Good intentions based on bad understanding aggravate an already challenging situation. Policy and implementation must be designed with more rigour than in the past.
Nearly 700 years ago, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who ruled Delhi, started the ministry of agriculture and wanted all the fallow land to be brought under cultivation. Tughlaq wanted cultivation of high-value crops and decreed: “Wherever wheat is grown, barley should be grown, wherever barley is grown, sugarcane should be grown and wherever sugarcane is grown, dates and grapes should be grown.” He failed, destroying family farms for generations. Still at it, we call it diversification of agriculture.
Ultimately, it is time for the Ministry of Agriculture to cease to exist in its solitary form; effectively, agriculture is a state subject. Even a merger of the central ministries of rural development, agriculture and water resources may not be enough to save India from the perfect storm created by farm policy influenced by people off the farm. Sometimes good intentions can aggravate an already challenging situation when policy and implementation are not designed with more rigour than in the past.
The inevitable direct subsidy transfer to farmers could be a positive development provided prospective ambiguities are first addressed. Similarly, if minimum capital adequacy ratio norms for rural co-operative banks are not diluted, such banks will shut shop and already falsified agriculture credit numbers would be hit further. It is not trending ideas or grandstanding announcements but the mundane, meticulous policies executed with rigour and methodically that usher in prosperity.
To consider the reneging on promises through a personal experience, the state government incentivising diversification through disbursal of subsidised seeds lead to my planting. The government however refuses to purchase the produce at the minimum support price. Policymakers advocate the import of fruits and vegetables to control food inflation but controlling food inflation has more to do with removing impediments to marketing perishables than to production limitations.
The route to increasing food processing does not lie in tax incentives to industries but better co-ordination between research institutions and the food processing industry. Cotton is a farm produce but policy and price are determined by the textiles ministry. Such inconsistencies haunt every department of the government. Addressing such frustrations and improving governance would demand a national food security adviser on the lines of a national security adviser to integrate programmes between different departments, central ministries and state governments to ensure delivery at the grassroots level.
How allocated funds are utilised is equally crucial. Scarce resources cannot be allowed to get evaporated in investments in imposing flood irrigation projects. Regrettably, lending institutions and business houses are not the best reservoirs of knowledge. International consulting firms that have left many world economies in the doldrums, can hardly be banked upon. More savings and learning comes from documenting failures. Consequently, land gets waterlogged in some places while much of the country suffers from groundwater table depletion. Repairing existing irrigation infrastructure, making water storage tanks, incentivising micro irrigation and distributing soil moisture measuring devices to all farmers is the way forward to harvesting manifold gains at no extra cost.
At a 1957 BKS seminar, the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to the food targets set for the Second Five-Year Plan and said “India would not do so by depending on financial allocations alone but by blood and by sweat we shall achieve them”. Yet in the first decade and a half of Independence, India prioritised large-scale industrialisation instead of first focusing on a revolution in the farms; all under his watch. The development based on the Soviet Union’s five-year plans over many decades has only helped India keep its head above the waterline. There has been enough of aping for one lifetime. India’s problems are unique; so must its solutions be.
Reap the fruits of the farmer’s blood and sweat demands planting seeds of practice and process. India must raise agricultural R&D to one per cent of the farm sector’s GDP for starters. Mere financial allocations will not help though. Agriculture research needs to be separated from farm advisory services. Too much focus on research and lack of delivery on both counts has dampened India’s growth trajectory significantly. In its new avatar, the Niti Aayog needs to be more diligent during policy-making or else the country will fail to realise its potential and remain a developing country. It is best expressed in the words of Samuel Beckett, “Our life is a succession of paradises successively denied.”