Opinion

Farm sector: Time to call politicians’ bluff

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on April 09, 2019 Published on April 09, 2019

Tardy progress: Agriculture reform

Through grandiose schemes and promises, politicians want to mask their combined failure to strengthen the agriculture sector

Nearly 70 years ago, the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru profoundly declared: ‘Everything can wait except agriculture’. However, in recent decades, agriculture has been in a state of benign neglect by successive governments. While manufacturing and services sectors have surely moved on, the farm sector continues to remain neglected and mired in structural challenges.

Admittedly, notable progress has been made in terms of production of cereals, fruits and vegetables, and so on. The country has moved far away from its ‘ship to mouth’ existence of the 1960s. If anything, India today is a food exporter. But the key question is whether the country’s agri-exports represent genuine export surplus.

Tragically, over the last 20 years or so, farm growth rates have been not only erratic but also abysmally low. In none of the successive Five Year Plans did agriculture and allied sector record the targeted annual average growth rate of 4 per cent. Given that nearly 50 per cent of the workforce continues to eke out a living from farming and related activities, it was critical that incomes in the hands of that sizeable population should have increased which, in turn, would have set off a virtuous cycle of growth.

Now, the supply side faces newer challenges — land constraints, water shortage and climate change, to name three. There is nothing to suggest a comprehensive response — policies, programmes, finances and technology — to address the new threats, and if not addressed with urgency the agriculture sector will be enervated further.

Consumption demand

While the supply side languishes, the demand side looks poised for robust growth. A combination of economic growth, demographic pressure and existing low per capita consumption creates conditions for a spike in consumption demand. Higher purchasing power among a section of the population and rapid urbanisation are seen changing the food habits of people and, thereby, the demand pattern.

Will our domestic supplies expand in adequate measure to keep pace with potential demand growth? Doubts persist.

It is in this context that one must examine the utility or futility of the recent government scheme or poll promise. Given the distress in our farm sector, any scheme or promise that seeks to augment rural incomes should surely be welcome.

For instance, the PM-KISAN scheme envisages an aggregate payout of ₹75,000 crore at the rate of ₹6,000 per year to eligible farmers; and it is reported that the intended beneficiaries have already received a part of the payment. However, the timing of the announcement raises questions over the intent and suggests nexus with the upcoming general elections. Not to be outdone in its election manifesto, the Congress party, if voted to power, has promised a payout of ₹72,000 a year to five crore farming families in the bottom rung, which aggregates to a whopping ₹3.6-lakh crore. Where this money will come from is anybody’s guess.

In such grandiose schemes, without doubt, there will be beneficiary identification issues and delivery issues. There is the risk of exclusion of intended beneficiaries and/or inclusion of undeserving persons. What is the process to sift is unclear.

Whether it is the PM-KISAN scheme or the poll promise of the Congress party, for all intents and purposes the payment will be more of a dole. It would be tragic because such payments reflect the abject failure of successive governments to lift the fortunes of the farm sector.

It looks like politicians want to mask their combined failure to strengthen the agriculture sector by solving the structural problems. Progress on irrigation projects, technology infusion, rural infrastructure and capacity building has been tardy if not poor. It is rather easy to opiate the farming community with cash handouts than work hard to make the agriculture sector competitive and self-sustaining. It is time to call the politicians’ bluff.

It makes little sense to crow about the country’s economic growth while our rank in the Human Development Index is abysmally low and our rank in Global Hunger Index is rather high. We have economic growth but poor social development because of lopsided policy priorities of successive governments.

The situation reminds one of a telling line in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village: ‘But a bold peasantry, the country’s pride, when once destroyed, can never be supplied’.

It should surprise none if there is an unstated but discernible agenda to keep the peasants of this country dependent on government largesse and compromise the innate pride in their calling.

The author is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal.

Published on April 09, 2019
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