Playbook for Reforming Indian Agriculture

Bhuvana Anand, Ritika Shah and Sudhanshu Neema
28 August 2020

Government and society in India have historically viewed farming merely as a means of achieving food security for the country. Farmers are considered annadatas, instead of legitimate entrepreneurs engaged in the business of agriculture. The liberalisation of 1991 did not touch the agriculture sector.

Despite decades of policy interventions, a majority of Indian farmers have not seen their incomes rise, nor have they been able to increase farm productivity. Farmers with small or marginal holdings, who make up around two-thirds of all farmers, find themselves prey to indebtedness, a lack of choice in inputs, and underdeveloped warehousing and processing facilities. In each agricultural cycle, we witness a host of farmer agitations, leading to further band-aid solutions.

The Union and states provide a host of subsidies for agricultural inputs and offer high prices for outputs by procuring food grains at minimum support prices for multiple crops. Simultaneously, policymakers walk the tightrope of protecting consumers from high prices through inexpensive grains to over two-thirds of the Indian population.

These policies ignore that the distress in the sector largely results from farmers having little or no control over anything in agriculture except perhaps tilling the soil. The government interferes with decisions at every step of the production and sale process. Pulled together, the policy framework has destroyed the signalling role played by prices, and no one is better off for it.

The Finance Minister, in her first budget speech in July 2019, expanded the scope of ease of doing business to include rural enterprises. She also opined that “ease of doing business and ease of living both should apply to farmers too.” Unfortunately, the political and social discourse in India still does not see the farmer as an entrepreneur who takes risks, analyses the market and engages in the production, marketing and selling of agricultural produce.

Against this background, the playbook:

  • imagines agriculture as an enterprise, and casts agriculturists as “farmpreneurs”;
  • distils key learnings from richer studies and reports; and
  • outlines the full-spectrum of reforms needed in the sector.

Much of the policy approach has been hostage to the myth of the “first transaction”, a notion as archaic as it is dangerous. The playbook’s approach has been to sidestep this notion and to treat the sector as any other. Farmers are not isolated actors, but entrepreneurs who engage in the market process, absorbing cues from prices and the actions of their competitors and buyers, making business decisions on what seeds to use and arbitrage potential in storing for later sale. This playbook lists eight distinct reforms needed in the agriculture sector so our farmpreneurs may be free to make and sell. These reforms cut across myopic land regulations, the regressive input subsidy and control regime, and the fetters on spot, futures and credit markets. The playbook largely focusses on bad policies that need repeal or revision, less so on things, the government needs to do more of.