The problem with Indian agriculture, and government

The problem with the Indian agriculture sector is that the government takes a very “cash view” of the sector while what is required is a “derivative view”. 

So Congress VP Rahul Gandhi railed on in a rally about how the current Narendra Modi government is anti-farmer, and pointed out at the land acquisition amendment bill and the lack of raising of “minimum support price” as key points of failure. Gandhi was joined at the rally by a large number of farmers, who reports say were primarily very pissed off about the failure of their rabi crops thanks to unseasonal rains in the last month and a bit.

If the government were to take Gandhi’s criticism seriously, what are they expected to do? Not amend the land acquisition act, or amend it in a different way? Perhaps, and we will not address that in this post, since it is “out of syllabus”. Increase the Minimum Support Price (MSP)? They might do that, but it will do nothing to solve the problem.

As I had pointed out in this post written after a field trip to a farm, what policymakers need understand is that farming is fundamentally a business, and like any other business, there is risk. In fact, given the number of sources of uncertainty that exist, it can be argued that farming is a much riskier business than a lot of other “conventional” businesses.

So there is the risk of high prices of inputs, there is risk of bad weather, there is risk of a glut in supply that leads to low prices, there is a risk that the crop wasn’t harvested at the right time, there is a risk that elephants trampled the field, or there is a risk that there might be a new strain of bugs that might destroy the crops. And so forth. And given that most farmers in India are “small”, with limited land holdings, it needs to be kept in mind that they don’t have diversification as a (otherwise rather straightforward) tool to mitigate their risks.

And when the farmers face so many risks, what does the government do? Help them mitigate at max one or two of it. One of them is the “minimum support price” which is basically a put option written by the government, for free, in favour of the farmers. All it entails is that the farmer  is assured of a minimum price for his wares if market prices are too low at the time of harvest. In other words, it helps the farmer hedge against price risk.

What other interventions do Indian governments do in farming? There are straightforward subsidies, all of the input variety. So farmers get subsidised seeds, subsidised fertilisers, subsidised (or in several cases, free) electricity, occasional subsidies in irrigation, subsidised loans (“priority sector lending” rules), and occasionally, when shit hits the fan, a loan waiver.

Barring the last one, it is easy to see that the rest are all essentially input subsidies, making it cheaper for the farmer to produce his produce (I’m proud of that figure of speech here, and I don’t know what it’s called in English). Even loan waivers, while they happen when market conditions are really bad, are usually arbitrary political decisions, and never targeted, meaning that there are always significant errors, of both omission and commission.

So if you ask the question of whether the government, through all these interventions, make the business of farming easier, it should be clear that an answer is no, for while it makes inputs cheaper and helps farmers hedge against price risk, it doesn’t help at all in mitigation of any other risks. Instead, what the government is essentially doing is by paying the farmers a premium (subsidised inputs, free options) and expecting them to take care of the risks by themselves. In other words, small “poor” farmers, who are least capable of handling and managing risk, are the ones who are handling the risk, and at best the government is just providing them a premium!

The current government has done well so far in terms of recognising risk management as a tool for overall wellbeing. For example, the Jan Dhan Yojana accounts (low-cost bank accounts for the hitherto unbanked) come inbuilt with a (albeit small) life insurance cover. In his budget speech earlier this year, the Finance Minister mentioned a plan to introduce universal insurance against accidental death. Now it is time the government recognises the merits of this policy, and extends it to other sectors, notably agriculture.

What we need is a move away from “one delta” cash subsidies and a move towards better risk management. The current agricultural policies of successive governments basically ensure that the farmer makes more when times are good (lower inputs costs, free put options (MSP) with high strike price), and makes nothing when times are bad. Rudimentary utility theory teaches us that the value of a rupee when times are good is much lower than the value of a rupee when times are bad. And for the government, it doesn’t really matter as to when it spends this money, since its economic cycle is largely uncorrelated with farmers’ economic cycles. So why waste money by spending it at a time of low marginal utility as opposed to spending it at a time of high marginal utility?

In other words, the government should move towards an institutionalised system of comprehensive crop insurance. Given the small landholdings, transaction costs of such insurance is going to be high, and the government should help develop this market by providing subsidies. And this subsidy can be easily funded – remember that the government is already paying some sort of a premium to farmers so that they manage their own risk, and part of this can go towards helping farmers manage their risk better.

It is not going to be politically simple, for the opposition (like Rahul Gandhi) will rail that the government is taking money away from farmers. But with the right kind of messaging, and subsidies for insurance, it can be done.

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