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Farmers' Protest: Why Govt’s Offer of 5-year Assured Buyback May Not Be Enough

Farmers in northwest India need to break away from the rice-wheat cycle and diversify their crops.

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The government has reportedly proposed to farmers protesting at the Delhi border that it will procure pulses, cotton, and maize if they grow these crops instead of rice and wheat and that it will procure the output at minimum support prices (MSP). This is a sensible suggestion as farmers in northwest India need to break away from the rice-wheat cycle and diversify their crops.

It falls short of the demand for a legally guaranteed MSP above 50 per cent of all cash costs and the imputed value of family labour, capital assets, and farmland employed in cultivation. Instead, the government has reportedly offered a five-year buyback commitment of the aforementioned crops.

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The Importance of Pulses

In one of his economic surveys, former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian called pulses a “socially useful” crop.

Pulses absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it in root nodules, thereby enriching the soil. Growing them in place of cereals like rice and wheat will help reduce the consumption of nitrogenous fertilisers like urea, which are sold at a fifth of their landed cost. This will reduce the subsidy burden. They also use less water and are more nutritious than cereals.

India is deficient in the production of pulses. Imports of pulses were 3.84 million tonnes in 2012-13 and increased to 6.6 million tonnes in 2016-17. Measures taken to increase production and curb imports have resulted in higher output and imports declining to 2.57 million tonnes in 2018-19. There has been an uptick in imports since then, but much short of previous highs. An increase in output can plug the supply gap.

An assured buyback at MSP will persuade farmers, especially in the dryland areas, to grow more pulses. No pulses were procured in the 2022-23 Kharif marketing season. In the previous season, 1.14 per cent of pulses produced were procured and in 2020-21, the share was just 0.34 per cent. The price of pigeon pea (tur) was below MSP in all but two of 20 quarters between 2018 and 2022, while that of urad was below MSP in all but five quarters during this period.

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Diversification of the Area Under Rice and Wheat

Pigeon pea was grown in Haryana on about two lakh hectares till the 1990s, says Karnal-based agriculture scientist Virender Lather. But farmers stopped growing it, he says, because of the Neelgai (blue bull) menace. The animal is protected and has an affinity towards pigeons. In any case, pigeon pea can replace bajra or maize but not rice because it cannot tolerate water-logging. Income from this crop cannot also compare with that of rice. Gujarat has the highest pigeon pea yield of 11.7 quintals per hectare.

If farmers in Punjab got this yield, at the MSP of Rs 7,000 per quintal, they would earn Rs 81,900 per hectare. The rice yield in Punjab is 65.2 quintals per hectare. At the MSP of Rs 2,183 per quintal, they would earn Rs 1.42 lakh per hectare. The income difference is too large to be persuasive. The rice area is also too large to be replaced by any of the pulses. Pigeon pea is also susceptible to the pod borer, which is a difficult pest to destroy.

Cotton cannot also replace rice either. It is grown in some districts of Haryana and Punjab where rainfall is below 200 millimetres a year. And cotton yields have declined due to the resurgence of the pink bollworm, and sucking pest attacks.

It’s possible for mustard to replace areas under wheat in the Rabi season. Cooking oil processors have been urging the government to launch Mission Mustard and expand the area under the crop with assured buyback at MSP. The per hectare income from mustard and wheat are close: at Haryana’s level of productivity — Rs 1.1 lakh and Rs 1.06 lakh respectively. Chickpea or chana was also grown extensively in northwest India in the winter but wheat replaced it after the Green Revolution. The crop has moved to warmer states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.

In summary, the government’s offer can help the diversification of the area under rice and wheat to an extent. It, however, does not address the main reason behind farmers demanding an MSP and assured buyback: to lift the prices soon after the harvest when new arrivals depress the rates.

(Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist and runs a website called Smart Indian Agriculture. He tweets @VVNFernandes. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(Follow The Quint's coverage of the farmers' protest here).

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Topics:  Farmers Protest 

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