Reforms is the Buzz Word but Farmers Need More

The Economic Survey, which is a precursor to the budget, makes the right noises about what is wrong with the agriculture sector, but does not come up with any policy back-ups.

New Delhi: Agricultural growth has been bleak in the last two years owing to several factors but mainly that there was no clear indication of the direction that the Narendra Modi government wanted to move in. The first year of its governance was lost in the fierce battle it fought with the opposition over its proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act 2013. The move died a quiet death after the parliamentary committee headed by S.S. Ahluwalia informally gave the signal that even the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s own members were against the sweeping amendments which were widely perceived as anti-farmer.

In the second year, under pressure from its own affiliates, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government dithered on taking a stand on Genetically Modified (GM) crops – a policy that was vigorously pursued by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the name of enhancing farm production and productivity. Instead, the government brought schemes to rejuvenate the soil through balanced use of fertilisers (via soil health cards), organic farming  and indigenous livestock (the Rashtriya Gokul Mission) to help build resilience to climate change. The target set by Modi is to double the average annual output of 250 million tonnes of foodgrains by 2020.

Two consecutive droughts and the vagaries of the weather have added to the agrarian distress with no waning in farmers’ suicides, especially in Maharashtra. A whitefly attack on Bt cotton in Punjab made sure that farmers in that state move away from cotton cultivation. Their shift to paddy after the current rabi wheat will bring more pressure on ground water in a state where a majority of blocks have been declared ‘dark zones’. Two droughts and unprecedented floods in Tamil Nadu last year have hit farm output. The previous year will be remembered for the never-before escalation in the prices of urad and tur dals which continue to rule around Rs. 180 per kilogram in retail markets. The demand-supply gap in pulses, oilseeds and vegetables and fruits were – and will – remain major management issues for the government in the foreseeable future.

In such a scenario, the Economic Survey tabled by finance minister Arun Jaitley in parliament on Friday recognised the “declining growth rate” and made a pitch for “transformation” of the sector to bring sustainable livelihoods for farmers and ensure food security for the country.

A 4% growth rate in agriculture and allied sector had been set as the target in the 12th plan ending 2016-17. However, the sector is way behind the target with a growth rate of -0.2% in 2014-15 and an estimated 1.1% in 2015-16. Dairy and horticulture have been growing at a fast pace but cereals, pulses and oil seeds have been stagnant.

The Survey sidesteps the issue of GM crops and seeks six more months to reach a decision on the crucial subject on which there are strong and divergent views.

It, however, terms as an ‘essential component’ of its strategy the “timely contracting of imports of sensitive commodities’’.  Clearly, the government is not on top of the situation with regard to meeting the demand for pulses, especially as the kharif output last year was 17.15 million tonnes as against 19.25 million tonnes in the previous year. To meet demand, the country imported 4.48 million tonnes of pulses in 2014-15 and 4.41 million tonnes till December 2015.

Deceleration in agricultural growth is blamed on deficient southwest monsoons in the last two years. That is true no doubt, but in a country where 60% of farming is rain-fed, there is still not much focus on water use efficiency and revival of traditional, localised water structures as an answer to climate change. To be prepared is what is required, not to give post-event compensation which hardly ever reaches the target group. Farmers need the assurance that government is at hand with technology, appropriate seeds and other inputs.

Policymaking by silos

The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana is meant to bring more area under irrigation but a recent official Jal Manthan meeting brought out the glaring deficiencies in the programme: While the development of the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (dams and projects) remains with the water resources ministry, the focus on micro irrigation is with the ministry of agriculture. This is a sure way to kill coordinated implementation. There was no participation of the agriculture or environment ministry in the meeting which, it must be said to the credit of water resources minister Uma Bharti, she was willing to correct. But what takes the cake is the fact that all projects/dams lack the provision to construct channels that actually take water to farmers’ fields!

Again, despite there being divergent views on the direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme for beneficiaries of the targeted public distribution system (TPDS) under the National Food Security Act, the government is fixated on implementing it. While this may be desirable for transfer of the fertiliser subsidy to farmers (rather than industry), there have been serious concerns about the poor beneficiaries of TPDS having to fend for themselves with direct cash especially as rationed grains do not fulfil their total monthly requirement. Apart from this, the Survey gives no signal to ensure that what is meant for the poor reaches the poor and does not get embroiled in corrupt practices.

The Survey, which is a precursor to the budget, makes the right noises in a limited way, about what is wrong with the agriculture sector, but does not come up with any policy back-ups.

“Reforms” is the buzz word, therefore it is all over the Survey – in irrigation, fertilisers, credit, crop insurance and agri-markets – but the document does not point to a cohesive way forward, in a time-bound manner, to alleviate rural distress. And, after burning its hands with the Land Acquisition Act last year, the government is ready to wade into another controversy by suggesting bringing farmers in to the tax net.