The current agrarian crisis in India is a product of two factors (i) failure to recognize when Green Revolution started giving diminishing returns and taking steps to come up with alternatives and (ii) economic impact of subsidies, which this article examines – both man made and policy failures.
The current crisis can be summed up as diminishing soil fertility, sinking water table, increasing costs (all effects of green revolution) and poor returns to farmers, periodic unaffordable spikes in key commodities, periodic excess production which are dumped on the roads ruining several farmers and a huge burden on the government.
The policy failures have arisen due to not recognizing the nature of demand and supply curves for agricultural commodities. The demand is highly inelastic – in a market which consumes 100 kg tomato if one supplies 125 kgs the prices collapse, since not much demand is there for the excess. Contrarily, where it is supplied 75kgs only, the prices skyrocket since everyone wants to garner their daily supplies.
The Graph plots the demand and supply of a typical agri crop. The cost buildup of various suppliers is arranged from lowest to highest and its ridge on top becomes the supply curve. In agriculture the demand curve is steep and supply curve is relatively flat. Where this is the case the market price is closer to supply curve. This leaves a huge consumer surplus (excess of what the people are willing to pay and what they actually end up paying) and thin profits. Where the demand curve is flat but supply curve the price line stays closer to demand and hence smaller consumer surplus and higher profits for producers.
Many people have argued for breakup of cartelization of middlemen and dismantling or reforming APMCs as the panacea for better farm gate prices. This is as naïve as it can get. The middlemen are performing important functions like taking immediate delivery of perishables, financing farmers, storage, connecting with customers and markets, inventory holding etc. which we forget. If left to government agencies they would mess it up.
Sure most farmers are small (crops from 2-3 acres to sell) and their reach is at best the village boundaries or at best 4-5 kms. How do they perform all the functions the middlemen do? At the Mandies of course it is a case of ‘many sellers’ versus a ‘fewer buyers’. But it is foolish to think that fewer numbers by itself creates usury pricing power. Most markets should have at least 40-50 buyers (or middlemen) versus may be 500-1000 sellers. But this is statistically enough to create conditions of undistorted trade. Imbalance might creep in if there are only 3-4 on one side and can collude overtly or covertly. Most suggestions on ‘reigning in’ middlemen for tackling agrarian crisis is bound to be ineffectual.
But the real problem is the supply curve‘s flatness. This is largely the result of governments ill-advised subsidy policy which makes no discrimination whatsoever on the various input subsidies to agriculture. When everything from electricity, water, seeds, fertilizer, interest, MSPs, are given free or subsidized without any limits of land holding or size, it leads to similar cost structures for most suppliers and hence the supply curve becomes flat as shown in Graph (Before segment). Even if all mandies are handed over to the farmers, with such a curve, their profitability is unlikely to improve much.
The solution should revolve around exploiting the inelasticity of demand. The sure fire solution is to make the supply curve more elastic and harvest a huge ‘consumer surplus’ (which is what the middlemen do – they don’t take away farmers’ profits; they take away consumers’ willingness to pay).
This can be achieved by rationalizing subsidies. This can be done by restricting subsidies to only those holding 2-3 acres or to the first 2-3 acres only for even for larger farmers. With precise targeting through DBT, it is possible in the current scenario. Or it can be graded like 100% of current levels for 2-3 acres, 50% for 4-8 acres and nil thereafter, like in the graph. This will increase the cost for larger farmers (all units with ‘L’ label on x axis) and induce a steepness (as shown in the After situation in the graph).
Effect of rationalizing subsidies
The prices as is seen in the graph will raise (in the illustration from Rs 69 to 84). This shifts a portion of consumer surplus to producer profits. This will mostly benefit the small and marginal farmers. This transfer is perhaps much needed. We cannot have a society where 55-60% of people get a share of 15% of GDP.
The quantities bought and sold will fall. But given the inelasticity of demand, it will be relatively much less.
The larger units which lose a part of their subsidies will become uncompetitive in their traditional crops. They will diversify into other commercial crops or crops for which there are no subsidies now so that they won’t suffer in relative terms versus subsidy supported small farmer. This is an important necessity. Our food grains production is in surplus and for increasing its income, diversification is a pre-requisite.
This will also partially address the rural income inequality problems.
The Government will save a lot by curbing subsidies going to larger farmers. It can reduce the crops procured under MSP since the market prices would have substantially moved to enhance their incomes. This would have come from consumers who were willing to pay, hence may be without much pains (other than a onetime price adjustment as inflation). The Government may have to spend a part of its savings on covering some poorer marginal sections (who are net buyers of food) through higher PDS subsidies.
A portion of PDS procurement can be reserved for organic farming by larger farmers. With the promising growth for organic products the world over, it could give an early mover advantage.
The Government need not do this rationalization for all products. It can start with those where there are surplus buffer stocks. If prices of those products move up, consumers will diversify their consumption basket to other products and their prices of unsubsidized products will also start moving up. Larger farmers would gravitate towards such products.