A team of the state agriculture department led by the principal secretary, Mr B Vijayan, which recently visited Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, has come back impressed by their distribution system for vegetable growers which provides fresh vegetables at reasonable rates to consumers as well as good returns to growers.
Let us hope the state government implements a similar system, encouraging growth of horticulture with availability of cheaper vegetables to consumers. The network of distribution that exists between producers and consumers has been responsible for inflating the retail prices of farm produce. The producers get but a little above their cost of production and the consumers have to pay several times more than the ex-farm gate price.
The producer’s share in the consumer’s rupee is very low. Most of it is taken by traders. True, the trader pays for transportation, also for storage, if needed. But even if the packing, loading-unloading, transportation and storage costs were added to the prices paid to farm producers, the cost by the time it reaches consumers would not be very high. The illegitimate practice the traders follow is charge several times more than the actual packing, loading-unloading, transportation and storage costs. There is no regulatory mechanism working here. The traders set their rates based on whether there is shortage or not of a particular produce in the market. To them, shortage is the dream situation. If it happens due to natural factors, such as failure or deficiency of monsoon, or factors related to international trade, it is good. But sometimes they create an artificial shortage on their own, by reducing the supply in the market. Consumers have no choice but to pay whatever price they set.
Goa has been trying to save its agriculture. Old farming families have been facing a situation of flux: non-agricultural sectors, such as tourism and other sub-sectors of services and industry, have been growing fast, as a result of which demand for land has been rising. This has increased land prices astronomically, tempting old farming families to give up agriculture and sell off their land. Conversion of formerly farming plots from agricultural to non-agricultural use has been the greatest epidemic afflicting agriculture; and in spreading this epidemic, politicians have played a very important part.
Agriculture in the state had been witnessing a downward trend even in 2000s, so much so that in 2008-09 it registered a negative growth of more than 10 per cent. The state government woke up to the slow disappearance some years ago and started making larger allocations for agriculture. As a result, the sector grew over 5 per cent in 2009-10. However, in 2010-11, the growth dropped to 1.5 per cent, warning the policymakers that what they had done for the sector was not enough.
Perhaps the government has to more aggressively encourage farmers to shift from rice cultivation to cash crops like vegetables and fruits, and allied activities such as dairy, poultry and livestock. It seems pointless continuing with paddy cultivation in a state which gets most of its rice from other states. It can import some more in order to compensate for the loss of paddy acreage to cash crops.
Agriculture cannot be saved without making farm profits attractive. Rice cultivation is for subsistence, not for profits, and perhaps only those families continue to do it that do not have enough cash income to buy rice from the market throughout the year. Only cash crops can give profits. It is only with the attraction of profits that we can keep farmers on the farms. It is only with the attraction of profits that the farmers can meet the challenges that agriculture faces. The first challenge comes from the temptation to sell the farm land to non-agricultural buyer at high prices. If farms are giving adequate profits, farmers would be able to resist the temptation.
The second challenge comes from the disinclination of the younger generation of the farming families to work on the farms. The usual explanation is that after getting education, the sons of farmers do not want to work in the mud. However, we know Goan workers have shown willingness to take up far inferior manual jobs in the Gulf. Why? Because the money is good. Therefore, if money is good on the farm, youths will not mind dirtying hands in the soil. If the government gives incentives and farm profits rise, who knows even the boys from villages who go to all lengths to land a job in the tourism sector will also return to farming.
After all, in farming, you are your own master. We do not often realise that the largest section of private sector in India is constituted by agriculture. Farmers are the most original entrepreneurs. So, even though the land holdings in Goa are of small size, small can be honourable, beautiful and valuable. Studies have proved that small farms can be as efficient and productive as large farms. If the youths return to farms, family labour should be enough to take care of work. But even if farms need to hire a few hands, money from cash crops, dairy or livestock will be good enough to pay them.