65% of the population is totally dependent on agriculture... unless we improve their purchasing power, the economy will not prosper

Updated: Nov 15 2005, 05:48am hrs
He doesnt need to be chief minister of Maharashtra to rule the state, he was a reformist before reforms became politically fashionable, he rebelled on foreign origins, but is now at home with Sonia Gandhis Congress. Sharad Pawar, agriculture minister and a passionate advocate of modern farming, in conversation with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief, Shekhar Gupta, on NDTV 24X7s Walk The Talk programme. Excerpts:

Welcome to Walk The Talk, Maratha strongman, agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar....

Its a good thing you came here. People should know what is happening in rural India.

But what we hear in current discourse about rural India right now is all distressthat everything is finished, the farmer is finished, rural India is finished.

It is true that the Indian farmer is facing a serious crisis. But, simultaneously, we must not forget that the Indian farmer has practically succeeded in resolving the problem of countrys food security. I remember about 20 years ago we were importing foodgrains. Today, irrespective of population, we are able to resolve the basic problem of food and 100% credit goes to the Indian farmer.

In fact, in the 60s, my schooling years, right up to 1971, I remember standing in the cues to buy that awful Mexican wheat...It was humiliating, wasnt it

Exactly. I remember in 72, I had joined the state government for the first time and my job, along with the home ministry, was food and civil supplies. When I took charge and checked the availability of foodgrains, nothing was available. I asked my secretary, how are we going to resolve this problem He said, everyday we have to wait for ships from Australia. Most of my time used to be spent going to the Bombay Port to see whether the supplies were being unloaded.

There used to be newspaper headlines: One more ship coming in.

Thats right. That was the situation in 72-73. And in those days the population of the country was 60-65 crore. Today we have crossed 100 crore.

While the farmer may have solved the food security problem, has the farmer solved his own problems That is the criticismthat agriculture has been ignored, that the farmers living standard has gone down.

It is 100% correct. The farming community has been ignored in this country and especially so over the last eight to 10 years. The total investment in the agriculture sector is going down. Public and private investment in the sector over the last few years, at least the last two Plans, has been in a very serious situation. You will be surprisedin the budgetary provision, not more than 2% has been allocated for agriculture, where more than 65% of the population works.

Again, the most important thing for agriculture is irrigation. In the last few years, the average budgetary provision from the Indian government for irrigation is less than 0.35%not even half a per cent money has been provided for water.

Is the quality of life of the farmer improving or has it gone down

That depends from area to area. In states where water is not a problem, there is definitely a substantial improvement. In states and districts where water availability depends on the uncertainty of the monsoon, the situation is very bad. In the country as a whole, only 40% of the area is under irrigationthere is no problem there. But for the 60% that depends totally on the erratic monsoon, it is pathetic.

So, what are you doing about it

Our total efforts are to see substantial investment in agriculture, from both private and public sectors, and also substantial budgetary provision for irrigationwhether its construction of dams, or completion of irrigation projects or providing micro-irrigation, or to create an atmosphere where the farmer can learn to use water very carefully.

One reason many of these ideas have not worked is that there is simply no reform in agricultural economics. I know that you have sometimes talked about allowing market forces to operate in the farming business; Sharad Joshi, the Shetkari Sangathan leader, keeps writing about it....

You see, the process of reform started in this country since 90-91, but the agriculture sector was not given priority. I was in China recentlyin China, they started their reforms through agriculture and then shifted to industry, banking and other sectors. Here, we totally neglected agriculture and started with industry instead.

But is it because we were afraid of reforming agriculturewe thought it was a political hot potato, so leave it asidejust throw subsidies at the farmer

Subsidies are also not sufficiently provided. Some concessions were given here and there, they were not at all sufficient. Farmers, in fact, dont want subsidies. The farmer today wants basic infrastructure. If anybody is ready to provide him assured water, good quality seeds, infrastructure for the processing industry, effective marketing facilities, I dont think the farmer wants anything more than that. Unfortunately, we have neglected all these. Take the case of marketing. For a number of years, the entire market was totally controlled by the Agricultural Produce Market Actsuppose I produce grapes or guavas, I cannot sell my produce to any market or processing unit unless there is a clearance from the Agricultural Produce Market Committee.

My market is being limited.

Exactly. Secondly, these markets are practically managed by elected bodies and, unfortunately, there is a deterioration. The cost for the disposal of my produce is somewhere near to 17%its too high.

Thats why, when you drive in any part of the country, you see crops rotting by the roadside. You see tomatoes in Tamil Nadu, you find potatoes in UP. Yet prices go uplike with onions, as a recent example.

The total harvesting losses in this country are somewhere near 30%. Thirty per cent means around Rs 55,000 to 65,000 crore a year is wasted because there is no infrastructure.

Thats almost the same as Indias defence budget.

Exactly. We are wasting 30% of the gross income of the farming community and of the country.

So are you doing something to fix it

Thats why the governments total approach now is how to reduce these losseswe have started mainly with reforms in the APMC Act. Not only that, we are now trying to encourage the private sector and the cooperative sector to set up a big number of agro-processing units, along with their entire chaincold storage, effective packaging and the rest.

When do you see the APMC Act being abolished You see that as key to freeing the farmers market.

My own assessment is it will take six months, maximum. Six states have already amended it; another eight will be able to complete procedures by January 2006. We are also encouraging state governments to set up new, modern markets, but there is a proviso. Unless and until you are ready to amend the Markets Act and allow the private sector to enter this area, there will not be any financial support from the government of India to the state.

How many states do you find have been more progressive in accepting this idea Apart from Maharashtra, of course.

Fortunately, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka, Andhra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Keralathese other states have taken a lot of initiative. And these are very important states from the agricultural production angle.

So, you welcome ideas like e-chaupals, for example, like what ITC is doing in Andhra

Certainly. Not only that, nowadays a state like West Bengal is also taking a lot of interest in agro-marketing. Its government is in continuous discussions with us; they are asking for support from the government of India because they would like to dispose of their produce outside India. Recently, potatoes and mangoes were exported from West Bengal to South-east Asia and there was a good response.

Do you find that the West Bengal government, or the Left, in general, is more open to the idea of reforms in agriculture than reforms elsewhere

Except land holdings. Otherwise they are quite open for reforms in all other areas. Generally, the West Bengal government is quite open to reformwhen the reforms are executed in West Bengal.

But your own fundamental views are not aligned with the Left thinkingyou are a free marketer.

I believe, basically, that the world is changing very fast and unless we open our economy in all areas, we will not be able resolve the basic problem of the poverty of this country.

This is a question Ive asked you informally once before, and I hope your answer is as honest as it was then. If this was not a compromise arrangement today, if you were the Prime Minister of a government with majority, what are the three things you would do as a priorityin line with what you are saying about opening up our economy to compete with the world

You see, the country has to give topmost priority to agriculture, because 65% of the population is totally dependent on agriculture. Unless we improve the purchasing power of this 65%, industry and trade will not prosper. So thats one.

The second area where tremendous weightage has to be given is providing infrastructure in all sectorswhether industry or roads or irrigation or power or civil aviation. The third, that is most important, is to also concentrate in a big way on improving human resourcesthe quality of education at all levels.

If I may remind you, you also said that there were two more things you would do. One, you said you would privatise the public sectorif you had a full majorityand, second, you said you would wind up many government departments, starting with the PWD.

In fact, there is tremendous scope for that. In the British days, there was no infrastructurethats why the government set up many depar-tments, which are not required today because our country now has its own entrepreneurs. In those days, entrepreneurs were not available, technocrats were not availablethat is not the case today.

Look at the controversy over power and water reforms in Delhi, which, as you know, is one of the richest regions in India. If Delhi cant afford reforms, who can

There the government has to take a very strong decision. Unfortunately, the opposition is taking a very negative approach here. I dont blame only the BJPI blame everybody. Those who are not in power always take an anti-reform position. I remember when Ashok Gehlot was chief minister and he started introducing reforms in the power sector, the BJP opposed it. When Rajnath Singh or Chandrababu started power reforms, the Congress opposed it.

And now the Congress is carrying it forward the same way

They should. There has to be an understanding between all major political parties on certain important issues, like reformsforget about who is in power. The good old days are gone when a single party would run the state. Today, people will select according to their own liking. They are giving the opportunity to most political parties to rule. Thats why there has to be an understanding, at least on certain major political issues.

How do you find the Congress partys conduct It is their first experience in a coalition. And you are dealing with them in coalition situation in two placesat the Centre and in the state.

Day by day, the Congress partys thinking is also changing. The Congress party has ruled this country for so many years, so initially it was very difficult for any Congressman to digest even associating with other political parties. But the ground reality is now something different. Because of that, the process of accommodating other forces has been started. And the Congress party has selected an excellent person as Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who is keeping an excellent relationship with all other parties.

I sometimes think, and tell me if you disagree, that his major issues are not so much with the allies, but with the Congress party itself. It looks as if the Congress doesnt back him adequately. Ill give you an example. When the Left criticised him over this latest agreement with the US, it personally attacked him, it almost called him unpatriotic. Nobody from the Congress stood up in his defence....

That is a most unfortunate thing. But what Dr Manmohan Singh has done is definitely in the interests of the country. Whatever his efforts are today to develop relations with the US, I think he is going on an absolutely correct line.

Do you think it is unfortunate that he was attacked for it

It is unfortunate that people have not understood him. For years together, we took an anti-US stand. But, you see, those days are completely gone. Its alrightonce upon a time we were very close to Soviet Russia, but that Soviet Russia doesnt exist today. We have to protect our own interests. Without association with the US, I dont think we will be able to resolve many of our issues.

And today you see no great contradiction between the US interests and ours

And even Russian interests. And Chinese interests. Look at the way these Left countries are acting todaythey are taking corrective measures and are getting their benefits. Why should we unnecessarily behave the way we do I dont believe in this hypocrisy.

So, how do you look at this new front, which has come up to oppose this foreign policy Its led by the Left, which is your ally from outside, but it also includes many of your allies.

That is true, but I dont think that many of our allies really support that approach. Our Left friends are consistent with their lineI dont blame them. But, simultaneously, what they are insisting on today is away from reality. Here, it is the responsibility of all other political parties associated with the governmentand there might even be some in the oppositionto support Dr Manmohan Singh in these areas.

The latest demand actually foxes me. It says there should be a vote in Parliament on how India should vote at the IAEA on Iran. Can you run foreign policy like that

Impossible. I can understand interaction, I can understand discussion, I can understand taking into confidencebut, ultimately, the government has to act according to its own wisdom.

Have you tried to reason with them

No. We are in constant discussions with our other friends, and privately they are inclined to accept Dr Singhs thinking. But the Left definitely has different views.

But now the Samajwadi Party has joined them; they are going to hold rallies to oppose this foreign policyIndias foreign policy was never so controversial.

Basically, foreign policy and defence policythese are not parties policies, these are essentially the countrys policies. Our past practice has always been to hold discussions among ourselves, irrespective of the party in power, and we take action. I have never seen a political party organise rallies against a defence deal. If there is a misuse of authority, that is a different issue; I have no objection. But if action is taken to protect the countrys interests, I dont think we should..

Would you advise the Left now to pipe down Because the impression is building up that yours is a government under siegethat the moment it opens its mouth, it gets a bloody nose.

Yes, but that is not the case in every aspect. There are certain areas on which they have certain views. They are supporting us. They are also responsible for stabilityone has to accept that. They have to put forth their own views, but they dont cross the limit. That is the experience of the last one-and-a-half years. A lot of people say that the Left is going to destabilise this government. My personal observation is that the Left is the last force that would try to destabilise the government.

I believe that the only party which can bring down this government is the Congress. (Pawar smiles). So, do you see this government lasting its full term

Yes, I am confident that the government, under Manmohan Singhs leadership, will be able to complete its entire tenure.

Give me your assessment of Manmohan Singh. He was never a full-time politiciandoes he know the art of political management The Prime Ministers office is a purely political office in India.

That is true. Basically, he is an honest man. Secondly, he understands the countrys problems. He understands global thinking, which is very important. His total desire is to see the countrys economy strengthened. For that, he is ready to work hard and is ready to take a cross-section into confidence. If he has limited knowledge on a subject, he has no hesitation to discuss it with you.

We are changing venues nowfrom your home and your farm, to this marvellous institution youve built in Baramati, the Vidya Pratishthan. I believe its taken you 12 years

No, in fact, its been a total of 30 years, but this particular campus has come up in the last 10-12 years....

I believe you are taking World Bank-funded buses, with computers inside them, to the villages.

That is basically because the children from the zila parishad schools dont get an opportunity to study modern technology. We have installed computers in these vehicles and they are acting as a laboratorythey go from school to school, in tribal areas, in a number of areas.

And I believe you are funding this mainly by charging farmers a very small cess on the sugarcane and milk that the cooperatives buy.

Well, initially, we had to raise money for capital investment. We raised that from the farming community. For instance, we collect about a million litres of milk a day from the cooperative societies. We ask for about two paisa per litrethey get about Rs 9 per litre. So, suppose they give about two paisa over one million litres of milk for 365 days, the money we collect is in crores.

So, in a way, the farmers finance it themselves.

Yes, the local people finance it. And also, some companies like Bajaj Auto, they are supporting it.

Why dont you bring some leaders from the Hindi heartland and show them this

(Smiles) Lalu Prasadji visited once; so did many of my parliamentary colleagues. Our efforts are to have this type of model replicated in all the constituencies. If that were possible, the countrys face will change in no time.