Finally, a budget that promises to help the policy-battered farm sector though not all issues are addressed.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In Anna Karenina, only a person satisfied on all counts will be happy. The allocations in the budget cover every sector, with umpteen implications but no person’s expectations can be fulfilled on all counts. Yet, while every expectation cannot be met, it must be acknowledged that finance minister Arun Jaitley has presented a budget that focuses on rural India and is a great leap forward for the policy-battered farm sector, even though, according to Article 112 of the Constitution, the union budget is simply a statement of the estimated receipts and expenditures of the government for a particular year.
Rather than the allowing the budget to be an annual jamboree for announcing policies, the Prime Minister should address the nation with his ideas for the coming year, based on which the finance minister should present the budget. The first step towards atonement and for penance is to acknowledge past failure. As the Economic Survey rightly states, real incomes of farmers have been stagnant. The next step is to take corrective measures and redeem the situation. An effort has been initiated in that direction in this budget.
Assurance of purchase of all crops for which MSP is declared is a positive step. However, a promise is of A2+50 per cent profit would only amount to a half-baked promise. The government should have simultaneously announced its acceptance of the Ramesh Chand Committee’s recommendations for calculating the MSP. It has not done so. Nevertheless, the Niti Aayog is evolving into the credible policy think-tank that one had hoped it would. Hopefully, it will also come out with a suitable mechanism to enable institutional credit access to lessee farmers.
The Agri-Market Infrastructure Fund, with a corpus of ₹2,000 crore, is to be set up for developing and upgrading agricultural marketing infrastructure in the 22,000 Gramin Agricultural Markets and 585 Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). This will enable farmers in remote locations who are devoid of any institutional mechanism to connect to markets. ‘‘Operation Green’’ on the lines of ‘‘Operation Flood’’ is supposed to tackle the volatility of tomato, onion and potato prices and is a positive development. The long-standing demand for income tax exemption for farmer producer organisations has been met. A ₹10,000-crore fund to finance the infrastructure requirements of fisheries, aquaculture and animal husbandry will generate rural employment and supplement farmer incomes.
The intent to mitigate the air pollution woes of the Delhi-NCR by subsidising the machinery required for in-situ management of crop residue has now been addressed. Targeted programmes like those under the Prime Minister Krishi Sinchai Yojna for 96 irrigation-deprived districts, where less than 30 per cent of the land holdings get assured irrigation, is the way forward. The focus on horticulture clusters and converting cattle dung and solid waste in farms to compost, fertiliser, biogas and bio-CNG is also commendable.
The flagship National Health Protection Scheme to cover over 500 million poor and vulnerable beneficiaries providing coverage of up to ₹5 lakh per family per year for hospitalisation is outstanding though the fund allocation for the programme is insignificant. One wonders if it will suffer the fate of many of last year’s budget announcements that have not materialised for want of allocations. In Davos, there was a general scepticism regarding the data presented to project the Indian growth story. A similar apprehension persists regarding the fund allocations in this budget.
Regrettably, climate change worries have not been addressed as agriculture R&D has been ignored. Nor is there a mention of the balanced use of fertilisers. The magic-bullet demand for changing the centre-state funding ratio from 60:40 to 90:10 for agriculture-related schemes has also been overlooked. A constant red thread running uniformly through the budgets of the past 10 years, presented by three finance ministers of India, is that farmer suicides have not abated. In the last three years, over 36,000 farmers have committed suicide.