Home / Industry / Agriculture /  Farmers aren’t aware of soil health; they blindly use fertilizers: Radha Mohan Singh

New Delhi: A deficient monsoon and a global slump in commodity prices have taken a toll on Indian farmers, who have spent more to save their standing crops but will have to sell their produce at depressed prices. The situation is worse in dry and arid regions of Vidarbha and Telangana with regular reports of farmer suicides. In an interview, Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh comments on these issues and on the progress of schemes announced in the July budget of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Edited Excerpts:

The recently released ‘Key Indicators of Situation of Agricultural Households in India’ show that the lot of Indian farmers has not changed in the past decade. On parameters such as indebtedness, access to formal credit and new technologies, farmers remain in the same pit. How is your ministry planning to remedy this situation?

Being a farmer, I admit this is the reality. The country might have progressed but the village and the farmer’s life has not improved. There is no doubt we are self sufficient in foodgrains production but we have not addressed problems of low productivity, rising costs of cultivation, lack or irrigation and giving the farmer improved varieties. No schemes were taken up in mission mode to solve these issues.

India has 145 million farm holdings. Farmers are not aware of soil health and they blindly use fertilizers. The result is a drop in productivity. Our government has initiated programmes on mission mode to give every farmer a soil health card. We will spend 568 crore in the next three years towards this.

Our other focus is to bring irrigation facilities to small and marginal farmers. Sixtyfive percent of cultivable land still do not have irrigation facilities. Even such facilities are limited to states like Punjab and Haryana and for large farmers. Crores have been spent to provide irrigation in (dry and arid) Vidarbha and Bundelkhand (by the previous governments) but the facilities never reached the fields. We are bringing various departments -- rural development, agriculture, water resources -- in an integrated way to increase access to irrigation. We are following the example set by Gujarat to provide every farmer with a soil health card and irrigation facilities. Our other focus is to strengthen the existing Krishi Vigyan Kendra’s to take the lab -- scientific research and improved varieties -- to the land. Further, we are planning to connect the entire country through an e-marketing network.

We are focused on the goals set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi- that our farms should feed the world and our agriculture should fill the pockets of farmers. Not just cereals and pulses -- we are emphasizing on horticulture and fisheries as avenues for employment.

Most of these schemes -- soil health card, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayi Yojana and credit to 500,000 joint liability groups of landless farmers -- are yet to take off (they were announced in the Budget in July 2014). Why this delay?

These schemes are planned from state and district levels. It will take three years to give soil health cards to every farmer. We have already spend 86 crore on soil health laboratories in six months compared to 112 crore spent between 2007 and 2012. The irrigation scheme is being implemented by four ministries -- on 29 December the Prime Minister reviewed it and gave his suggestions. We are in the final stages and will launch the scheme soon. Funding is not a problem. Several state governments haven’t been able to spend the money allotted to them in past financial years.

NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) is in charge of implementing the credit scheme for landless farmers. I don’t know the exact numbers but the finance minister has said the scheme is well on target. A farmer knows that you cannot harvest the day you sow the seeds. Results of our initiatives will show in a few years.

Last year was particularly worse for farmers in Vidarbha and Telangana where over 1,000 farmer suicides were reported. Your ministry is yet to act.

Only 9% of farmer suicides are linked to agrarian distress. Of nearly 500 farmer suicides last year, 411 were in Maharashtra. Final numbers are yet to arrive. In Maharashtra, I have personally seen that (past) irrigation schemes were not executed. In the coming weeks I will meet MPs (members of Parliament) from Marathwada and Vidarbha regions and the Maharashtra chief minister to fast-track agriculture schemes. All suicides are regrettable but the crisis in farming has been perpetuated by lack of implementation and focus.

Mint recently visited Telangana region where growing cotton in unsuitable soils and without irrigation seems to be prime reason for the ongoing spate of farmer suicides. Deficit monsoon and slump in prices has further aggravated the misery. What remedial measures did the government take?

As far as cotton is concerned the textile ministry has done record procurement this year. Globally, prices have crashed after China stopped imports. We started procurement with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana as the cotton crop is harvested there earlier than states like Gujarat. The government has acted promptly to ensure farmers do not sell below minimum support prices.

Rest of the problems- lack of irrigation and information on soils- are past sins. There is also a failure of extension services- lack of manpower and no coordination between KVKs (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) and district agriculture officials. We formed a committee to probe the problem with KVKs -- the report shows lack of infrastructure and scientists. Based on the report we will take up strengthening of KVKs. We have already increased the number of agricultural extension officers from 18,000 to 26,000.

Agriculture is a state subject. Extension officers belong to state governments while we have the scientists (with KVKs under ICAR, or Indian Council of Agricultural Research). We will issue guideline for regular interaction between KVK scientists and agriculture and extension officers. Be it dissemination of new technology or knowledge we have to take it through state governments. We will speak to all state governments, it does not matter if they are run by other political parties.

Last year, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (on 2 and 16 September, respectively) and Maharashtra (on 18 November) declared drought and sought central assistance. They are yet to receive any assistance. Why this delay?

Normally a drought has to be notified by August-September by state governments. Uttar Pradesh declared drought before by elections. We sent our teams promptly to take stock of the situation. On 14 January, we sanctioned over 700 crore for Uttar Pradesh. We have also released the financial assistance for Karnataka. In our next meeting we will decide on Maharashtra and Haryana. Even before drought was notified by these states we took measures like diesel and seed subsidies for affected areas and prepared contingency plans.

The deficit southwest and north east monsoons might not impact production so much but will make a dent in farmers’ incomes. Last year you spoke on a new income insurance scheme for farmers.

After 2009 this was the worst drought year. There was widespread fear that even half the (Kharif) area will remain unsown. We prepared contingency plans for districts and regularly monitored the situation with state governments. The result was only 1.5% less sowing last Kharif (June to November 2014). The deficit monsoon has also impacted Rabi sowing, but sowing will continue till February and I am hoping to cover the normal Rabi acreage. Despite all this we are expecting a record horticulture production this year.

Crop insurance schemes running in India have several discrepancies -- high premiums, foreign companies and non-settlement of claims of distressed farmers. I wrote to all state governments and several chief ministers have replied with their expectations. This month I am meeting state agriculture ministers to discuss this. We are sure of launching a new insurance scheme this year.

NDA’s election manifesto promised that minimum support prices (MSP) will be 50% over cost of production. But the MSP for wheat declared by your government was the lowest in a decade. Is there a change of mind on MSP?

In the last 5-7 years, all governments have accepted the recommendation of CACP (Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices). We have done the same. Support price is only one way to look at the problem. The main challenge before the farmer is increasing costs of cultivation. If the farmer knows which pesticide and fertilizer to use and in what quantities costs will come down; three other factors -- irrigation, productivity and improved seeds -- will bring down costs. MSP at 50% plus cost was not the only recommendation of the M.S. Swaminathan committee. We are concentrating on other recommendations and that too, on a mission mode. Our focus is on reducing costs of cultivation.

There is considerable confusion regarding field trials of Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (under Ministry of Agriculture) scientists are vocal proponents of GM technology; the environment ministry is yet to take a final call despite the minister saying in the parliament that GM crops are safe. What is your opinion?

The matter is with the Supreme Court and whatever the court decides should be implemented. As the agriculture minister I cannot have a personal opinion on GM crops.

Your ministry’s expectations on the upcoming budget?

The first budget (July 2014) gave a new direction and focus to agriculture but we did not have a full year. This will be our first full budget. We are going to take forward the existing schemes on soil health card, irrigation and taking the lab to land.

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