An agricultural policy for Assam is still in the works, though State Agricultural Minister Atul Bora has been promising to unveil it for quite some time. For an agrarian State like Assam, it is surprising that such a policy is yet to come about, considering the challenges facing agriculture in these days of wrenching climate change and globalisation. Food security has never been more crucial for India than now, with her population set to be the largest in five years. The planners in Dispur may well have great expectations about big ticket investment and industrialisation, with the Centre at last filising an industrial policy for the Northeast region. But Assam cannot progress if her farmers are kept out of the development loop. A draft agricultural policy is reportedly being hammered out, generating much speculation as to what guidelines it will spell to bring about ‘smart’, sustaible and productive farming. Average temperatures are rising, there are sudden fluctuations in rainfall, up to 4 or 5 waves of flood ravaging the State in a year seems to be the new normal, the draughts too are getting longer, even as pestilence assumes mecing proportion during the dry season. There are concerns about decreasing soil fertility, destruction of microorganisms and water contamition due to indiscrimite use of fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides. Implementation of the Centre’s soil health card programme in Assam has left much to be desired. Farmers are struggling to raise output through multiple cropping and using high-yielding seeds that are flood or draught resistant. With not even 10 percent of arable land in the State under irrigation cover, the agriculture planners need to introduce and popularise various techniques of economic water use in the fields. Any credible agricultural policy will need to guide farmers how to suitably change their cropping pattern and sowing times, go for appropriate (even disruptive) technological interventions, think hard about soil health and water use. They need all the State support they can get, because they will have to move fast on their feet to harvest their yield in the face of fast-changing conditions.
The magnitude of the challenge can be gauged from the fact that (as per Economic Survey 2016-17) the country on the whole is losing Rs 62,000 crore on average per year lately due to crop damage from extreme weather events like unseasol rains, flash floods, hailstorms and acute draughts. The monsoons may have been mostly regular from 2014 to 2017, but the rainfall distribution has been so erratic that farmers received total Rs 71,124 crores as insurance payouts and relief for crop loss from various State governments. Yet States like Maharashtra continue to face massive farmer unrest, raising demands for still more loan waivers, crop insurance and minimum support prices for more crops. Significantly, the Assam government is learnt to be mulling over a disaster relief cell to deal with contingencies in the farms. Another crying need for farmers in the State is a proper storage infrastructure to prevent crop waste. Whether the Central government’s renewed thrust on agriculture in this year’s general budget, particularly its promised ‘farmer-friendly formula’ to fix minimum support prices for more grains — gets reflected in the upcoming Assam agriculture policy will be keenly watched. It remains to be seen whether Dispur’s prospective agriculture policy takes a wider vision to coordite with other line departments, particularly irrigation and animal husbandry. Taking excess labour off the land to engage them in animal farming and small agro-based industries never took off in Assam. The State Agriculture department has remained scam-ridden, the farmers literally left to plough their lonely furrows. This has to stop forthwith. Neglecting farmers while hankering for investors has had little to show for Dispur so far. The sooner a comprehensive agriculture policy is filised for the State and implemented, the better.