A waiver of this scale could pay for the 2017 rural roads budget 16 times over or pay for 443,000 warehouses or increase India's irrigation potential by 55% more than the achievements of the last 60 years.
While such waivers could provide succour for 32.8 million indebted farmers, an IndiaSpend analysis of the impact of previous farm-loan waivers indicates such bailouts are band-aids of uncertain efficacy and do not address a deeper malaise gripping India's agrarian economy.
Over nine years to March 2017, the central and state governments waived Rs 88,988 crore ($13.9 billion) in loans to 48.6 million farmers. The nationwide Rs 52,000 crore ($11.3 billion at Rs 45.99 per dollar) loan-waiver announced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2008 occupies the bulk of this figure.
The waivers were primarily meant to discourage suicides by farmers, apparently caused by widespread indebtedness. However, our analysis shows this had little or no impact on suicide rates, probably because 32.5% on average, or 79.38 million, small and marginal farmers across India (with farm holdings of less than 1 to 2 hectares in size) rely on informal sources of credit.
Meanwhile, loan waivers have led to a rise in the non-performing assets of banks, especially public-sector banks, and are likely to have a significant bearing on the state and national fiscal deficits. In 2013, agricultural non-performing assets (NPAs) accounted for about 41.8% of "priority sector"-which also comprises micro and small enterprises, affordable housing, and student loans-NPAs in public and private banks-up from 25% in 2009, according to a 2015 study on NPAs in priority-sector lending in India's public and private banks, published in the International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR).
For example, Maharashtra's Rs 30,000 crore farm-loan waiver for small and marginal farmers will raise the state's fiscal deficit to 2.71%, which is three-fourths (1.18 percentage points) higher than the budgeted deficit of 1.53% of the gross state domestic product (GSDP) for the current financial year, according to this 2017 report by ratings agency India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra). Uttar Pradesh's Rs 36,359 crore farm-loan is 2.6% of its GSDP, estimated the agency quoted in Mint in April, 2017 The 14th Finance Commission says fiscal deficits should not exceed 3% of state budgets.
22.1 million (67.5%) small or marginal farmers won't benefit from loan waivers
About 85% of all operational farm holdings in India are less than two hectares in size, as IndiaSpend reported on June 8, 2017. Since 1951, the per capita availability of land has declined 70%, from 0.5 hectares to 0.15 hectares in 2011, and is likely to decline further, according to the latest available ministry of agriculture data.
Owners of these shrinking farms find it difficult to use modern machinery and are often too poor to afford farm equipment. Manual labour increases costs, and size and output further limits access to loans and institutional credit.
On average, a third of Indian small and marginal farmers have access to institutional credit. This means no more than 10.6 million of 32.8 million small and marginal farmers in the eight states demanding loan waivers could benefit from debts being written off.
The other 22.1 million farmers depend on moneylenders and relatives for borrowings, according to the 2011 agricultural census and the National Sample Survey Office's 2013 situation assessment survey of farm households, the latest available data.
Previous loan waivers did not stop farm suicides: NCRB data show
In 2007, before the UPA's loan waiver for 30 million farmers across 18 states (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal), 16,379 Indian farmers committed suicide, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. A quarter of these suicides (4,238) were reported from Maharashtra. In 2009, the year after the loan-waiver was announced, the state government promised an additional waiver of Rs 6208 crores. This led to a drop in farm suicides in India's richest state, by GDP; but in 2010, suicides rose again, by 6.2%. By 2015, seven years after the Centre's bail-out, Maharashtra recorded 4,291 suicides, its highest rate ever, accounting for 34% of such deaths nationwide, according to the latest available NCRB data.
Telangana reported a similar trend. In 2014, when Telangana waived Rs 17,000 crore in loans to 3.6 million farmers, 1,347 farmers committed suicide in the newly formed state. By 2015, 1,400 suicides were reported.
'Moral hazard': Agricultural NPAs grow three-fold between 2009 and 2013
While loan-waivers provide no more than temporary relief, they place a significant burden on public finance and the economy and they "engender a moral hazard", Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel cautioned on April 6, 2017, echoing the arguments of financial experts who believe such bail-outs deter even capable farmers from honestly repaying their loans.
"Waivers undermine an honest credit culture... It leads to crowding-out of private borrowers as high government borrowing tend to (impose) an increasing cost of borrowing for others," the RBI governor said, calling for a consensus among states on loan waiver promises. "Otherwise sub-sovereign fiscal challenges in this context could eventually affect the national balance sheet."
Since the 2008 farm-loan waiver, agricultural NPAs rose three times, from Rs 7,149 crore ($1.2 billion) in 2009 to Rs 30,200 crore ($4.7 billion) in 2013, according to this 2015 study on NPAs in priority-sector lending in India's public and private banks.
While agricultural credit grew 547% over 10 years, rural road infra grew 10.5%
Indebtedness is a symptom and not the root cause of the farm crisis, according to a 2007 expert group report on agricultural indebtedness, chaired by economist R Radhakrishna. The average farm household borrowing has not been "excessive", the Radhakrishna report said. The factors contributing to the farm crisis are "stagnation in agriculture, increasing production and marketing risks, institutional vacuum and lack of alternative livelihood opportunities", the report said.
Loan Waivers mean that money which could have gone to strengthening agricultural infrastructure will not have adequate funds.M S Swaminathan (@msswaminathan) June 13, 2017
More recently, others have emphasised this point (here, here and here): It is clear a loan-waiver alone cannot solve India's agrarian crisis.
The data reveal a more-than-necessary focus on agricultural credit, as other fundamental problems remain unaddressed.
Over a decade to 2014-15, as institutional credit in agriculture grew 547%, from Rs 1.25 lakh crore ($19.4 billion) to Rs 8.45 lakh crore ($131.4 billion), rural road construction-which increases access and boosts agricultural income and productive employment-grew 10.5% according to this 2016 research paper.
Roughly 7% of India's total grain output, 10% of seeds and between 25% and 40% of fruits and vegetable-overall a third of farm harvest spoils-are wasted every year because there isn't enough storage and supply-chain infrastructure, according to the 2015 IJSR paper.
Irrigation, increasingly vital in an era of climate change, has failed Indian farming. No more than 47.6% of India's farms are irrigated, as IndiaSpend reported on June 8, 2017, and the decadal growth in net-irrigated area to 2010 was 0.3%, according to ministry of agriculture data.
These low investments eventually make farming expensive and prices volatile.
For example, despite a good harvest, tur (pigeon pea), an important pulse, today fetches 63% less than it did in December 2015 (Rs 3,800-4,000 per quintal compared with Rs 11,000 per quintal).
Since 2010, the cost of cultivating tur has risen by 78%.
To curb the impact of market fluctuations, this 2016 report by chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian recommended improving the "procurement capacity"-or money available to buy farm produce-of states, lifting export bans, raising stock limits-which is how much produce traders can hold-and including "risks and externalities" while framing the minimum support prices (MSP) for various produce. For those commodities protected by the government's MSP policy-these include fruits and vegetables-the Radhakrishna committee recommended a price-risk mitigation fund, which would allow to hedge losses in market fluctuations.
"States which want to go in for these kind of schemes (farm-loan waivers) will have to generate them from their own resources," said Jaitley. "Beyond that the central government has nothing more to say."
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