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By VK Bahuguna

That the Government has announced schemes for the agricultural sector is welcome. But it must ensure farmers’ interests are not sacrificed at the altar of checking price rise

India celebrated its 69th Republic  Day last month with great fanfare. It invited the Heads of State of all 10 Asean nations as chief guests. This is a great strategic step to bring India more close to these countries and also a sign of its rising status as a world power. The tableaux of different State Governments, along with different Ministries, showed the progress the country has made since Independence and the march past by our forces, spine chilling acrobatics in the sky by our pilots, showcasing India’s defence preparedness, was all a fine treat to watch.

Next year, India will host yet another Republic Day and it is time to ponder on those fields where we have been a laggard; where we have not been able to make much headway. I will dwell upon a few of these critical areas, like problems of farming, environment (in view of climactic vagaries and degradation of natural resources) and general governance in a series of articles based on prevailing field conditions so as to draw the attention of the political leadership of the country, especially in view of the ensuing General Election in the summer of 2019.

This piece is on agriculture after Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitely presented a farmer-friendly Budget, which promises numerous sops. The Government announced minimum support price (MSP) at the rate of one and a half times of production costs; increased institutional credit to Rs 11 lakh crore, up from Rs 10 lakh crore in 2017-18; Rs 500 crore to address price volatility of perishable commodities like potatoes, onion and tomato to benefit both the farmers as well as consumers; doubled the allocation for food processing sector to Rs 1,400 crore. One of the good initiatives is to develop 22,000 rural haats and upgrade the rural market infrastructure and extending Kisan Credit Card to fisheries and animal husbandry farmers.

Further, the Bamboo sector too got a boost — an outlay of Rs 1,290 crore was announced. In order to encourage Farmer Producers Companies having a turnover up to Rs 100 crore, the Government proposed to allow 100 per cent deduction of their profit for the next five years. These sops and ongoing programmes like the Prime Minister Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, will boost the income of farmers, if implemented in a time-bound manner.

Apart from budgetary announcements, a long-term vision is necessary for the welfare of the farmers. A whole lot of policy changes and drastic approach to our food security needs a fresh look. The first and foremost challenge for any Government is to solve the problem of farmers getting trapped in debt, as farming is becoming unsustainable. According to last year’s Economic Survey, the average annual income of the farmers in 17 States was only Rs 20,000, whereas, on the basis of the approved minimum daily labour rate of Rs 300, a labourer would earn Rs 1,10,000.

Though India is no longer an ‘agricultural economy’ (as the contribution of agriculture in Gross Domestic Product is only around 17 per cent), 70 per cent of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for livelihood. The Government has been trying to balance the interests of farmers as well of the consumers by fixing MSP (now for 23 items) for food grains and in order to check food inflammation, it either opted for import of food items or banned export to check price rise for consumers.  India is importing agricultural products worth Rs 1,50,000 crore every year (including wheat, rice and sugar which is produced plenty in the country) whereas the country’s agriculture Budget is just Rs 40,000 crore. This heavily impacts the income of farmers.

One glaring example is of the case of pulses production, for which, the Government laid emphasis and policy thrust during the last few years with the result that last year, the country had a bumper production of pulses but the Government did not stop importing which resulted in heavy loss to the farmers as they were forced to sell it below the production cost. This action of the Government takes care of the interests of consumers, but is detrimental to the interests of the farming community. According to the National Sample Survey, around 29 per cent of the farmers are below the poverty line and a large part of it consists of small farmers.

The country’s leadership must change its priority and recognise that sustainable farming and farming interests can no longer be sacrificed at the altar of checking price rise for consumers. An alternate pathway can be found to protect the weak and lower income groups from the price rise. Farmers’ income cannot be doubled unless we change the mindset developed in the corridors of powers and create infrastructure in rural areas for marketing and storage.

Mandi samities are very few, compared to the need of more than 45,000 mandis. There are only around 7,600 in the country, plagued with corruption, devoid of professionalism, lack of commitment and in many cases they have become fiefdoms of powerful people. The Government though has tried to tackle this through rural haats.

Coupled with innovative planning, Indian agriculture can bounce back with farmers in the forefront. The example of success in horticulture production during the last 10 years, of putting up innovative programmes, have benefitted both  the consumers as well as fruit, vegetable and flower growers, though still much needs to be done in terms of infrastructure.

The Government must pool up expertise beyond the present pool of man power and bring integrated reforms in agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and animal husbandry and land resources management so that a farmer is given choice and can earn at least 50 per cent profit from his investments. The prime objective of forest management should be to ameliorate the environmental conditions to support agriculture and water. The people of the country, particularly those who are at the helm of affairs, must realise that food is the basic need for survival and survival of the country will depend upon the survival of farmers. Ironically, every Indian wants cheap food but most of our young generation does not want to do agriculture. They look for jobs outside agriculture. The biggest challenge for the Prime Minister Modi is to reverse this trend.

(The writer is former Director General of Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education, Chancellor of FRI University, and chairman of Foundation for Integrated Resource Management)

Source: Daily Pioneer

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