NDC and Agriculture
Right Language, Wrong Direction
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had time and again promised to launch a major initiative for the revival of the ailing farm sector. Addressing recently the 53rd meeting of the National Development Council (NDC) in New Delhi, he used the right vocabulary to highlight the enormity of the prevailing agrarian crisis.
If words alone could deliver, Congress-led UPA Coalition would have done it long ago. But like the story of the four blind men and the elephant, the Prime Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and the 29 chief ministers who were present continued to shoot in the dark. Three years into power, it is quite apparent the government has no clue as to what needs to be done to resurrect agriculture.
It was almost a year back when Mr Manmohan Singh had visited the suicide-prone belt of Vidharbha and announced a relief package of Rs 3,750-crores. Embarrassed at no let-up in the number of farmer suicides, he had subsequently said that the relief measures would begin to show results after six months. It sure did. Six months after the Prime Minister’s visit, the suicide rate doubled. From one farmer suicide every eight hours, it is now one every four hours.
The Rs 25,000-crore booster for new farm initiatives to be launched by states in the next four years, and the 14-point resolution adopted by the NDC which aims at achieving four per cent growth in agriculture by the end of the 11th five-year plan, falls in the same category. With the entire focus on integrating domestic agriculture with global economy, and bringing in agribusiness, corporate agriculture and food retail as the saviour, the roadmap being chalked out is likely to lead to further despair.
Ploughing Rs 25,000-crore into agriculture may seem like a mammoth effort to double the growth rate in agriculture. For each of the 29 states, the average support will not exceed Rs 1000-crore, which is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. Moreover, what is not being visualised is that the farm crisis has nothing to do in terms of growth rate. It essentially revolves around declining sustainability in agriculture and the economic viability of farming. Whatever be the new location-specific schemes the states may launch, nothing significant can be expected unless the real farm income goes up.
Take Punjab, the food bowl of the country. Farm indebtedness, both in the formal and informal sector, is around Rs 26,000-crore, more than the Centre’s total pledged allocation for the entire country. No amount of renewed thrust on increasing crop productivity, and that too without restoring the highly devastated natural resource base, as well as raising farm incomes, will revive agriculture. However, the 14-point resolution dividing responsibilities between the Central and the State governments makes little mention of sustainability and boosting farm incomes.
To expect the agricultural universities and the state extension machinery to draw up research plans considering region specific priorities taking agro-climatic conditions, natural resource issues and technology into account is a tall order given that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has already moved away from subsistence to commercial agriculture. The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture Research, Development and Marketing, launched in early 2006, provides for a diametrically opposite research direction.
The crucial issue of technology fatigue cannot be addressed without first ascertaining what and where has the 1st Green Revolution gone wrong. Instead of pushing 2nd Green Revolution (read agribusiness), the effort should have been to draw a balance sheet and then prepare a cropping pattern plan based on the availability of natural resources. For instance, it does not make any sense to cultivate sugarcane and cotton in the arid and parched lands of Rajasthan.
The action plan only focuses on improved seed supply, fertiliser availability and revamping of state agriculture extension system to reduce yield gaps. It also makes it mandatory for states to make amendments in Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act by March 2008, which will allow a variety of marketing trappings including contract farming and corporate agriculture. In essence, the entire focus of the farm strategy is to allow the private sector to take control of agriculture.
Although till date, 16 states have amended the APMC Act, some wholly and others partially, the fact remains that the entire effort of the government is to dismantle the food procurement and public distribution system in the days to come. By amending the APMC Act, the government is actually encouraging development of linkages to markets through a variety of instruments including contract farming and corporate agriculture. Such a system has already played havoc with wheat procurement forcing the country to turn into the world’s biggest importer of the golden grain.
Setting up a time-bound Food Security Mission by enhancing production of wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils comes at a time when the UPA government itself is lowering the custom tariff thereby allowing cheaper imports. Integrating Indian agriculture with global economy defeats the very purpose of ensuring food security. Take the case of edible oils. India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils in 1993-94. Ever since the government began lowering the tariffs, edible oil imports have multiplied turning the country into the biggest importer. Small farmers growing oilseeds and that too in the rainfed areas of the country had to abandon production in the light of cheaper imports.
Autonomous liberalisation of the farm sector has already seen import surges. Agriculture commodity imports have gone up by 300 per cent between 2000-2004. Coconut oil imports for instance increased from 7291 metric tonnes in 2004-05 to 22,307 metric tonnes in 2005-06. The import of pepper similarly increased from 2186.3 tonnes in 1995-96 to 17,725.3 tonnes in 2004-05. These are not isolated cases. Imports of spices and plantation crops including tea and coffee have been on an upswing. Importing food commodities is like importing unemployment.
Not even remotely concerned, the government is planning to further open up farm imports under the Free Trade Agreement with the ASEAN countries. In the years to come, import tariffs on wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils – the crops that are considered crucial for food security – are to be further lowered. Cheaper imports will negatively impact food security. Unless of course the government thinks food security can be assured by buying food off-the-shelf.
For a country like India, with 60-crore farmers, such a policy imperative will spell doom. Indian farmers are not only producers but also consumers. What is needed is a farming system that allows production by the masses in a sustainable and viable way.