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.

 

Why Farmers Are Protesting Against Laws Which Will ‘Supposedly’ Help Them

Over the last week many of you have asked me to write on this particular topic. One gentleman even suggested on Twitter, perhaps sarcastically, that I was slacking. (I guess after this 3,800 word piece, he will clearly not say that).

Well, I wasn’t slacking. This is a complicated topic with multiple issues and because of that I was trying to read as much as I could, before offering my views on the issue. (Also, I might be writing more on the issue in the days to come).

What do the Bills which have been passed by the Parliament seek to achieve?

Yesterday, the Rajya Sabha passed two out of the three Bills being referred to as the Farm Bills. These two Bills are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020.

The Lok Sabha had already passed these Bills. There was some ruckus in the Rajya Sabha where the Bill was passed through a voice vote.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, allows the farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets. The APMCs are government controlled marketing yards or mandis.

This law allows farmers to sell their produce to cold storages, warehouses, processing plants or even directly to the end consumer (you and I, restaurants, hotels etc.) The state government is not allowed from levying any market fee, cess or any other levy in these other market places (or trade areas). In short, anything that the state government can do is limited to the physical area of the APMCs. The Bill allows intra-state trade and inter-state trade.

So, the farmers clearly have more choice on who they want to sell. But they are still unhappy about it? Why? This is a question that will get answered in the piece.

Now let’s take a look at the other Bill.  The idea behind Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, is essentially to create a framework for contract farming. This needs an agreement between the farmer and a buyer, before the production happens.

Of course, this hasn’t gone down well with the farmers either.

Why are the farmers protesting?

The passage of both the Bills hasn’t gone down well with the farmers. In fact, farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, had been protesting even before the Bills were passed by the Parliament. Why has that been the case? Let’s take a look pointwise.

1) As mentioned earlier, the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, are the ones, primarily protesting. Hence, farmers across the country are not protesting against these Bills.

The farmers of these states are primarily protesting because the government procurement infrastructure in these areas is very good. This is primarily because the Green Revolution of the 1960s started here. In order to encourage farmers to adopt a new variety of wheat, the government offered procurement through the Food Corporation of India and a minimum support price (MSP) to farmers, which was declared before every agriculture season. Since then the system has evolved and the government sets an MSP on 23 agricultural crops, though it primarily buys only rice and wheat. In the recent years, it has bought some pulses and oilseeds as well.

The fear among farmers is that the next step in the agriculture reform process will be the doing away of government procurement process as well as the MSP. This is going to primarily hurt the farmers from Punjab and Haryana, who benefit tremendously from this.

2) The farmers who benefit from the government procurement process and MSP are medium and large farmers. As the document titled Price Policy for Rabi  Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21, published by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices 2020-21, which is a part of the Agriculture Ministry points out:

“As indicated by data received from some states, medium and large farmers occupy a major share in total procurement in the State and share of small and marginal farmers, though improved during last few years, remain low.”

Hence, it’s the bigger farmers who are protesting against the passage of these Bills. (It is important to make this distinction because the media is largely using the word farmers).

The government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have assured that there are no plans to do away with government procurement or the MSP policy for that matter. The trouble is the protestors don’t seem to be buying these assurances and there is good reason for the same.

3) Why are the big farmers not buying the government’s assurances? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that it is but natural that the next step in the process of reforming agriculture is reforming government procurement and the MSP policy.

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 both the Bills we have been talking about 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.

4) The MSP policy has led to excess production and excess procurement of rice and wheat by the government over the years. As of September 2020, the Food Corporation of India had 700.27 lakh tonnes of rice and wheat. As per the stocking norms for food grains, FCI needs to have an operational and strategic reserve of 411.2 lakh tonnes as of July and 307.70 lakh tonnes as of October. These massive stocks of rice and wheat are despite the government deciding to distribute a lot of rice and wheat for free to bring down the negative impact of the covid pandemic.

It has also led to farmers growing rice and wheat at the cost of other agricultural crops. As the NITI Aayog research paper referred to earlier points out: “Per capita intake and availability of pulses in the country has declined to two third since early 1960s. During the 50 years between 1964-65 and 2014-15, per capita production of pulses declined from 25 kg to 13.6 kg.”

Now, you cannot fault farmers for doing this. If they are incentivised to grow something, with a regular buyer available in the form of the government, they are bound to do that. Why take a risk, when a safer option where the government increases the price of rice and wheat every year, and buys what is produced, is available.

In fact, it is safe to say that if the government procurement is lowered (even without the MSP being done away with), the price of rice and wheat will fall. If private markets are established, it will fall even faster. This is something that the big farmers of Punjab and Haryana, don’t want, hence, the protests. It is worth remembering here that the marginal and small farmers, who own land of less than two hectares, are largely consumers of food, and food inflation tends to hurt them.

5) Let’s look at how strong the incentives of big farmers of Punjab and Haryana are. As the document titled Price Policy for Kharif Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21 points out:

“For example, more than 95 percent paddy farmers in Punjab and about 70 percent farmers in Haryana are covered under procurement operations while in other major rice producing States like Uttar Pradesh (3.6%), West Bengal (7.3%) Odisha (20.6%) and Bihar (1.7%), very small number of rice farmers benefit from procurement operations.”

In total, the procurement system reaches around 11.8% of the rice farmers. This explains by the protests are limited largely to Punjab and Haryana.

6)  Punjabis themselves eat very little rice. But the solid procurement system in place ensures that the Punjabi farmers grow a lot of rice.

Procurement of rice in major producing states 2018-19.


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

As can be seen from the above chart nearly 89% of the rice produced by the farmers in Punjab is procured by the government. In Haryana, it is 85%. Clearly, the farmers in Punjab and Haryana have a huge incentive in growing rice and doing away with price risk.

The government procurement system and the MSP have essentially ensured that semi-arid areas like Punjab and Haryana, grow rice, a crop which needs a lot of water. And this has created its own set of problems. “Continuous adoption of rice-wheat cropping system in North-Western plains of Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh has resulted in depletion of ground water and deterioration of soil quality, posing a serious threat to its sustainability.” It also creates the problem of stubble burning during the winter months.

7) How do things look for wheat, the other crop procured majorly by the government? Take a look at the following table.

Statewise procurement of wheat.


Source: Price Policy for Rabi Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

As can be seen from the above table Punjab and Haryana are again the major beneficiaries when it comes to procurement of wheat. Uttar Pradesh is the biggest producer of wheat but only around 11-12% of its production gets procured by the government.

As the NITI Aayog paper referred to earlier points out: “The pricing policy has also discriminated against eastern states where procurement at the MSP is minimal or non-existent. With part of the demand in these states satisfied by subsidised PDS sales of the grain procured in other states, prices of wheat and rice in these states end up below what they would be in the absence of price interventions of the government. The price policy has thus also created a regional bias in crop pattern as well as incomes of farmers.” The fact that inequality has gone on for years is disturbing. But this does not mean that the government should procure more rice and wheat from these states as well.

8) The other big fear among farmers, those representing them and many economists, is that large corporates will take over contract farming. The politicians suddenly want farmers to trust corporates and the market process, after spending decades abusing them. This is not going to happen suddenly, especially in an environment where there is big fear of large corporates taking over many other areas of business. All this is happening precisely at a time when the government has banned the export of onions. The messaging just isn’t right, given that if the government trusted the market process, it wouldn’t have banned the export of onions.

9) Another reason that farmers don’t trust corporates is the rise in their input costs. As the document titled Price Policy for Rabi Season points out: “The increase in cost of production was mainly driven by rise in farm input costs such as human labour, machinery, seeds, fertilisers, fuel, etc.” The belief is that this rise in prices is primarily because of the increasing corporatisation of the agri-input sector.

To conclude this section, the government procurement and the MSP where introduced in a certain time when India didn’t produce enough food grains to feed itself. These are policies of a bygone era and help only big farmers in certain states, and hence, they are the ones protesting, despite the assurances by the government.

Will the government be able to do away with procurement and MSP?

This is a tricky question. The procurement and the MSP system are one side of the equation, the supply side. On the demand side, the government sells the rice and wheat thus procured at heavily subsidised prices under the aegis of the Food Security Act, through lakhs of ration shops under the public distribution system.

So, while the big farmers of Punjab and Haryana might feel that the government will do away with procurement and MSP, it is not possible at one go. What is possible is that the government can cut down on procurement, in order to ensure that FCI does not have to maintain excess stocks like it has over the last few years.

The food subsidy system is a system which has been in place and which is much more complicated and much more spread across the country, than just the big-farmers of Punjab and Haryana. Also, with the covid pandemic, the importance of the food security system has clearly come to light. Actually, only once the government does away with the food security system can it do away with MSP and procurement. This is too big a challenge for any government.

Theoretically, it’s possible to do this and give cash handouts to people so that they can buy rice and wheat, but the political repercussions of doing away with food security the way it currently exists, is not something any government will be able to handle. It’s too big a risk.

This problem of  government assuming something and farmers believing the opposite, can only be solved if the two sides talk it out. But that is unlikely to happen, given that the Bills have already been passed.

Reform by stealth

Like has been the case with economic reforms in India in the past, this time was no different as well. The government resorted to reform by stealth and aggressively pushed the Bills through the Parliament, without either talking to the Opposition parties or farmer organisations.

This has led to the firm farmer belief that MSP and government procurement will go in the next round of reform. If the government had tried to talk to the farmers before pushing through the Bills that might perhaps have helped.

Secondly, if contract farming and trade markets other than APMC have to pick up, the state governments need to be on board as well. No corporate or businessman is going to attempt contract farming or setting up trade markets where agricultural produce can be sold by farmers, unless the state government is on board as well.

Hence, some talking would have helped. But then that’s not this government’s style.

My views

Let’s take a look pointwise.

1) There are multiple problems with the way the APMC markets across the country have been functioning. As the Sixty Second Report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture (2018-19), stated, highlighting some of the problems:

a) “Market Committees are reportedly democratic institution but in fact… [the] Committee is dominated by politicians and traders not by farmers as required.”

b) “The provisions of the APMC Acts are not implemented in their true sense. For example, market fee and commission charges are legally to be levied on traders, however, same is collected from farmers by deducting the amount from farmers’ net proceed.”

c) “Market fee is collected in some States even without actual trade-transaction has taken place and simply on landing the commodity at processing units. While in other States trade transaction outside the market yard is illegal.”

Once we take this into account, there is a clearly problem with the way APMCs function. Also, they restrict competition and tend to assume that the farmers are not smart enough to do their own thing (something that many politicians have made a career of). In that sense the freedom that these Bills provide the farmer are great.

Having said that, the absence of any regulation in non-APMC trade markets is not a good sign.

2) Are the farmers going to benefit almost overnight, as is being projected on the social media in particular and media in general? The simple answer is no. It needs to be pointed out here that as per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, 12.56 crore or 86.2% of India’s operational holdings are small and marginal that is less than two acres in size.

Hence, most of the farmers really don’t produce enough to be able to deal with any marketing system, the old one or the new one, in a direct profitable way. 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.

All of this is very important if farmers are to get a better price for their produce. A survey carried out by the Reserve Bank of India and published in the central bank’s October 2019 bulletin found:

“The survey findings revealed that farmers’ average share in retail prices vary across crops between a range of 28 per cent and 78 per cent [across 14 crops]. The traders’ and retailers’ mark-ups were generally found to be higher for perishables than nonperishables.” The Survey also found that “retailers’ margins were generally higher than the traders’ margins in consumption centres across commodities, possibly due to significant product loss at the retail stage, particularly for perishables.”

In fact, the state of Bihar did away with the APMC Act in 2006 and didn’t get anywhere near higher incomes for farmers, given that the basic infrastructure to get market transactions going was not available.

This is why all the other infrastructure mentioned earlier becomes important. And it can’t be achieved without the active participation of the state governments. Hence, communication between the central government and the state governments on this issue is very important. And that hasn’t happened. Also, as usual, the central government hasn’t gone into the details. It has talked about how the farmers will benefit and is driving home that narrative aggressively, without really talking about the all the practical issues that will keep cropping up. (Remember demonetisation? Remember GST? Why does this feel like déjà vu?).

3) 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 stupid. 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.

This is why, at the cost of repetition, proper healthy communication between state governments and the central government becomes very important. Also, it will be interesting to see whether the central government continues to procure rice and wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) at the APMC mandis in Punjab and Haryana, using arthiyas and paying levies amounting to 6.5-8.5%? Or will it choose to move out, thereby hurting the revenue stream of the state governments? (Did someone say cooperative federalism?)

4) 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, I see no reason why the buyers won’t continue buying from the agents, instead of having to deal with many farmers. As mentioned earlier, a bulk of India’s farmers are too small to benefit from any market- oriented system, unless they organise themselves in the forms of cooperatives and farmers-producer organisations.

Also, if governments really want to help these small and marginal farmers, they need to reform the change in land usage norms, and let farmers who want to sell their land be able to sell it anyone else and not just other farmers.

5) There is great fear of Big Business taking over agriculture. As per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, the number of medium and large operational holdings is at 63.16 lakh (A medium sized operational holding has an area of 4 hectares to up to less than 10 hectares. And a large sized operational holding has an area of 10 hectares or more). These are huge numbers we are looking at. Just imagine the kind of scale needed to deal with these many number of farmers. If just take a look at large operational holdings, they are at 8.31 lakh. Hence, it’s not going to be easy for any corporate to do anything without involving middlemen.

If businesses just concentrated on states which have a higher proportion of medium and large operational holdings they are looking at Punjab (33.21% of the total operational holdings), Rajasthan (19.47% of the total operational holdings) and Haryana (14.35%). Not surprisingly, farmers of Punjab and Haryana are worried. They would rather deal with the known devil, the government, who, they can always vote out in the next election. But how do you vote out a corporate?

To conclude, the central government clearly hasn’t gone into the details of what will it take to really make the life of an average farmer better. As usual it is only interested in selling the narrative that the passage of these Farm Bills will ensure that farmers get a better price for what they produce. (Remember, the 50% higher MSP story they tried selling sometime back?)

When it comes to the opposition parties, they have managed to get low-hanging fruit to put the government on the mat after a while, and not surprisingly, they are cashing in on that.

Meanwhile, nobody is really worried about the farmer.

I would like to thank Chintan Patel for research assistance.

Where are the jobs?

jobs

One million Indians are entering the workforce every month. This makes it around 1.2 crore a year, which is around half the total population of Australia.

This is India’s demographic dividend, which is supposed to find a job, earn and spend, pull India’s crores out of poverty. At least, that is the story that we have been sold over the years. But the theory is not translating into practice.

The land-owning communities across large parts of the country have been on the streets, protesting. This includes the Marathas of Maharashtra, the Jats of Haryana, the Kapus of Andhra Pradesh and the Patidar Patels of Gujarat.

The average size of the land farmed by the Indian farmer has fallen over the decades and in 2010-2011, the last time the agriculture census was carried out, stood at 1.16 hectares. In 1970-1971 it had stood at 2.82 hectares.

This has happened because of the division of land across generations. Further, this fall in farm size has made farming in many parts of the country, an unviable activity. And this explains why the land-owning castes across the country have been protesting and want a reservation in government jobs.

The trouble is that the government does not create jobs any more. In fact, between January 2006 and January 2014, the number of central government employees went up by just 30,000. The total number of people working for the public-sector enterprises has fallen over the years.

Only three out of five individuals who are looking for a job all through the year, are able to find one. In rural India, only one out of two individuals who are looking for a job all through the year, are able to find one. This has been the state of things since 2013-2014.
In fact, as far as Indian industry is concerned it favours expansion through capital (i.e. buying more machines and equipment) than recruiting more people.

Nikhil Gupta and Madhurima Chowdhury analysts at Motilal Oswal, use data up to 2014-2015, from the Annual Survey of Industries, and based on it conclude that over a period of 35 years up to 2014-2015, the rate of employment in the Indian industry has increased at 1.9 per cent per year on an average. In comparison, the capital employed by industry has grown at the rate of 14 per cent per year.

Clearly, capital has won the race hands down. Or if I were to put it in simple words, when it comes to Indian industry, machine has won over man for a while now. The Indian corporates like the idea of expanding their production and in the process their business, by installing new machines and equipment, rather than employing more people.

One of the reasons for this is the huge number of labour laws that Indian firms need to follow. As Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya write in India’s Tryst with Destiny: “The costs due to labour legislations rise progressively in discrete steps at seven, ten, twenty, fifty and 100 workers. As the firm size rises from six regular workers towards 100, at no point between the two thresholds is the saving in manufacturing costs sufficiently large to pay for the extra costs of satisfying these laws.”

The National Manufacturing Policy of 2011 estimates that, on an average, a manufacturing unit needs to comply with nearly 70 laws and regulations.  At the same time, these units sometimes need to file as many as 100 returns a year.

This basically ensures that an average Indian firm starts small and continues to remain small. In the process, jobs aren’t created. This is reflected in the fact that close to 85 per cent of Indian apparel firms employ less than eight people. As per an Economic Survey estimate, close to 24 jobs are created in this sector per lakh of investment. Despite, this firms in this sector continue to remain small.

The points discussed up until now are essentially big structural issues, which have been around for a while. In the recent past, demonetisation which overnight made 86.4 per cent of the currency in circulation, useless, ended up destroying many firms operating in the informal sector. The Goods and Services Tax has added to this.

These days the presence of informal sector is seen as a bad thing because it doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes to the government. This isn’t totally true. People who work for these firms do spend the money that they earn and pay their share of indirect taxes. Also, as the Economic Survey of 2015-2016 points out: “The informal sector should… be credited with creating jobs and keeping unemployment low.”

As economist Jim Walker of Asianomics wrote in a research note sometime back: “There is nothing intrinsic that says that the informal economy is a less effective or beneficial source of activity than the formal economy.” This is something that the Modi government needs to understand.

In its quest for more taxes, it is working towards destroying large parts of the informal economy, which is a huge part of Indian economy. Ritika Mankar Mukherjee and Sumit Shekhar of Ambit Capital wrote in a research note: “India’s informal sector is large and labour-intensive. The informal sector accounts for ~40% of India’s GDP and employs close to ~75% of the Indian labour force.” 

And this is something that the government needs to remember in its bid to forcibly formalise the Indian economy.

The column originally appeared in the Deccan Herald on October 15, 2017.

Who Does Low Inflation “Really” Benefit?

rupee

Every month the ministry of statistics and programme implementation declares the inflation based on the consumer price index. Inflation is essentially the rate of price rise. The inflation for the month of June 2017, came in at 1.5 per cent.

This basically meant that prices in June 2017 overall were higher by 1.5 per cent in comparison to June 2016. This is the lowest inflation that the country has seen over the period of last five years.

Hence, not surprisingly, the government moved very quickly to claim credit. Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance, said: “This low, heartening number is consistent with our analysis for some time now.”

This is one of those statements that makes economics the subject that it is, where equally convincing arguments can be made from the two ends of the spectrum.

Allow me to explain.

Low inflation is heartening because the rate of price rise has come down. It needs to be understood here that low inflation does not mean lower prices. It just means that the rate of price rise has come down than in comparison to the past and that is a good thing. Or so the chief economic adviser would like us to believe.

The question is why has the rate of inflation come down? The consumer price index that is used to calculate inflation is made up of a large number of goods and services. The government tracks the prices of these goods and services across the country, in order to arrive at the inflation number.

Food and beverages constitute around 45.9 per cent of the index. Food and beverage prices fell by 1.2 per cent in June 2017 in comparison to June 2016. In fact, prices of some of the constituents like pulses and vegetables have fallen at a much faster rate than the overall rate.

The price of vegetables fell by 16.5 per cent and that of pulses fell by 21.9 per cent. Vegetables and pulses together constitute a little over 8.4 per cent of the index.

So, what does this mean? It means that the overall rate of inflation is down because food prices have actually come down. Lower food prices essentially mean that the farmers growing food, have sold what they grew at a price lower than they had in the past. Also, these lower prices do not always reach the end consumers, with middlemen taking in a bulk of the benefit.

There have been many stories in the media portraying the plight of these farmers who have had to sell their produce at lower than their cost price and face losses and get even more indebted. In fact, it is not surprising that over the last few months, there has been so much demand for loans to farmers to be waived off, all across the country.

The larger point is that if inflation has become very low then someone is not being paid as much as he was in the past. And this can be due to various reasons. In this case that someone happen to be farmers. Farmers form around half the working population. If they face losses then they are less likely to spend as much money as they had in the past. This will impact rural growth and in the process, the overall economic growth.

Hence, when Subramanian finds low inflation heartening, he ignores this line of thought totally. As Evan Davis writes in Post Truth—Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It: “There are certainly such things as facts, and no one should persuade you otherwise. But aside from quite banal facts (‘the sun is shining’) we always have to use judgement in deciding what is a fact and what to believe: we have to apply a judgement as to the weight of evidence in its support relative to the weight of interpretation put on it.”

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on July 19, 2017.

Who Does Low Inflation “Really” Benefit?

rupee

Every month the ministry of statistics and programme implementation declares the inflation based on the consumer price index. Inflation is essentially the rate of price rise. The inflation for the month of June 2017, came in at 1.5 per cent.

This basically meant that prices in June 2017 overall were higher by 1.5 per cent in comparison to June 2016. This is the lowest inflation that the country has seen over the period of last five years.

Hence, not surprisingly, the government moved very quickly to claim credit. Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the ministry of finance, said: “This low, heartening number is consistent with our analysis for some time now.”

This is one of those statements that makes economics the subject that it is, where equally convincing arguments can be made from the two ends of the spectrum.

Allow me to explain.

Low inflation is heartening because the rate of price rise has come down. It needs to be understood here that low inflation does not mean lower prices. It just means that the rate of price rise has come down than in comparison to the past and that is a good thing. Or so the chief economic adviser would like us to believe.

The question is why has the rate of inflation come down? The consumer price index that is used to calculate inflation is made up of a large number of goods and services. The government tracks the prices of these goods and services across the country, in order to arrive at the inflation number.

Food and beverages constitute around 45.9 per cent of the index. Food and beverage prices fell by 1.2 per cent in June 2017 in comparison to June 2016. In fact, prices of some of the constituents like pulses and vegetables have fallen at a much faster rate than the overall rate.

The price of vegetables fell by 16.5 per cent and that of pulses fell by 21.9 per cent. Vegetables and pulses together constitute a little over 8.4 per cent of the index.

So, what does this mean? It means that the overall rate of inflation is down because food prices have actually come down. Lower food prices essentially mean that the farmers growing food, have sold what they grew at a price lower than they had in the past. Also, these lower prices do not always reach the end consumers, with middlemen taking in a bulk of the benefit.

There have been many stories in the media portraying the plight of these farmers who have had to sell their produce at lower than their cost price and face losses and get even more indebted. In fact, it is not surprising that over the last few months, there has been so much demand for loans to farmers to be waived off, all across the country.

The larger point is that if inflation has become very low then someone is not being paid as much as he was in the past. And this can be due to various reasons. In this case that someone happen to be farmers. Farmers form around half the working population. If they face losses then they are less likely to spend as much money as they had in the past. This will impact rural growth and in the process, the overall economic growth.

Hence, when Subramanian finds low inflation heartening, he ignores this line of thought totally. As Evan Davis writes in Post Truth—Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It: “There are certainly such things as facts, and no one should persuade you otherwise. But aside from quite banal facts (‘the sun is shining’) we always have to use judgement in deciding what is a fact and what to believe: we have to apply a judgement as to the weight of evidence in its support relative to the weight of interpretation put on it.”

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on July 19, 2017.