A number of people, including myself, connected with rural development, and exposure and experience in working with villagers have come up with a wish list to help increase the well-being of rural people. We have written about our wish list regarding non-economic matters that will enhance their quality of life. This column is about our wish list to help farmers and rural citizens improve and stabilize incomes. See: Make lives better for rural people
Consistent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that water resource management will be a key focus of the government, we believe that several rural schemes will help towards this end.
As a country, we allow so much of our precipitation to go waste! Therefore, heavy stress is needed on water harvesting. We can draw from several experiments that have been successful in the past. The oldest and among the most successful experiences was in Palamu in the undivided state of Bihar. A similar experiment was done under the Niru Miru scheme in undivided Andhra Pradesh in the early part of the first decade.
Gujarat had done a wonderful large-scale program of farm ponds, which helped them increase agricultural growth in the state. Recently, Maharashtra has done the Jalyukt Shivar program along with de-silting of ponds. New models of deepening streambeds to create dohas or pools have been tried successfully in several states. We suggest that lessons from these experiences should be distilled and a nationwide program for water harvesting should be launched in all parts of the country.
We also recommend that all dam beds, lakebeds, pond beds, etc., should be de-silted and deepened, either with the help of the rural jobs guarantee program or with earthmoving equipment. This will increase the capacity of these water bodies to hold more water. The consequential mix of silt can be offered to nearby farmers. It could also be mixed with gravel and used to strengthen the embankments, which can be planted with useful plants and trees. The funds for these may be recovered from nearby cities through extra taxes, as they routinely draw water from countryside for their domestic needs.
We strongly suggest that everywhere and for every crop, the government should encourage installation of micro-irrigation systems such as drips and sprinklers, and encourage doing away with flood irrigation of field crops. Agriculture consumes over three-fourths of our scarce water resources and there is huge scope to reduce that consumption. This may be done by special low interest loans for installation of micro-irrigation equipment by way of differential pricing for crops grown with micro-irrigation, or by way of direct share of costs to be paid after installations.
We also strongly recommend large-scale expansion of programs like Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM) to all the areas, particularly in water-abundant regions of middle and lower Gangetic basin and the entire Brahmaputra-Barak basins. This will enable the farmers to grow multiple crops using cheap solar power. It is important to rely on solar-powered, low-capacity pumps so that deeper aquifers are not disturbed, which also comes with the menace of higher iron or arsenic contamination.
We suggest specific attention be given to establishing grain procurement centers equipped with dryers, and special prices for paddy from Assam, West Bengal and Bihar, so that slowly the water-rich regions will also become the granaries of the country.
We recognize that the huge urban-industrial growth in water-deficit areas in southern and western India has created huge problems for famers living in the vicinity of those cities and industrial hubs. To mitigate this problem, we recommend a special task force to reassess the need to effect inter-basin transfer of water for feeding these cities, so that they would not draw groundwater from their surroundings, nor draw water from dams meant for farmers.
Given the continuously falling farm sizes, it is crucial that all farm inputs are available in small packing sizes. The government may consider announcing special incentives to seeds, fertilizer and plant protection chemicals suppliers to offer products in smaller sizes so that smallholder farmers may use them without having to spend unnecessarily on inputs.
Farm extension services
Small farmers are starved of extension for improving yields and sustainable farming is the need of the hour. We recommend a large thrust to the scheme of agri-entrepreneurs and agro-service clinics that can bring in extension about new technology as well as provide services for centralized production and supply of inputs (such as azola, non-chemical manures, plant protection materials, etc.) for sustainable agricultural production.
We have noted that innovative and small-scale farm implements, equipment and commodity processing machinery (such as small mills) have been making their presence felt. Much of that originates in Southeast and East Asia. The government may encourage much larger-scale import and distribution of such equipment so that farmers can mechanize cheaply and can undertake processing to improve realized value of their produce.
Governments tend to have varying and irrational stands regarding allowing farmers access to futures and forward markets in agricultural commodities. We strongly recommend that the government should permit and encourage emergence of futures and forward markets in all commodities, subject to the conditions that minimum trading lot of any commodity does not exceed its expected production from one hectare. This would ensure that literally millions of farmers could participate and achieve risk mitigation for their produce.
We recommend that the government sets up a challenge fund for evolution of software and apps for providing useful and practical agronomic as well as market information to farmers. To be administered by an expert group that understands both software possibilities and situation of markets for farm produce, this fund will create an incentive for software developers to apply their mind to farm problems.
These mobile phone-based software apps could link farmers with markets in a meaningful manner. In particular, the s0-called reverse Swiggy or Zomato type of applications, where farmers inform what they have and the platform connects them to people who wish those commodities, would be most helpful in helping farmers obtain a better market at their doorstep.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.