Jun 24 2014

Not more of the same ! (Final)

The undersigned could not restrain him at a roundtable called to discuss the roadmap for agriculture under the new dispensation. It was more of the same thing. Higher allocations, higher MSPs, renaming the ministry, land titles for women, focus on the most vulnerable farmer, and so on and so for. Led by Dr MS Swaminathan, who has indeed played a lead role in transforming India’s agriculture, the meet spelt out ‘expectations’ from a Mai Baap Sarkar.

Sorry. This is not the way we can go ahead with agriculture. Even if we double, treble or quadruple the investments in agriculture, it will amount to just four drops in the ocean, instead of one! And it will not make any difference. Instead, we should decide, once and for all, that there be an end to the subsidy regime in agriculture, and put all investments in training, infrastructure, capacity building, value chains and access to water. The four points put forth by yours truly were as follows. First, recognition that India’s agriculture sector is efficient, and needs policy and infra supports, rather than sops. Ensuring that a ‘national market’ exists for all producers in India would do much more for the 130 million farmers in the country rather than any attempt to even reach a fraction of them through subsidies. Our farmers need farm equipment – paddy planters, harvesters, mini tractors, potato diggers - which will make it possible for them to enhance their productivity by leaps and bounds, besides increasing labour efficiency. Unfortunately our farm equipment hubs have failed to keep pace with their Chinese and Korean counterparts. Our larger equipment manufactures now make tractors for the world, but cannot make mini tractors for the one hectare farmer. Can we therefore tweak policy for farm equipment, and make it affordable. Can we not invest in basic research for equipment needs of small and marginal farmers, and disseminate ideas through a 24x7 Krishi channel, where the focus should be on successful farmers, institutions and innovations and interventions. And there is no dearth of them- as the travelogues of the DAC officers, captured in Vignettes of Indian Agriculture showed. Therefore let us spend our resources on strengthening the tools that will help the farmer, rather than provide subsidies for everything under the sun. SFAC has documented hundreds of innovative tools and equipments which are just raring to go. We need agri entrepreneurs to ensure their production on a sustained basis.

Second, let us focus on the creation of near farm jobs as we must understand that it is neither possible, nor desirable to have nearly 54% of our population dependent on the farm sector. There cannot be a sudden, wholesale shift to manufacturing or the industrial sectors: what can and should happen is the creation of jobs closer to the farm-these will be jobs associated with and connected to farming – but not directly on farm. A network of cold chains, pack houses, warehouses, weigh bridges and agri logistics along with Tissue culture, soil testing and bio control labs – all in the private sector can bring about a real change in the productivity and profits. Should we subsidize these investments, or at least offer an interest subvention to those who establish this infrastructure. AgriMatters would recommend the abolition of all subsidies – or if that is not possible, a scaled down support of 10-15 % as against 35-50% at present to ensure that while a proper signal is sent, it is only a signal, and not the ‘main track’. New jobs will come if we calibrate our investments decisions with ‘value chains’ in mind. Thus an investment of Rs 100 crores in cold chain should actually be broken up into the components of cold/CA store, pack houses and reefer vans, with the bulk of the investment going to the latter two components. The logic is simple. A cold store can only create ten to twelve jobs- but many more will come from grading and sorting at the pack houses, and when the commodity moves in reefer vans, the numbers actually multiply.

The third point made was regarding transaction based decision making in co-operatives. Co-operatives have to shed their ideological baggage of being responsible to all and sundry – they should be responsible to their members, especially to those who ‘contribute’ to the domain economy of the co-operative. The same formula should apply, mutatis mutandis , to the farmer producer organizations, and it should be said upfront that these organizations exist to consolidate and aggregate farm produce to get better returns from the market, because markets respect ‘volumes’.

Last, but not the least, India must take the responsibility which is concomitant with its position as a leading agricultural producer in the world. Whether in the SAARC, or in BRICS or G20 or our sectoral dialogue with the ASEAN, India must be in the forefront of laying down the norms for active engagement and collaboration in the agricultural sector. These groupings make sense only when issues which have salience among the populations come to the fore. Thus an agribusiness grid for the SAARC region with focus on development of infrastructure to leverage the competitive advantage of each of the countries, a technology collaboration and information sharing arrangement in BRICS and a knowledge management and joint research programme with ASEAN are ideas which must be put to practice. We should also redefine our role and contribution in multilateral organizations like FAO, WFP and IFAD. We have to play the role required of a major producer to stabilize food prices, promote and support sustainable practices of agriculture, respond to emergency aid and assistance anywhere in the world, and share India’s experience of administering agricultural development interventions in countries and regions where such support may be required.