Budgets and even ballots are seemingly irrelevant after the GST roll out and the government allowing non-state actors to influence the narrative even as the farm sector sinks into an abyss
At a time when politics dominates not just economics and society but even criti-cal matters of national security, it has been satisfying to be able to assert that the Bharat Krishak Samaj is gifted with a heavy ideological endowment from the en-vironment and nature that has constantly shaped its policy preferences. These need no strong political convictions or moorings. In less than a hundred days from now, the country will decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral fu-ture and the final, pre-ballot, budget of his government was expected to contain announcements to stem the angst arising out of the bleak rural landscape.
Rural India has been on the verge of becoming a maelstrom that threatens to suck in the entire country. After four years of slogans and promises not deliv-ered, everything that this government says is discredited by the fact that the gov-ernment said it. Farmers have stopped believing in miracles because it has been a long time since they have experienced any. Since the ‘grandstand’ announce-ment in 2016 of doubling farmer income, the real income of farmers has actual-ly fallen. Data confirms this. Rarely does the growth of gross value added for ag-riculture at current price not exceed what it is at constant prices. Yet, agriculture prices have remained below the rate of inflation of between three and four per cent. This is possibly the third time that this has happened since India became independent.
The announcement of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme is a measure to transfer Rs 6,000 a year, amounting to Rs75,000 crores to farmers owning up to five acres of land. Yet this proposed stimulus for the rural econo-my excluded tenant farmers and landless labour. Even had it included them, it would have been a challenge to identify each one and quantify their benefits. While this could be done by having them registered, it would require a firm commitment and a longer period of time to implement.
The first big challenge lies in ensuring that all targeted farmers get the an-nounced amount for the first time. State governments are to upload the list of entitled farmers on a web portal for the central government to transfer the funds. What is, however, not realised is that all the proposed schemes are actually ex-clusionary by nature because the guidelines, prepared with great care and crea-tivity, cleverly exclude pockets of beneficiaries. It is the same with state farm loan waivers across India. Invariably, many beneficiaries are left out due to inadequa-cies of data and information.
There are welcome steps of course. These include the doubling of interest sub-vention for crop loans, two to three per cent subvention for animal husbandry and fisheries, two to three per cent subvention for timely repayment of resched-uled loans to farmers impacted by natural calamity. One had hoped that interest subvention would be extended for farmer’s term loans. Income-tax benefits should also have been extended to animal husbandry and fisheries by classifying them as agriculture income. It goes without saying that the net loss to farmers over the last few years is far more than that can be compensated by better an-nouncements made in the budget 2019.
It is just as important to realise that budgets have lost relevance after the GST announcement and the government allowing non-state actors to influence the narrative. The unfolding consequences are telling. One is not being facetious while using the example of funding for cows through the Gokul mission and the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog to make a point. They seem good on paper but on the ground, farmers are busy chasing stray cattle from the fields and would have been happier to get subsidy for fencing farm lands.
The bigger questions are whether the budget can create jobs, increase fruit and vegetable processing or transform livelihoods and the answer is clearly in the negative. It is more like using a band-aid where surgery was required. The fi-nance minister, without acknowledging government mistakes made over the past four years, tried to assuage feelings of the distressed sections of society that gov-ernment policies have decimated economically.
This is a pivotal moment in Indian politics. The exodus of farmers to other live-lihood options and the increasingly larger share of the non-agriculture compo-nent in rural incomes will reduce those dependent on agriculture, as the ranks of consumers, who constantly demand lower food prices, swell.
Therefore, this might be the last general election in which farmers can influence the results decisively. However, the dissatisfied, aspirational generation and fears of re-election will haunt the members of Parliament in the days that follow and one can say with a great measure of confidence that upwards of 70 per cent of the members will not get reelected.
Tom Perkins, the pioneering Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said, “after the bat-tle was won, they found that the horse ate, as usual, too much hay, and crapped, as usual, all over the land scape”. Irrespective of who wins the electoral battle, there is a sense of dismay that has persisted over several months because of the prevailing sense of futility. Truth to tell, India and Indian farming in particular are witnessing not only risks of policy failure but of political success too.