Agenda for sustained agricultural progress

Tags: Op-ed
Agenda for sustained agricultural progress
Forecasts on possible monsoon behaviour are not very encouraging. There is a possibility of El Nino factors causing further problems. More recently, our farmers in parts of north and central India experienced the fury of hailstorms and heavy rains. Climate change further complicates the possibility of providing accurate advance estimates of monsoon behaviour. This is not only true in our country, but also around the world. California, for example, has been experiencing severe drought.

In just a few days, the excitement of the election successfully carried out in the world’s largest democracy will die down. Stark realities will face us. One such relates to monsoon rains and the economic prospect for farm families. Agricultural security is becoming particularly important since we now have a legal co­mmitment to provide five kilogrammes of wheat or rice or millets to nearly 75 per cent of the population. Unexpected weather events like hailsto­rms, flood and drought are also likely to become more frequent in the future, as a result of global warming. Therefore, it is time that the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) are acted upon without further delay.

A national policy for farmers based on the draft given by the NCF was placed in parliament in October 2007. This policy calls for a paradigm shift from measuring agricultural progress purely in terms of production but on the basis of the increase in the real net income of farmers. Similarly, the national policy calls for a new deal for the young farmers as well as women farmers. Young farmers will be induced to remain in farming only when agriculture becomes economically attractive. This implies concurrent attention to production and post-harvest technologies leading to value addition to every part of the plant biomass. The government is setting up, at Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar, a Rice BioPark for demonstrating how a variety of value added market driven products can be prepared from straw, bran, husk and grain. We should have similar bio-parks in all rice growing areas.

The national policy for farmers is the first of its kind either in colonial or independent India, since all the earlier policies were for agriculture and not specifically for farm women and men. The 2007 policy is therefore the first of its kind, but unfortunately not much attention has been given to implementing this policy after it was placed in parliament. The policy calls for a pan-political oversight committee under the chairmanship of the prime minister and comprising a few chief ministers from surplus and deficit states, in addition to the leaders of national political parties. Because of the opportunity, agriculture provides for doing minimum food to a maximum number of people. Agriculture policy should be beyond politics and should be based on a broad political consensus. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to meet the challenges of the future such as diversion of prime farmland for non-farm purposes and conflicts related to the sharing of river waters and harvesting of rainwater.

The NCF has also recommended the streamlining of marketing procedures by introducing an ‘Indian single market’. Such a market will allow the free movement of farm commodities across all parts of India. At present, there are many impediments for moving food and other commodities across state boundaries. It is not uncommon to see large numbers of trucks lying idle on each side of the check post waiting for clearance, which often also involves bribery.

There is no time to relax on the food production and marketing ends. It is now clear that we can not only produce the food we need for implementing the provisions of the Food Security Act, but also produce for the external market. Our scientific capability in agriculture is very high. For example, the new Pusa Basmati variety 1509, is spreading like wild fire in the Punjab, and Haryana region. Last year, over Rs 30,000 crore of additional income accrued to the farmers who cultivated the new Pusa Basmati strains such as Pusa 1121 and Pusa 1509. Therefore, we should not only view farming as the backbone of our food and livelihood security systems, but also, appreciate its potential to usher in prosperity in rural areas. I, therefore, hope that the new government in Delhi will convene a meeting of leaders of political parties to review the 2007 national policy for farmers and initiate action for the further promotion of agriculture-triggered prosperity.

In its 4th report, the NCF (2006) suggested the integration of all programmes for generating off and non-farm employment into one initiative like China’s town and village enterprise (TVE) programme and launch a rural non-farm initiative particularly for families without land or other productive assets. The need is for a counterpart to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) in the skilled employment sector. Initiatives like the small farmers agribusiness consortium, agri-clinics and agri-business centres, food parks among others, could be strengthened and made more effective.

Though the rural non-farm sector is providing almost all the new employment opportunities in villages, there is no specific ministry or department to focus exclusively on this sector. The ministry of rural development has been running various self employment and wage employment programmes like the Pradhan Mantri Rozgar Yojna, Swarn Jyanti Rozgar Yojana, among others, while the small scale industries and the khadi and village industries commission among others, are looked after by the ministry of small scale industries, and agro and rural industries. In addition, there is also the ministry of food processing industries. Keeping in view the importance of the rural non-farm sector, there is a need for a very effective system of coordination and some reorganisation and consolidation of programmes concerning rural industrialisation.

India is in a unique position to demonstrate to the world that attention to agriculture is the most effective method of ensuring concurrently food, livelihood and ecological security.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)

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