Slogans are pet tools of politicians to attract the attention of the masses. They also reveal the intentions of political masters of the day, as to which direction they want the country to move. But unless they are backed by appropriate strategies and perseverance, they often fizzle out, without much delivery, and remain only ‘show-biz’.
The late prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, gave the slogan of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ in the mid-1960s, highlighting the importance of the armed forces securing our borders and the farmers ensuring our food security. After all, armies also can’t march on empty stomachs. Even today, that slogan resonates and inspires.
Another illustrious prime minister, Indira Gandhi, raised her famous slogan, ‘Garibi Hatao’, for the first time in the early 1970s. She took several socialist steps to eliminate poverty, including the take-over of wholesale trade in wheat and rice, only to be given up after a major fiasco on that front. Has garibi (poverty) vanished from India after all these years? The UPA-II, in its last leg, was still counting whether the poor constituted 21% or 30% or 67% of the population, whom they wanted to give highly-subsidised food through National Food Security Act of 2013, etc.
But no political masters of the past can match present prime minister Narendra Modi in coining new slogans that catch the imagination of the masses. Who won’t, even begrudgingly, accept that slogans like ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’, ‘Swachh Bharat’, ‘Make-in-India’, ‘Per drop, more crop’, JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) and others ring powerfully among the people? Each one is well-intentioned, with a lot of show-biz accompanying. The lion of Make-in-India is now prominent in every bid to woo investors. But, in a number of recent meetings I had with several of India’s top investors, one question most investors had was: Slogans are fine, but where is the commensurate strategy to turn it into reality? That is worrying.
Let me dig a little deeper into at least one slogan that I think can be the most fruitful for this country, and if implemented through a solid strategy, can give rich dividends, politically and economically. And that is ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’. It was meant to work across the spectrum of political parties, states, socio-economic and religious groups, for the development of all. Where is the strategy to make it a reality? I am not an expert to comment on how to get ‘sab ka saath’ across political parties, to get work done in the Rajya Sabha, for example; or how to promote religious harmony and tolerance, although I feel that India, in general, is quite tolerant and various communities want to live in peace and harmony.
But I am definitely concerned with ‘sab ka vikas’, and it is here that I feel the strategy of the government machinery is getting increasingly skewed in favour of those who are already better-off in this country. We hear a lot about FDI, Make-in-India, Smart Cities, bullet trains and so on, which are going to benefit basically the middle- and upper-middle-class of the country. But we don’t hear, in the same pitch and frequency, what the government is doing to tackle the deepening rural distress, of increasing water scarcity in rural areas, including drinking water, and so on.
Why do we keep boasting about our overall growth rate of 7-8%, while our agriculture growth was just 0.2% in FY15 and is not likely to improve much even in FY16? The chances are that it may be negative. We are concerned about this because almost half the workforce of India and about 60% of its population is dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly. If its growth is less than even the population growth, it should be a matter of serious concern, if not shame, for our public-policy drivers and their slogans. The danger signals are clear: During November 2014-October 2015, tractor sales have collapsed by 23% over the corresponding period of the previous year; fertiliser consumption, which was 141 kg/ha in FY11, has come down to 130 kg/ha in FY15, and so on. This sagging demand from rural segment does not augur well for the industry. The lion of Make-in-India cannot run unless the masses in rural areas have purchasing power to demand industrial products. Investors are increasingly asking, “When will the rural economy revive?” The short answer is: There are no indications that it can revive in the next one year. But yes, thereafter, it can, provided the government policy towards agriculture is pro-active and taken up on high priority.
What are the two or three big ticket items that the prime minister can do in agri/food space to ensure ‘sabka vikas’?
First, he needs to resurrect the crop insurance system urgently, with sums insured at say Rs 40,000/ha, covering at least 100 million hectares, with premiums down to less than 3% (Rs 1,200/ha), half of which can be paid by the Centre, 25% by the states and remaining by the farmers. Assessment of crop damages to be done through hi-tech automatic weather stations (AWS), drones, low-earth-orbits (LEOs), and satellites within, say, a maximum of two weeks. Digitise all farm plots, lock them with the owner/tenant accounts, with Aadhaar and phone number linkage, and transfer the compensation directly to their accounts without even their asking for it. This will help stabilise farm incomes, and also give a floor to our industry for their demand of industrial goods.
Next, the PM needs to turn to direct benefit transfer (DBT) of food and fertiliser subsidies, a major recommendation of Shanta Kumar Panel. These subsidies exceed R2.5 lakh crore today (including unpaid bills). Converting them to DBT will help plug massive leakages, reach the poorest, and still save the government at least R40,000 crore per annum, which can be put in augmenting and better management of water resources in agriculture, which in turn will help in drought proofing the agri-sector.
Unless these big ticket reforms are put in place, realising the prime minister’s slogan of ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ may remain a distant dream.
The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture, Icrier