economic growth is expected to contract by 8% during 2020-21. This figure has been revised upwards. The Indian GDP was earlier expected to contract by 7.7% during the year.

The main reason for this lies in the revision of the government expenditure expected during the year. As per the first advanced estimate of the GDP for 2020-21 published in early January, the government expenditure for 2020-21 was expected to be at Rs 17.48 lakh crore. In the second advanced estimate published today, it has been revised to Rs 15.87 lakh crore, a cut of 9.2%.

From the looks of it, the central government is trying to cut down on the targeted fiscal deficit of Rs 18.49 lakh crore for 2020-21. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Why Farmers Still Don’t Trust the Government

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul

In a recent column, the veteran editor Shekhar Gupta wrote that Indian politics is now clearly divided along economic lines, with the BJP + being ‘unabashed backers of private sector’ and others in the opposition being ‘freshly dyed-in-red socialists’.

While definitive statements on politics of the day are rarely totally correct, they can always be placed in a certain context. Let’s take the case of farm laws pushed very hard by the current union government and passed by the Parliament.

While there is no denying that economic reforms in agriculture are the order of the day, there is also no denying that the way these laws have been drafted and pushed through the Parliament, it makes the union government look like unabashed backers of the private sector, which in a democracy isn’t possibly a good thing.

In the same column, Gupta quoted the former finance and home minister, P Chidambaram’s view on the union budget, presented at the beginning of this month. Chidambaram, as Gupta quoted him, said: “It was a Budget… addressed to the one per cent of Indians who owned 73 per cent of national wealth.”

Of course, Chidambaram’s party, the Congress, which largely governed India up to 1996, with a few brief interludes in between, and then again from 2004 to 2014, has been responsible for a lot of this inequality.

If we were to take a leaf out of Gupta’s book and make a definitive statement, what the Congress practiced for many years was bad socialism and what the BJP is currently practicing in case of the new farm laws, and as we shall see in this piece, is bad capitalism.

But before we get around to doing that we need to go back in history a little.

The State of the Indian Farmer

Up until the mid 1960s, India was dependent on wheat imports, primarily from the United States. In order to set this right, the union government of the day promoted the green revolution. To encourage the farmers to grow a certain kind of wheat, the government provided price support, in the wheat-growing areas of Punjab and Haryana by buying wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI).

This essentially convinced the farmers to grow the specific kind of wheat that the government wanted it to, given that there was a ready buyer for it. This procurement of foodgrains initially started with the noble motive of helping the farmers who were taking part in the initial phase of the Green Revolution

Gradually, the FCI started procuring rice as well and thereby encouraged farmers to grow rice in the semi-arid region of Punjab as well as Haryana. In that sense, policies formulated to usher in the green revolution in the 1960s have long become outdated. They promote wrong cropping patterns that are neither environmentally optimal nor responsive to demands of the population. This has also led to depletion of ground water in large parts of Punjab and Haryana.

Thanks to the green revolution and the procurement infrastructure that developed because of it, India now overproduces foodgrains and does not produce enough of other food items, for which there is demand.

As of February 2021, the FCI had a total stock of rice and wheat amounting to 561.93 lakh tonnes. While the total stock that needs to be maintained as of January 1 every year, including the operational stock and the strategic reserve, amounts to 214.1 lakh tonnes.

Clearly, there is a problem of over production and over storage here. It also means that the government ends up over buying rice and wheat, which it doesn’t really need and which then sits in the godowns of FCI and rots.

On the other hand, India isn’t growing enough of something like pulses. While the per capita production has improved in the recent years, it is still not anywhere near where it used to be in the mid 1960s. In 2019-20, the per capita production of pulses stood at 16.9 kg, up from 13.6 kg in 2014-15, but still nowhere near a production of 25 kg per capita in 1964-65.[i]

The over production of rice and wheat doesn’t just lead to underproduction of other agricultural crops, it creates other problems as well. (In order to get a good overview of the other problems, please click here to read a piece one of us wrote in September 2020, when the farmer protests were just about starting).

We wouldn’t be over-stretching if we say that there is a huge problem in the way agriculture is currently practiced in this country. And if Indians, and not just India, has to progress, the Indian agriculture system needs to be set right. The farming laws in their current state are not going to achieve that.

In 2020, farmers formed around 41.5% of India’s workforce but contributed only  around 15-16% of India’s economic output. This basically means that farmer incomes are abysmal. The average household income of farmers was Rs 6,427 a month as per the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Household 2013 – with farmers in some states making much lesser than the average. To give a sense of the state-wise skew on this figure, the income for Punjab was Rs 18,509, for Haryana it was Rs 14,434 (the top two) and that for Bihar it was just Rs 3,557. An average household in India has five members.

This data is on the slightly older side. One thing we can do is to adjust it for inflation between December 2013 and December 2020. The rural inflation as measured by the consumer price index between these two time periods stood at 4.4% per year. Assuming that the farmer incomes have grown at this rate per year, then the average household income of farmers stands at Rs 8,688 per month.

Of course, and as we have seen above, there are variations around the average income across the states, but even with that, the farming income is low. In this backdrop, it is clear that the status quo in Indian agriculture is untenable. Policy-makers face a stiff task of inducing changes in cropping decisions whilst improving farmer incomes.

There is also the promise of doubling farmer incomes by 2022, which was first made Prime Minister  Narendra Modi at a rally in Bareilly on February 28, 2016 and reiterated by Arun Jaitley in the budget speech next day.

The New Farm Laws

On September 27, 2020, President Ram Nath Kovind approved three Farm Bills (which were passed in the Lok Sabha on September 17 and in the Rajya Sabha on September 20). These laws are seemingly an attempt to achieve the twin objectives of raising farmer incomes and modifying cropping pattern. These laws are as follows:

1) The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 (which the farmers refer to as the APMC Bypass Act ) creates a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produces outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Any license-holder trader can buy the produce from the farmers at mutually agreed prices.

2) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020 (referred to as Farmers Contract Act hereafter) seeks to create a legal framework for contract farming in India, wherein farmers can enter into a direct agreement with a buyer to sell the produce at predetermined prices through verbal or written contracts.

3) The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 is an amendment to the existing Essential Commodities Act, deregulating storage limits on items such as cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions and potatoes, except in extraordinary situations.

Farmer groups across the nation have opposed the new laws and brought their protest to the streets, and the ensuing stand-off with the union government has gone on for several months now. While protests against the farm laws have happened all across the country, the main sustained protest has happened on the borders of Delhi, leading many commentators to say that this is primarily a protest of large farmers of North India.

There is no denying that large farmers have the most to lose and are maybe driving this movement, nevertheless, at the same time it needs to be said that large protests typically tend to happen around the seat of power.

As veteran editor and economy watcher TN Ninan wrote in a recent column: “ Much of the action in the French Revolution was centred on Paris.” The same thing happened when the Bolsheviks led by Vladmir Lenin took over the strategic locations in the Russian capital of Petrograd (now known as Saint Petersburg). Hence, Delhi will remain symbolic in the same sense.

In this piece, we look at the different arguments put forth by those who are opposing these laws and try to figure out how much sense they make. We also look at the overall issue of agricultural reforms. Let’s take a look at these pointwise.

1) A chief concern of farmer groups opposing these laws is that the new laws herald a change in policy which will lead to a roll-back on government procurement of foodgrains and minimum support prices (MSPs). The government declares MSPs for 23 crops every year, but it primarily buys rice and wheat directly from farmers at the MSP. In the recent past, it has also bought pulses and oilseeds to promote their production.

Apprehensions regarding the dismantling of the MSP regime explain the mass mobilization of farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western UP – areas with high government procurement of grains, due to historical reasons of the union government wanting to promote the green revolution in the country.

While the new legislation itself is silent on the MSP, the government has repeatedly given assurances that procurement and MSPs will continue. But these assurances in isolation haven’t been enough to placate farmer fears. There are multiple reasons for the same.

As NITI Aayog’s occasional paper titled Raising Agricultural Productivity and Making Farming Remunerative for Farmers published in December 2015, points out: “There is a need for reorientation of price policy if it is to serve the basic goal of remunerative prices for farmers. This goal cannot be achieved through procurement backed MSP since it is neither feasible nor desirable for the government to buy each commodity in each market in all region.”

This paper essentially had the philosophical underpinnings on which the new farm laws are based.

Also, if the government purchases and the MSP are done away with, there will be further danger of free power, fertiliser subsidy etc., being done away with as well. This is something that farmers who benefit from these things, wouldn’t want.

Secondly, if the idea is to promote private corporate trade in agriculture over a a period of time, then it is but natural for the government to gradually get out of the sector. That is how liberalisation of any sector has worked over the years. Hence, the government’s assurance on MSP and procurement haven’t carried much weight with the farmers.

On the flip side, the rice and wheat which the FCI buys directly from the farmers, it distributes through the public distribution system or ration shops as they are more popularly known, at a very low price to meet the needs of food security.

Given that the public distribution system is in place, it will be very difficult for the government to totally get out of the system of declaring MSPs and procuring rice and wheat. Also, the importance of this system has come into focus in the past one year, as the government distributed free rice and wheat through these shops across the country, to negate the negative economic impact of the spread of the covid-pandemic.

Hence, it is highly unlikely that the government will do away with MSPs and procurement, though the level of procurement might come down over the years, with the government only buying as much as it needs to fulfil the needs of food security and not more.

Net net, the system as it exists is likely to change in the years to come. Further, given the way the government pushed the farm laws through the Parliament, it has become difficult for the farmers to trust the government.

2) Other than the MSP issue, there are several other reasons which have farmer groups alarmed.

Central to a bulk of these concerns is the role of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees or APMCs. The new APMC-bypass law does not explicitly call for the closure of existing APMCs (or mandis as they are more popularly known as).  However, it allows private-party transactions between buyers and sellers outside the mandis. Transactions that take place outside the APMCs are not subject to either state cess or state APMC laws.

This effectively creates two parallel marketplaces – one that is highly regulated, and one that is very lightly regulated, if at all. One that is controlled by the state governments and another that is controlled by the union government.

Farmers contend that such an arrangement is effectively a death-knell for the mandis, as non-mandi transactions have been heavily incentivized. They argue that a regulated marketplace within the mandi will be replaced by an unregulated marketplace outside the APMC framework. Transactions conducted outside the APMCs would be no longer regulated in the same way, implying that government officials cannot step in to address irregularities around weighing and measurement of produce and payment disputes.

Now, sarkari interference in a commercial transaction or setting, is mostly viewed as a bureaucratic hurdle by all parties involved. Yet interestingly the prospect of getting rid of this oversight has the farmers concerned implying that their fear of being exploited by buyers and traders in an unregulated setting, outweighs whatever shortcomings there might be in the existing system.

On the flip side, the outside competition should help in driving down the high mandi fees, which exist currently.

Experts who have come out in support of these laws have pointed out that the removal of the APMC cess, removal of barriers of entry for new purchasers and increased competition for crop procurement, which these new laws are likely to bring in, will help drive crop prices higher. So, why then are farmers so resistant to the new unregulated marketplace?

One patronizing line of reasoning, as has been the case whenever reforms are pushed through stealth, is that the farmers are too naive to understand what is really in their best interests, presumably due their ignorance of economics and benefits of free-markets.

The link between reduced regulations and increased prosperity is well established in other sectors in post-liberalized India. That said, discounting the lived experience and opinion of the stakeholders and purported beneficiaries of a given law is unwise.

It is important to note that a large portion of farm trade already occurs outside of APMCs. The chart below shows the proportion of sales across various channels for a list of agricultural commodities. It can be seen that non-APMC transactions feature prominently for most agricultural items.

Source: NSS Report 70th round.
Chart: https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/three-farm-bills.

Let’s take the case of rice and wheat, the two foodgrains primarily bought by the government directly from the farmer. In case of rice (paddy) 63% of the total quantity was sold in local private markets. In case of wheat it was at 25%.

This happens for a host of reasons such as distance constraints, door-step sales to offset past debt, the difference in government procurement infrastructure across different parts of the country, etc.

The best metric of efficacy of any new policy will be its effect on farmer incomes, which are ultimately determined by prices farmers get for their produce. And this is where APMCs play an important role in the price discovery process. Prices for agricultural produce are decided in APMCs by open- auctions or closed-bid tenders.

Thus the APMCs serve as transmitters of pricing information across the market, as sales occurring outside the mandis are influenced by APMC prices as well. Once APMCs become obsolete, as is the fear, how will price discovery happen?  That is one concern raised by farm groups resisting the APMC-Bypass law.

In this sense, there needs to be some level playing field between APMCs and the new markets that are expected to spring up thanks to the new laws.

3) Another concern raised by critics is that the decline of APMCs will lead to fragmented markets and render farmers more vulnerable to exploitation by traders. The APMCs provide a platform for collective bargaining which is only possible with aggregated and coordinated sales. Once sales migrate to private, uncoordinated transactions there is a possibility of monopsonies emerging for each distributed geography pushing sale prices downward.

A monopsony is a market which has a single buyer, giving that sole player an undue advantage on dictating prices. As an example, if Maruti was the only car manufacturer in the country, it would enjoy a near monopsony over the automobile spare parts market. In such thin and fragmented markets, the balance of information and bargaining power will be heavily tilted against farmers, especially ones with small holdings.

While these fears are not unfounded, it should be pointed out that the existing system of price discovery and middlemen has been prone to manipulation by traders and commission agents, much to the detriment of farmers. As Sudha Narayan, a noted agricultural economist points out, even with open auctions, middlemen and traders often collude against farmers to depress sale prices.

Also, it needs to be said here that most of India’s farmers are too small to be dealing with any marketing system on their own. The point being that even in the new markets that are likely to emerge middlemen might continue to be the order of the day.

It is being assumed that buyers who currently buy from big commission agents, will start buying directly from farmers and let go of the middleman. There is a reason why these buyers buy from agents. It is convenient for them to do so. Do they want to take on the headache of building a new system right from scratch? Is it worth their time and money?

These are questions for which answers will become clearer in the days to come. But prima facie given the abysmal ease of doing business in most states, we see no reason why the buyers won’t continue buying from the agents, instead of having to deal with many farmers. This is a point that needs to be kept in mind as well.

For such small farmers to be able to benefit and get a better price for their produce without selling to a middleman, all kinds of other infrastructure is needed. These include everything from more cold storages to improved roads connecting villages to the newer markets that come up, power supply which can be relied upon (so that a cold storage can function like one) and traders who compete to get their produce.

It is worth remembering that arthiyas (commission agents) who buy produce from farmers at APMCs, are locally influential people. Hence, assuming that parallel systems of buying and selling in the form of new trade markets, will come up automatically, is rather lame.

It is worth remembering that many arthiyas are themselves big farmers and can ensure that the system continues to work as it is. They might just move out of APMCs to avoid paying levies (which are very high especially in states of Punjab and Haryana at 8.5% and 6.5%, respectively). Everything else might continue to be the same. This depends on whether creation of new infrastructure is worth not paying the levy.

4) The displacement of trade into the unregulated sphere has another downside. It invisiblizes data. When agriculture sales and storage are not recorded centrally, key data points get lost. Evidence-based policy making requires robust data. Without the availability of data on sale prices, volumes and storage, policy makers could be rendered “blind”, adversely affecting decisions regarding agriculture, food security, and food distribution.

One solution to this problem would be to mandate the recording of all trade outside APMCs be recorded in a central/state registry, especially if the new regulations lead to the creation of new markets with decent infrastructure (as opposed to fragmented, distributed transactions).

5)  Other than profitability, these laws have also been opposed on the grounds of being unduly favourable to corporates. This, as we said at the very beginning, makes the government, look like an unabashed backer of the corporate system.

Section 15 of the Farmers’ Produce Act says “no civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter, the cognisance of which can be taken and disposed of by any authority empowered by or under this Act or the rules made thereunder.”

Instead, the adjudicating powers are given to Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) and Additional District Magistrates (ADMs) – both being bureaucrats. This has stoked fears of subversion of justice against the farmer. If there is a small farmer on one side of the dispute and a large or even a medium sized corporate on the other side, whose side is the bureaucrat likely to take? One doesn’t need a degree in rocket science or an advance qualification in computer chip design, to answer this question.

This provision in the new farm laws, which doesn’t allow farmers to take a dispute to a Civil Court, also seems to be in line with the narrative of too much democracy inhibiting economic reforms, that has been promoted in the recent past.

So what is the net learning from all this?

The attitude towards corporates highlights the us-vs-them mentality of farmer leaders and activists. If something is good for big business, it must be bad for them. Their argument is that the “freedoms” offered by the new laws vis-a-vis crop sales or storage already existed for the farmers. The changes introduced by the new farm laws are to essentially unshackle the corporates.

This extreme suspicion of corporates and their profit-making motives is unfortunate and can be attributed to both the legacy of socialist thought in India, the politicians often bad-mouthing businessmen, the less than exemplary behaviour of corporates themselves and instances of exploitative practices by corporates in the past.

A blanket fear of corporate involvement is arguably short-sighted, even if understandable due to past practices. Having a robust supply chain of climate-controlled warehouses and transportation is critical to allowing farmers to tap into larger national and international markets.

One practical way to do this at a substantial scale is to attract investment by large corporates. Corporatization en-masse doesn’t have to mean exploitation of farmers. On the contrary, it can help realize higher incomes, given the correct safeguards and regulatory oversight, which has gone missing in the new laws.

This needs to be communicated as well as demonstrated with a few success stories if such materialize, where deregulation and entry of corporates leads to increased farmer incomes. Once farmers have seen concrete benefits maybe the psychology of distrust against corporate players can be reversed.

As Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah write in,  In Service of the Republic: “ The safe strategy in public policy is to incrementally evolve—making small moves, obtaining feedback from the empirical evidence, and refining policy work in response to evidence.” Of course, moving incrementally goes against the very idea of a government which believes in making big moves and building a huge narrative around it.

Trust is perhaps the core issue that fuels farmer opposition. There seems to be a complete breakdown of trust in the current government from the farmers’ end. The seeds of discontent were first sown by repeated inconsistencies between election manifestos and implemented policies.

Such tendencies are not unique to the current ruling party, but that hardly absolves them of some significant reversals on election promises. Issues that farmers find particularly grating are the inconsistencies in the Modi government’s stance towards implementing the Swaminathan commission recommendations and their reversal on the promise to open 22,000 agriculture mandis for improved market access.

Also, what does not help is the way these laws were pushed through the Parliament, without any discussion being initiated with the farmers. The government got talking with them only after the protests erupted. In this environment, it is hardly surprising that there is low trust.

The government did itself no favours by the manner in which it introduced the new laws. Even if the intent is to benefit farmers by bringing in the new laws, the means employed by the government do not inspire confidence. Constitutional norms of deliberation and debate in the Parliament were circumvented to make sudden, sweeping changes on a state subject, reneging on our federal ethos.

Moreover, the laws were drafted unilaterally, without seeking inputs from farmers – the purported beneficiaries. Circumventing these good-faith practices has furthered suspicions held by detractors that the laws are indeed meant to further corporate interests only. What hasn’t helped is the fact that farmers cannot challenge disputes arising under these news laws, in Civil Courts.

As the American experience of the late 19th century and early 20th century shows, unregulated capitalism only leads to robber barons and huge inequality in the society, which India has enough of already. Hence, bad socialism has now been replaced by bad capitalism.

Farmer protests continue to expose the deep fault lines in our agrarian economy. The response to these laws offer some valuable lessons to politicians and policymakers. For one, it is impossible to predict with certainty the effect of these laws on agriculture prices. The arguments put forth by farmers merit meaningful engagement.

Dismissing their concerns as misguided or malicious smacks of hubris. In a democracy, good leadership and policymaking is as much about means as ends. Transparency, debate and discussions are essential before draft bills become laws. It is essential to engage key stakeholders and socialize any big-bang changes to avoid surprises and minimize disruptions. One can only hope that the political class has the wisdom and grace to recognize their mistakes and learn from them.

But all this involves hard work, which is a tad too much for a government primarily engaged in building narratives and following them up purposefully. Also, by trying to push agricultural reforms through the stealth route and not engaging with the status quo, the government has done the cause of economic reforms a great harm. In the time to come, it will become even more difficult for it to push through any new economic reform, unless it sits and talks this one out with the farmers.

For starters it should offer to do away with some of the most controversial clauses in the new laws which favour the corporates at the cost of the farmers. That can at least be a small start.

[i] https://niti.gov.in/sites/default/files/2019-07/RAP3.pdf and author calculations on data from http://agricoop.nic.in/sites/default/files/FirstEstimate2020-21.pdf. Population of India in 2019 assumed to be 137 crore, using World Bank data.

Why Large Parts of North India Turn Dystopian Every Winter

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Burning of rice residues in SE Punjab, India, prior to the wheat season.
— Picture by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Burning of rice residues in Punjab, India, prior to the wheat season.

In the end, it’s all about incentives, perverse or otherwise.

My parents moved to Delhi in 2009, after my father retired from Coal India. Since then I have spent all Diwalis in Delhi, though this Diwali due to reasons beyond my control, I will most probably be in Mumbai.

The last few Diwalis in Delhi have been very difficult for me. In fact, last year, I could smell smoke inside the house even before the Diwali day (so, it was clearly not because of crackers). Delhi and many other parts of North India go totally dystopian during winters.

On some days when one gets up and looks out of the window, there is so much smog that one gets a feeling that Armageddon is here.

One of the primary reasons for this smog/pollution is the rice stubble burning that happens in Punjab, Haryana, parts of Uttarakhand and Western Uttar Pradesh. From the looks of it, the situation doesn’t seem to be very different this year.

Newsreports suggest that stubble burning is currently on and was responsible for 40% of Delhi’s pollution on November 1, the highest it has been so far this season. Last year on the same day, the stubble burning’s contribution to Delhi’s pollution had stood at 44% on November 1.

Let’s try and understand this issue in detail and why it happens every year.

This is a great story of how noble intentions on part of politicians and bureaucrats (yes, you read that right) along with incentives that seem right when they are introduced, can really screw up things in the years to come.

And once a system is in place, right or wrong, it is difficult to change it, given that many individuals benefit from the status quo.

Why do farmers burn rice paddy stubble?

They do it primarily because the time farmers have between harvesting rice paddy and sowing the wheat crop, is very short. That’s the short answer. But there is a lot more to it than just this.

Mechanical harvesters found their way into Punjab sometime in the early 1980s. Around four-fifths of the rice crop is harvested using combine harvesters and not human beings (if you still thought humans being carry out harvesting in Punjab, you haven’t moved beyond Hindi cinema of the 1960s).

These harvesters cut and clean rice from the rice paddy, but they leave behind straws on the field. These straws are six to eight inches long and for all practical purposes are useless.

The straws remaining after harvesting of wheat can be used as animal fodder. Rice straw cannot be used as animal fodder primarily because of its high silica content. If this straw is used as animal fodder, it impacts the quality of milk, with the quantity of calcium in the milk coming down. This is not true about straw left behind after harvesting basmati rice, which has low silica content.

But basmati is grown only in a limited area. Like this year, rice was planted on a total area of 27.36 lakh hectares. Of this, basmati was planted on around 6.5 lakh hectares or 24% of the total area under rice. This was primarily because the government does not buy basmati rice under the minimum support price (MSP) structure. (We shall look at this in detail later).

Farmers have a time of around 10-15 days for removing the rice straw and get the fields ready for planting wheat. The easiest thing in this situation is to burn the rice straw. All it takes is a single well-lit matchstick. The cost is close to zero.

This burning leads to higher pollution and deterioration of air quality even in places hundreds of kilometres away. The heat from burning the rice straw leads to an increase in soil temperature which kills beneficial soil organisms. The burning is also a potential source for greenhouse gases. Also, it is worth remembering that the burning of post-harvest rice stubble forms around 50% of the all the crop residue burning in the country.

Let’s take a look at stubble burning in incidences reported in Punjab and Haryana, where most of the burning takes place.

Source: Price Policy for Kharif Crops – The Marketing Season of 2020-2021, Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices.

As can be seen from above table, the number of stubble burning incidents have come down over the years. The total number of incidents in Punjab and Haryana have come down by 52% between 2016 and 2019. In 2016, the total number of incidents had stood at 1,18,065. By 2019, this was down to 56,742.

So there has been some improvement on the number of fires front over the years. But there are other ways of looking at the situation; the total weight of the stubble burned and the total area of stubble burned. The Chief Secretary of Punjab Vini Mahajan said on October 31, that the total straw burning area in 2020 was 7.49 lakh hectares, which was 5.23% lower in comparison to 7.90 lakh hectares last year.

A Amarender Reddy, the principal scientist at the ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture recently wrote in The Wire that last year the farmers burnt 11 million tonnes of rice stubble in Punjab and Haryana. This is a little over 40% of the total stubble of 27 million tonnes of rice stubble produced in both the states. Reddy expects the figure to be the same this year.

There has been some improvement on the paddy burning front. One reason has been the distribution of Happy Seeder, a machine which cuts rice stubble and plants wheat seeds at the same time. Reddy writes that the Punjab government has distributed around 24,000 Happy Seeder machines though the state needs nearly 50,000 seeder machines to remove all the rice stubble in the short period of time available before wheat seeds are planted.

Also, farmers have complained about low germination of wheat seeds when the Happy Seeder machine is used. The central government, like most central governments, has allocated more money to solve the problem. Using this money, machines to tackle the rice stubble can be bought at a subsidy.

While, all this is fine, it doesn’t answer the most basic question: why do semi-arid states like Punjab and Haryana, grow a water-intensive crop like rice paddy in the first place?

Why Punjab and Haryana grow rice?

Punjab has the highest yield of 4,132 kgs per hectare when it comes to rice, against the all India yield of 2,659 kgs per hectare. The rice productivity in Haryana is better than the all India average and is at 3,121 kgs per hectare. But this does not take into account the total amount of water used to produce this rice.

As the document titled The Price Policy for Kharif Crops: The Marketing Season for 2016-17, brought out by the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices, points out:

“If water consumption is measured in terms of per kilogram of rice, West Bengal becomes the most efficient state, which consumes 2,169 litres to produce one kg of rice, followed by Assam (2,432 litres) and Karnataka (2,635 litres). The water use is high in Punjab (4,118 litres), Tamil Nadu (4,557 litres) and Uttar Pradesh (4,384 litres). … [This] shows that the most efficient state in terms of land productivity is not necessarily the most efficient if irrigation water is factored into. This is because of high rainfall in the eastern region.”

Haryana also uses a lot of water to grow rice.

What this means is that Punjab and Haryana given that they are semi-arid water deficient areas, should not be growing rice in the first place. In the early sixties, Punjab used to grow crops which did not require a lot of water. These included maize, bajra, pulses, oilseeds etc. But over the years, the share of these crops in the overall cropped area has come down dramatically. Take a look at the following table.

Source: Economic Survey of Punjab, 2019-20.

Rice paddy was grown only on 4.8% of cropped area in 1960-61. In 2018-19 it was grown on around 39.6% of cropped area. What happened here? Sometime in the mid 1960s, the central government launched the Green Revolution in Punjab, in order to build food security in India and reduce our dependence on import of American wheat under the Public Law 480 (PL -480).

The farmers were encouraged to plant a high-yielding variety of wheat. In order to incentivise them, the government bought this wheat from them at a minimum support price (MSP) which was declared every year.

A look at the above table tells us that the cropped area under wheat jumped from 27.3% in 1960-61 to 40.5% in 1970-71. The fact that the government bought the wheat at the MSP, led to an increase in wheat plantation.

The government started buying rice at an MSP as well. This led to a jump in number of farmers planting rice in Punjab and Haryana because they had a readymade customer in the government willing to buy at a fixed price. They weren’t subject to the vagaries of price and India’s underdeveloped agricultural marketing system.

The farmers were first incentivised to grow wheat (rightly) and then incentivised to grow rice as well (right from the point of food security, but wrong from all other angles).

Take a look at the following chart which plots the total amount of area on which rice has been planted in Punjab, over the years.

Source: http://punenvis.nic.in/index3.aspx?sslid=5882&subsublinkid=4993&langid=1&mid=1 and Agricultural Statistics at a Glance 2019.

As can be seen there was a major jump in the area under rice production between 1970-71 and 1990-91, from 0.39 million hectare to 2.02 million hectare. This was primarily because of rice being bought by the government at a minimum support price announced every year. The next jump came in the mid 1990s.

In the year 1997, free electricity for farmers was introduced in Punjab. This encouraged farmers to grow rice even more. They could now pump groundwater for free. This could be used to grow rice. Take a look at the following table, which plots the number of tube wells in the state over the years.

Number of tubewells (in lakhs)

Source: Economic Survey of Punjab, 2019-20.

As can be seen from the above table, the number of electrically operated tube wells has gone up dramatically over the years. In 2018-19, the number is more than 13 lakhs. With free electricity, farmers were incentivised to buy electricity operated tube wells and pump as much ground water as required to grow rice.

This has led to the exploitation of groundwater. As the latest Economic Survey of Punjab points out:

“A state-wise assessment of the groundwater resources in the country showed that 80% of 138 blocks assessed were ‘Over-exploited’, 2 blocks were ‘Critical’, 5 were ‘Semi-Critical’, and 22 were ‘Safe’.”

In fact, 95% of groundwater is extracted for the purpose of irrigation.

Along with this, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) buys up a bulk of the rice produced in the state. It is worth remembering here that Punjab is not much of a rice eating state. Take a look at the following chart.

Procurement of rice in major producing states.


Source: Price Policy for Kharif Crops – The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

In 2018-19, Punjab produced around 12.82 million tonnes of rice. Of this, 11.4 million tonnes was procured by the government through FCI and other state procurement agencies. In Haryana, around 4.5 million tonnes of rice was grown. Of this, around 85% was procured. The major reason for this lies in the fact that given that the green revolution started here, FCI has the best infrastructure to procure and store foodgrains, in this area.

The government doesn’t procure basmati under MSP because there is a huge international demand, given its fragrant smell when cooked. Hence, farmers don’t plant much of it. While there is international demand, the farmers also need to suffer the vagaries of price.

This easy procurement along with free electricity encourages farmers to grow rice in what is largely a semi-arid area. But this still does not explain how the farmers came around to burning rice paddy stubble. I mean, I have been going to Delhi for more than 35 years now, but the city was never dystopian during winters earlier. This is clearly a phenomenon of the last decade. What changed?

What led to farmers burning rice stubble?

As we have seen, the government policies over the years, have incentivised farmers to grow rice. At the same time, these policies have led to the water table in Punjab falling dramatically. Given this, the government had to something about this and it did. (I am talking more about Punjab than Haryana here, simply because the number of fires in Punjab is many times more).

As the Economic Survey of Punjab points out:

“It requires 4,500 litres of water to grow one kg of sathi rice when it is sown in April-May. But if sowing is done around mid-June, water requirement reduces to 1,500-2,000 litres. Water requirement is high in April-May because the evaporation rate is high and there is no rain. As a result, all the water used in irrigation is groundwater. In June-July, rainfall supports water needs of the crop.”

This logic essentially led to the enactment of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009. As per this law, farmers are not allowed to sow paddy seeds in nurseries before May 10. They are not allowed to transplant the saplings before June 10. The idea being that by the time farmers start transplanting the saplings in the fields, the Monsoon would have already arrived and hence, lesser groundwater will be used to grow rice. Haryana has a similar law.

The intention behind the law was noble, but the incentive it created for the farmer was again perverse. The end to end production of rice takes 120 days. The process of growing rice used to start in April earlier. But this was pushed back by a month due to the law to prevent the overexploitation of groundwater.

This led to a situation where farmers were left with a time of around 15 days to get their fields ready for the plantation of wheat. The quickest way to turnaround is to burn the rice stubble and that is precisely what has been happening for the last decade.

History plus perverse incentives are at the heart of this problem.

What’s the way out of this?

The central government recently told the Supreme Court that it was planning to bring a new law to tackle the stubble burning problem. This is a classic way of how any government tries to tackle a long-term problem. They either bring a new law or throw money at it, in the hope of solving the problem.

But the question is will this law or any law be of help? The Punjab government did bring in a law to solve one problem and ended up creating another one, without really solving the first one.

In the short-term, innovations like the Happy Seeder have clearly helped. But the problem can only be solved if the Punjabi and other farmers in the semi-arid areas of North India are incentivised to not grow rice and to grow other crops which do not require a lot of water.

But at the risk of repeating a cliché, it is easier said than done.

Let’s take a look at this pointwise.

1) Over the years, the government has bought much more rice and wheat than it needs to maintain the operational reserve and the strategic reserve. Like in September, the rice stock in the central pool of the FCI was at 22.2 million tonnes. As of October every year, FCI needs to maintain an operational reserve of 8.25 million tonnes and a strategic reserve of 2 million tonnes. Clearly, the FCI has much more rice than is required.

This reserve can be brought down by buying lesser rice in the time to come. If this policy is followed for a few years, the farmers will automatically be disincentivised to grow rice. If they are disincentivised to grow rice, there will be lesser rice stubble to burn.

Of course, this is a politically risky move and in the process a section of farmers is bound to face losses, until they move away from growing rice.

2) Another way is to buy more rice from states like West Bengal, which is best suited to be growing rice, given it uses less water to grow rice, in comparison to other states. In fact, West Bengal produced 16.05 million tonnes of rice in 2018-19. Of this, the government purchased just 1.9 million tonnes. The point to remember here is that West Bengal is a rice eating state.

So, unlike Punjab the government cannot buy almost all the rice that is produced. Hence, buying by the central government shouldn’t lead to a shortage of rice in the state, forcing it to buy rice from other states, in the process. The solution lies in helping increase the rice yield per hectare in the state. In 2018-19, West Bengal produced 2,906 kgs of rice per hectare. This was significantly lower than Punjab’s 4,132 kgs per hectare, but more than the national average of 2,659 kgs per hectare.

3) The most important way in weaning away farmers from rice is to change incentives. Let me offer an analogy here. Why does a wealth manager/insurance agent/personal banker/mutual fund agent mis-sell? Simply because their incentives are so aligned.

Along similar lines, if the farmer has an incentive to grow rice (and unlike financial salesmen, the incentive here is an honest one), he will grow rice. We can’t judge him for this.

One way out is to encourage farmers to grow maize, like they used to in the sixties. In 1960-61, 6.9% of the total cropped area in Punjab was used to grow maize. By 2018-19, this had fallen to 1.4%. As the document titled Price Policy for Kharif Crops—The Marketing Season of 2020-21 points out: “Maize cultivation is more water efficient than rice… [It has] a great potential for crop diversification in rice-wheat cropping system areas of north-western plains, where substantial groundwater depletion has occurred.”

The trouble is that maize has low profitability in comparison to rice “due to low and fluctuating prices and yield of maize.”

As the Price Policy document points out:

“There is a need to find alternative uses of maize in the country for industrial uses like feed, starch and ethanol as well as for direct consumption, mainly value-added products… Allowing maize as raw material for ethanol production would help in crop diversification and ensure remunerative prices to farmers.”

This will help increase the demand for maize and help increase its price.

Along similar lines, there is a need to encourage and incentivise the growing of pulses and oilseeds, which we don’t grow enough of. As the Price Policy document points out:

“Instead of promoting water-intensive crops like rice… it is important to promote production of pulses and oilseeds by encouraging farmers to grow these crops by providing better quality seeds, technology and appropriate price support to address gap between domestic production and consumption and maintain stability in the domestic market.”

The fact of the matter is that the private agriculture markets in the country don’t function well. At the same time, in order to encourage farmers to grow particular crops, the government cannot buy a large amount of it, like it buys rice and wheat, simply because it doesn’t have enough money to do so or the right infrastructure to store what it has bought. Pulses are an excellent example. The reason FCI cannot buy pulses is simply because it doesn’t have the right infrastructure to store them.

In this scenario, getting farmers to grow something other than rice is going to be very difficult and will take a lot of concentrated effort on part of the politicians as well as bureaucrats. Will that happen? On that your guess is as good as mine.

The moral of the story being, just because there is a problem, doesn’t mean it has an immediately implementable solution.