The Finance Minister’s recent announcement of an impetus to the agriculture sector will be reckoned as a watershed event in the history of farming in the country if it is implemented sincerely
Farming has never been profitable for a large majority of cultivators in India. As a result, they are more than willing to sell their land for development projects like airports, highways and so on, if they get good money for it. One of the biggest worries of Indian planners today is how to control the fragmentation of agricultural land due to population pressure as the number of small and marginal farmers (owning less than two hectares of land) is increasing. Though such growers account for 86.2 per cent of all farmers in India, they own just 47.3 per cent of the crop area, according to provisional numbers from the 10th agriculture census of 2015-16, which was released in 2018. The census showed a decline of 1.53 per cent of the total farmed area to 157.14 million hectare (ha) as compared to 159.59 million ha in 2010-11. In spite of all our attempts, the annual grain production (291.95 million tonnes) is far below the 500 million tonnes that China produces from the same spread of land. The plight of farmers can be gauged from the fact that the contribution of agriculture to the GDP is down to 15 per cent, despite the fact that 45 per cent of the people of the country are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.
After Independence, except for a brief period of the Green Revolution in the 60s, the farmers never benefitted from true reforms and were prisoners of the consumer-oriented mentality of the Government and the control of the middlemen and mandi (wholesale market) mafia. The Prime Minister’s promise of doubling farm incomes by 2022 is a lofty dream. One of the reasons for this is the neglect of animal husbandry and fisheries, which contribute more than 30 per cent to the farmers’ income and which has the potential to jump to around 45 per cent.
Now, the Corona crisis and the lockdown have made things worse for the already beleaguered agri sector. The Finance Minister’s recent announcement of providing an impetus to the farm sector will be reckoned as a watershed event in the history of agriculture if it is implemented sincerely. Some of the demands were long-pending and till now the Government was buckling under pressure from various lobbies. Now, the reforms planned by the Government will reshape the future of the agriculture sector.
One of the biggest hurdles that farmers face in selling their produce freely are the mandi samitis which force growers to sell through them. Till now, the foodgrain movement within States was restricted, which virtually stifled the farmers. Now, they will be able to sell their produce wherever they want and be free of the mandi mafia. This is the biggest reform in the agriculture sector and the Government must be lauded for this. The Rs 1.6 lakh crore agriculture infrastructure fund will be used to create a support structure at the farmer’s doorstep.
Of this Rs 20,000 crore will be for fishermen, Rs 15,000 crore for animal husbandry infrastructure development and Rs 10,000 crore will be used to help micro-food units develop their global brands. The package will also support bee-keeping. The farmer producers’ organisations and farmers’ cooperative societies will benefit from this. It also gives an opportunity to young agriculture graduates to develop start-ups.
The Essential Commodities Act was one of the main hurdles in the farmers getting better prices for their produce as the Centre authorised State Governments to impose stock limits on identified food items, issue licences to produce, sell and distribute under the Act. Now the Government will enact a Central law to ease these restrictions and help the farmers. This gives growers an opportunity to innovate and should also cover animal resources, beekeeping, medicinal plants, bamboo production and so on, for which a special package has been announced. This will deregulate cereals, edible oils, oilseeds, pulses, onions and potatoes, giving farmers the choice of seeking better returns. However, the Government can still impose stock limits for meeting emergencies.
The Government has also announced a legal framework to enable farmers to tie up with retailers, exporters, agriculture fairs, food aggregators and processors and so on to promote investments. Contract farming may get a big boost with these reforms and it is the only viable solution to deal with decreasing land holding. It will provide opportunities for investors to bring technology and finances into the sector to grow what they want. Besides, the farmers can produce more from the small land holding by joining hands with their comrades and investors.
However, the Government would do well to increase the animal husbandry package by Rs 15,000 crore and also announce a separate package for bamboo development. The Rs 6,000 crore CAMPA fund for afforestation should utilise at least Rs 1,000 crore for creating infrastructure for the indigenous tribal/non-tribal healers and vaids (country doctors) and another Rs 3,000 for raising 10 to 15 select species of medicinal plants on forest land and on the land vested under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The investment for herbal growth on agriculture land should only be done on organic farms, otherwise it will not produce the medicine-yielding compound.
So focus on organic farms and forest lands and the stretches adjoining them. However, the success of the package depends on how effectively and innovatively it is implemented.
The package has to be converged with the schemes of Rural Development, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Medium and Small Enterprises, Ayush ministries so that it evolves into a model for holistic and integrated development of our land-based resources. In fact the National Rainfed Area Authority was created in 2007 by the then Prime Minister on the recommendations of a Planning Commission sub-committee to get the agriculture sector out of the stagnated growth of one to two per cent, with a focus on integrating all the resources on a piece of land. Now, the Prime Minister has the opportunity to not only achieve integration but to take it to the global level.
(The writer is a former civil servant)