That India is an agricultural country with a vast proportion of its populace directly or indirectly dependent on the occupation is no secret. What is relatively underplayed is, perhaps, the entire gamut of problems that plague the farming sector today. Compared to 3.6 per cent in 2011-12, agricultural growth has slowed to 1.9 per cent in 2012-13. Investment in the sector has also seen a steady decline since the decade of the 80s.

Moreover, almost 80 per cent of the public expenditure going to agriculture is in the form of input subsidies (fertilizers, power and irrigation) with only 20 per cent being direct investments in agriculture. Tragic, continuing farmer suicides point to the crisis faced by peasants torn by debts, crop failure, their inability to sell good harvest at a reasonable price and insufficient access to credit.

While these problems are not entirely unknown and there are ideas afloat to tackle these, not many have been articulated in concrete terms to evolve an actionable agenda. It is for this reason that Gene Campaign, a well-known research and advocacy organization working on food, nutrition and livelihood security, decided to mark the beginning of its 20th anniversary celebrations with a brainstorming session among experts in the field on the current crisis facing farming and farmers. The session purported to focus attention on solutions to the current problems and develop a Charter of Demands that could form the basis of an advocacy program for bountiful farming, prosperous farmers and healthy food for all.

Gene Campaign identified several critical areas of concern that pose major impediments to making Indian agriculture more profitable and its farmers better off. Some of these would be rising input costs, inadequate minimum support price for farming produce, low banking penetration and resulting financial constraints, a lack of grassroot level agricultural extension systems, increasing fragmentation of holdings and poor irrigation facilities, overall environmental degradation and loss of bio-diversity, and the like.

All government policies must be geared towards ensuring that the Indian farmer is enabled to become an entrepreneur. Only then can those who are in the riskiest profession in the world be empowered, making farming profitable and farmers prosperous.

 •  Agricultural policies are to blame
 •  Much research, but no action

These and other factors have reduced productivity and consequently the profitability or remunerative attractiveness of the sector, luring the younger generations away from agriculture towards more promising occupations in the cities. There is today a strong need for public sector investment to focus on building effective and efficient value chains and linking farmers to market.

There are other less obvious issues as well. For example, despite the realization that women play a critical role in agricultural development, their participation in the decision making process is zero or negligible. They primarily undertake the un-mechanized agricultural tasks which only adds to their burden. Equality and land rights are a far cry for them yet, which in turn constrains farm output. As noted development economist Bina Agarwal writes in a recent article for the Women's Feature Service "About 40 per cent of agricultural workers in India are women but their productivity is seriously constrained by their lack of access to land, credit (for which land can serve as collateral), inputs, technical information, and so on. Without land titles women are not even seen as farmers and seldom benefit from government schemes meant for marginal farmers."

Based on these and many other considerations, the following charter for policy interventions was formulated in the session organised by Gene Campaign on 9 November:

  1. The government must increase all forms of budgetary outlays by the Union and state governments on agriculture to at least 10 per cent of India's gross domestic product (against less than 1.5 per cent at present) each year over the next ten years. Of these outlays, between 60 per cent and 70 per cent should be reserved for rain-fed farming systems.

  2. All efforts to ensure food security must be linked to initiatives related to nutrition. Higher investments have to be made on fortification of common staple foods with micro-nutrients. More incentives should be provided for homestead gardening entailing the use of waste water from kitchens.

  3. All efforts to ensure better and higher access to food and nutrition security must be linked to education and health-care. Farming and agriculture must form part of school curricula across the country.

  4. Insurance and credit facilities should be provided to all those who cultivate land and tend to livestock (and not merely to owners of land) by revamping the kisan credit card system to all cultivators and their families.

  5. Given the growing feminization of agriculture in India, not only is there is a crying need to better enforce property rights of women, but also to encourage joint ownership of productive assets, incentivise access to credit cards (through an additional interest rate subventions of one per cent) and also provide women more appropriate farm implements.

  6. Restore and reorient agricultural extension services to make these locally-suited, traditional knowledge-based and ecologically-sustainable, backed up with research support.

  7. Small farmer collective estates should be established and incentivized to provide aggregation of agricultural extension services, promote the use of leased equipment and disseminate knowledge (including quality market intelligence), especially to small, marginal and women farmers.

  8. Government policies must strengthen and promote a broad genetic base for agriculture and encourage conservation of agro-bio-diversity.

  9. Implement a comprehensive and an intensive soil testing programme across India and thereafter, formulate location specific measures to restore and improve soil health.

  10. Develop a policy and research framework that is appropriate for the development of agriculture in hilly and mountainous regions in different parts of India.

  11. The public distribution system must be decentralised and diversified. Government policies should encourage procurement from within a radius of 50 kilometres of the points of consumption and the PDS should include a range of foods that are locally produced.

  12. Encourage the youth to remain in or take to farming by empowering them with skills and capabilities for on-farm as well as off-farm activities. The younger generation should be encouraged to get involved in managing small farmer estates, including providing agricultural extension services.

  13. Divert a part of subsidies on fertilisers to public investments in agriculture that result in capital formation for developing and strengthening alternative farming systems, including ecologically-sensitive agriculture.

  14. Encourage and incentivize states that reduce reliance on chemical inputs in agriculture and encourage bio-organic agricultural production systems.

  15. All government policies must be geared towards ensuring that the Indian farmer is enabled to become an entrepreneur. Only then can those who are in the riskiest profession in the world be empowered, making farming profitable and farmers prosperous.