There is likely chance, says the Met Department, that this summer we will not get timely and adequate rains for agriculture. That could be a lethal blow to those living off India's 138 million farms already reeling under decimated incomes from low prices and freak weather. The political battlegrounds of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone account for 40 million farmers.
With just a few weeks left before the summer plantings begin, obviously it is impossible to make a meaningful difference to individual lives over such a massive area.
Here are five steps the Modi government can take to quickly make an impact. The only proviso is that these steps should first be undertaken in India's 100 poorest districts where they are most needed. And they should use Prime Minister Modi's favourite tools - Jan Dhan accounts, Aadhar cards, and mobile phones.
1. Give a massive push to drip irrigation. This is the time to announce a per acre subsidy for installing drip irrigation and sprinklers. The slogan of "more crop per drop" will only be fulfilled if farmers are given the means to use water efficiently. Though half of the country's arable land - about 70 million hectares - can be brought under micro irrigation, it has reached only 2 million hectares. Small and marginal farmers should be given this technology free because their farms rarely exceed one hectare. Along with fruits and vegetables, farmers growing oilseeds, pulses and grains should be asked to install drip irrigation. There are several private companies with the appropriate technology that can pitch in quickly. The gains will be instant. Farmers will enjoy savings of 40-100% in water, 20-50% in fertilisers, and 20-100% increase in yield.
2. Go on a crop insurance drive. The government has launched several new schemes but most farmers don't even know about them. In the identified districts there should be a drive to enroll farmers in the scheme for free, with the entire premium being paid for the first two years by the Centre. This is should be accompanied by an education programme through social media, radio and mobile phones.
3. There should be new separate norms for giving compensation to tenant farmers. This is at the heart of the suicide problem. Most farmers who commit suicide are tenant who are unable to get any state support for the want of land title. This measure alone can save several hundred lives. In addition, RBI should haul up banks denying loans to tenant farmers. According to an article on the Deccan Chronical, in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, there are 25 lakh tenant farmers but despite repeated directions from the government, only 1.4 lakh could get loans from nationalised banks. This then leads to the real owners taking loans on their behalf and the poor tentant farmers have to bear the brunt of paying an higher rate of interest to the owners. Though the Andhra Pradesh government has started issuing identity cards to the tenants, only 1,36,000 of the 5,00,000 ryots have managed to get loans.
4. This is the time to start stocking up on animal fodder. Cattle and chickens are the farmer's only income insurance when crops disappoint. Of India's total requirement of about 70 million tonnes cattle feed, 7 million tonnes, comprising mainly concentrates, comes from the organised sector. The rest is either bought by the farmer from local traders, or homegrown. When rains are poor, the acreage under fodder crops such as jowar, alfalfa, and berseem, take a hit while supply of crop residues dwindle. There are hardly any pastures left for animal grazing. The government should ensure adequate and subsidised supply of cattle fodder in the identified districts.
5. Inform and educate farmers about the impending price scenario before they begin planting so that they can choose their crop wisely. Price ticker boards in the village panchayat ghar and local mandi, SMS, community radio and TV should be effectively used to spread the message. Last year, the biggest reason for rural distress was the drop in crop prices because of a lackluster export market. The situation is unlikely to improve this year. The World Bank says the price weakness will continue for the rest of the year due to abundant supplies. In such a situation, farmers should be advised to grow low-input crops such as oilseeds and pulses. Small farmers should be trained to grow fruits and vegetables, in which they can be more competitive since the entire family can work on the field in these labour-intensive crops.
Because of its seasonal nature, agriculture provides only small windows of opportunity for any immediate meaningful intervention. That is one reason why the lumbering, lethargic government machinery fails to make a dent. The other reason is the passing-the-parcel game between Centre and the states. Together, they have trapped farmers in the nightmare scenario of snakes and ladders - gains one season, losses in the next.
The Central government should put an end to this by seizing the initiative instead of relying on the states, and by deftly using ICT technology. If Prime Minister Modi is indeed serious about "wiping the tear from every eye" as promised in the Economic Survey, this would be a good way to start.