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National Commission on Farmers, at last

Sharad Joshi

Nearly six months after the Prime Minister made the announcement, the National Commission on Farmers has been set up to prepare the road map for sustainable development of agriculture and optimising its contribution to growth and development of the economy, particularly improving the income and standard of living of farmers. But how much headway will it make, wonders Sharad Joshi.


The emphasis of the National Commission on Farmers will be on the farmer rather than agriculture.

A<150>PPOINTMENTS of committees are routine business for any government. Committees are appointed, day in and day out, whenever the governments wish to know facts, or whenever it wishes to hide them or put the issues on back-burner or just push matters under the carpet. There is a standard format for the announcement of their appointments. The notification begins by declaring solemnly that the subject for which the committee is being appointed has been engaging the attention of the government in recent years/for a long time/for quite some time/or any expression that suggests that the government has not suddenly woken up to the gravity of the matter.

It is rather extraordinary that the appointment of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) should have taken nearly six months after it was proclaimed by the Prime Minister himself from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his Independence Day speech last year. During the long interval there was considerable speculation that the delay was due to the fact that the Prime minister had suggested that it should be a Constitutional Commission on a par with the Election Commission or Vigilance Commission with over-riding authority on matters concerning farmers. That understandably would take some time since it would call for an amendment of the Constitution.

When Ms Sushma Swaraj announced the setting up of the Commission, she highlighted that the NCF was to go into the farmers' grievances (Daily Hitvada, January 21). That would call for a huge administrative set-up and powers comparable to those of the Vigilance Commission. She went on to add that the NCF will help in preparing the road map for sustainable development of agriculture and optimising its contribution to growth and development of the economy, particularly improving farm income, standard of living of farm households and make Indian agriculture globally competitive. So the emphasis is on farmers rather than on the agriculture.

That sets the NCF apart from the Standing Advisory Committee (SAC), which was to draft a National Agricultural Policy, as also the Task Force on Agriculture (TFA) charged with making Indian agriculture of world-class in the context of the WTO commitments; both bodies, like the NCF, were headed by a chairman of the rank of a Cabinet Minister.

One little odd thing. Ms Sushma Swaraj, in the same press session, also announced the new policy permitting private traders to intervene in the grains market without the intermediary of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). That could mark the beginning of the end of the FCI, which has been a major instrument of the Government's farm policies. One cannot but wonder why such a ponderous decision could not be deferred till the NCF had deliberated on it and formulated its views in one of the first interim reports.

Why the inordinate delay in setting up the NCF? Why did the announcement come on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections? Is it just a poll gimmick setting up a two-year committee when the Government is not certain to stay that long? So many questions that would normally make me ignore the whole matter. This one occasion I could not, as Mr Sompal Shastri is designated as the Cabinet-rank Chairman of the NCF.

Mr Sompal Shastri is not only a close friend but also a highly respected expert in agriculture. Even as it is, he is a Member of the Planning Commission and has been Minister of State in independent charge of Agriculture with additional charge of the Ministry of Water Resources. He has been a member of both Houses of Parliament and has worked on innumerable committees concerning agriculture. The sheer comprehensiveness of his knowledge and the command of vast array of facts and figures at his fingertips are impressive. He is articulate in a number of languages including English and Hindi. We have held common positions on most subjects relating to agriculture. Both of us cherish Sir Chhoturam as a Messiah of farmers.

Anything that affects Mr Sompal Shastri is of deep concern to me. So I got on the Internet to see the actual notification of the Ministry of Agriculture dated February 10, 2004. The reading of the document made a number of pieces fall in place. First, the NCF is not a Constitutional commission; it is just another report-writing committee with the difference that its mandate tilts towards the situation of the farmers, rather than the state, and growth of the farm sector.

All the same, the focal point of its mandate remains "Improving the economic viability and sustainability of diversified agriculture including horticulture, livestock, dairy and fisheries and doubling the farmers' income...alleviate poverty and impart viability and attractiveness to farming as a remunerative and rewarding profession."

The development of agriculture is driven by the technology, infrastructure and economic incentives. The emphasis of all governmental policies and of the terms of reference of most committees on agriculture has been on the first two: Technology and infrastructure to the near-exclusion of the third, that is, economic incentives. This was in stark contrast to the almost exclusively economic character of the demands of the farmers' organisations. The terms of reference of the NCF represents a better balance between the physical and the economic engines of agricultural growth.

The timing of the declaration of the setting up of the NCF was certainly influenced by the advent of elections. The announcement itself of the creation of a National Commission could help make up the deficiency of `feel good' factor in agriculture, to which even Mr L. K. Advani confessed.

All eyes will be on Mr Sompal Raguvir Singh Shastri, Member, Planning Commission, now NCF Chairman, enjoying the rank of a Cabinet Minister. There is little that he can do as Chairman of the NCF that he could not have done in his earlier position. The new assignment has a lot of distinction and trappings but also some treacherous traps.

(The author is Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana, and can be contacted at sharad@mah.nic.in)

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