A.R. Vasavi: The bitter reality behind the ‘pro-farmer’ budget

Over the past three decades, average income of the farmer has increased by only 19%, while that of the government employee has by 370% and that of the corporate sector by more than a thousand per cent… Hidden in the rhetoric of being “pro-farmer and pro-poor” are the continued logic of being “pro-investor and pro-business”.

While the enhancement for the MGNREGS is to be appreciated, the other allocations to be made good through a new levy are questionable

A.R. Vasavi, Live Mint 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has discovered the rural and agricultural sector and announced what it claims is a “pro-village, pro-poor, pro-farmer” budget. Yes, the bounty seems generous and the magic wand of financial allocation is meant to address the income deficits of farmers of our nation.

While the enhancement for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is to be appreciated, the other allocations to be made good through a new levy, the Krishi Kalyan Cess on services, are questionable. As for target-specific cesses, what has the cess for education delivered to the education system?

How does the focus on enhancing irrigation address the vast stretches where non-rainfall based irrigation is a near impossibility? With the BJP’s support for big irrigation projects, including interlinking rivers, the large allocation may actually be detrimental to the long-term and viable irrigation and cultivation possibilities in many regions. Since a majority of agriculturists, up to 86%, are small and marginal cultivators who cultivate less than two hectares, the budget provides no specific allocation to cater to their needs. There are no clear indications as to how the interest subvention will translate on the ground and if the average farmer can expect to be debt-free with the largesse that the budget promises.

The proposed e-platform for farmers also seems to draw on the idea of information technology as a resolver of problems and it does not specify how the myriad problems of the average and non-commercial cultivator will be addressed through the wonders of information technology. The budget’s focus on infrastructure may not translate into actual benefits for the marginalized majority, and retaining the fertilizer subsidies only reinforces the cash flow towards the corporate sector.

Confining drought mitigation to the recharging of groundwater is myopic and overlooks the intense distress in vast terrains of the country where successive droughts have produced innumerable ecological refugees. Financial allocation is required to restore these regions and their cultivation systems and to enable migrants to return to their home base.

The crop loss insurance with assertions of “nominal premium and maximum compensation” is not an assurance for the vast majority for whom the labyrinthine bureaucracy provides no succour. The budget represents the lack of an alternative imagination for rural India. Instead of primarily infrastructure, the requirement is of new institutions that can bring together the minuscule plots, the possibility of supporting cooperative production and facilitating new producer organizations that can bypass middlemen in the marketing of produce.

The need is for new mechanisms and institutions that can scaffold local seed production. The need is for a new agricultural extension service that can promote sustainable and localized agriculture. These are all issues that need more financial allocations. Despite the rhetoric of enabling the poor farmer, the language of the budget is that of business; increasing incomes, credit, interest, infrastructure, interest subvention, productivity and insurance.

Quite clearly, we know all those whom this will support. That these issues must also be qualified and anchored within a larger structural system that addresses the inequities of resource allocation (land, water and capital), the need to restore the ecological bases of agriculture that now lie in conditions of extreme degradation, the importance of dry agriculture, and the need for a national re-skilling programme that enables youth to be skilled and employed in the rural areas and in the agricultural sector are all overlooked.

Over the past three decades, the average income of the farmer has increased by only 19%, while that of the government employee has by 370% and that of the corporate sector by more than a thousand per cent. These differences and inequities tell us that financial allocation to fit the masses into a mainstream that is distortive, disruptive and destructive of the rural masses is a big lesson that all political parties seem not to know.

Hidden in the rhetoric of being “pro-farmer and pro-poor” are the continued logic of being “pro-investor and pro-business”. That this is so is to be seen in the fact that the finance minister calls for “going beyond food security” and yet food security among those who produce for the nation must be the foundation on which viable policies and allocations should be made.

In suddenly discovering the village and the farmer, the BJP seeks a political mandate at a time when the Bihar election drubbing is fresh in memory and the prospects in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh seem gloomy. So, alas, the bounty may make for a wider political mandate, but the conditions of the average farmer may not see much amelioration.

A.R. Vasavi is a Bengaluru-based social anthropologist.

Why the government’s claim about a farmer-oriented Budget is rather exaggerated
Mohan Guruswamy, Scroll.in
The finance minister is guilty of a chicanery. He announced on Monday that the allocation for agriculture has been raised from Rs 15,809 crore in 2015-’16 to Rs 35,983 crore for 2016-’17 – a huge jump of 127%. The minister has made this possible by transferring subsidy on farm loans from the accounting head of the Department of Financial Services to the Department of Agriculture. He has simply moved money across columns by creating a new label. Very sharp indeed.

Hype and reality
Jayati Ghosh, The Indian Express
While the documents show a significant increase in the ministry of agriculture’s allocation from Rs 22,959 crore to Rs 44,486 crore, a significant chunk of that (Rs 15,000 crore) is because the interest subsidy for loans given to farmers, which was earlier under the ministry of finance, has simply been moved to the ministry of agriculture. If that is subtracted (as it should be) the increase is much less impressive, as the total spending only increases from 0.17 per cent of the GDP to 0.19 per cent — so minor as to have little impact on the actual conditions of farmers.

Watch farmer incomes to see if Narendra Modi is really transforming India
Live Mint
In the budget, finance minister Arun Jaitley reeled off a list of proposals to boost the rural economy. The government plans to build rural roads, expand irrigation, better manage groundwater, promote organic farming, modernize wholesale markets, boost credit and revamp crop insurance. Even so, his administration has given few specifics on how farmer incomes would double. Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh declined to answer multiple questions on the target at a briefing this week.

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