Agriculture Is The Cinderella Of NDA Regime

Updated: Mar 16 2003, 05:30am hrs
It seems that I am one of the few who remember, and continue to write about, finance minister Jaswant Singhs Budget for 2003-04. Cricket and the impending war seem to have buried the Budget fathoms deep, and I have a suspicion that the BJP-led government is not too displeased about that.

We always thought that Jaswant was minor royalty, a soldier and an author (of some books with variable but always modest royalty income). Now we know that he was a farmer as well, who actually ploughed the fields and drew water from wells. This confession was intended to disarm his critics who had, justifiably, taken exception to the short shrift given to agriculture. Agriculture continues to be the Cinderella under the NDA government. No government has made taller promises on agriculture and no government has been more guilty of failure to honour those promises.

Let me go back to the promises made last year (by Yashwant Sinha). While some promises have indeed been kept, there are many still on the backburner. For example:

* It was promised that the Agriculture Produce Marketing Acts will be amended to enable farmers to sell directly to processors. The final decision was to leave the matter to the states.

* It was promised that Control Orders that act as barriers to inter-state trade will be removed. Restrictions on the movement of pulses, gur, vanaspati, wheat and paddy still remain.

* It was promised that additional allocations in respect of the Centrally-sponsored schemes would be linked to decontrol and deregulation of the agricultural sector by the states. No scheme has been notified so far, and no additional allocations have been made.

* It was promised that Krishi Vigyan Kendras will be designated as nodal agencies for quality certification, including organic products, bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides. Since standard inspection procedures have not yet been developed, these kendras have not begun the work of organic certification.

* It was promised that the Jai Prakash Rozgar Guarantee Yojana would be launched to provide employment guarantee to the unemployed in the most distressed districts. The yojana is still being examined in the Yojana Bhavan.

* It was promised that a more durable approach for better management of the food economy will be formulated. The report of the committee on long-term grain policy is still under examination.

Nothing exposes the anti-agriculture bias of the Centre (not the present one alone) more than the repeated failure to spend the amounts outlaid for the agriculture and allied sector. In BE 2002-03, the outlay was Rs 3,733 crore. By the end of this March, only Rs 3,219 crore will be spent. This represents a shortfall of 14 per cent. Of the outlay, Rs 443 crore was set apart for irrigation and flood control. Even here, only Rs 381 crore was spent, and this too represents a shortfall of 14 per cent. Why does the government fail year after year in spending the money set apart for the agriculture sector and, particularly, for crucial areas like irrigation and flood control

The reasons are not far to seek. The devil is in the detail. While funds are promised, no one has worked out the details of the projects where the money is needed and where it can be actually spent during the fiscal year. When it comes to the states which have to actually implement the schemes the quality of governance is so poor that the schemes simply run over from year to year without being completed and without yielding results. The accelerated irrigation benefit programme (AIBP) was conceived during 1996-97 in order to complete the unfinished irrigation projects. It offered funds for the last mile. The NDA government carved out a sub-sector called fast track projects. If states were really committed to an accelerated programme or to the fast track, AIBP should have by now served its purpose. The fact that it is being continued for the seventh year speaks volumes about the lack of commitment of the Centre and the states to irrigation and agriculture.

Mercifully, Jaswant has not made many new promises in the Budget 2003-04. He spoke of the need for a second revolution to follow the earlier Green Revolution. The rhetoric is high, but there is no concrete plan. For example, what does a Rs 50-crore scheme for Hi-tech horticulture and precision farming mean to the millions of small (and subsistence) farmers Likewise, the conversion of a Rs 1 per kg excise duty on tea into a cess will mean no more than Rs 80-crore fund for the tea plantation sector. Perhaps, Jaswant has not yet been able to reflect deeply on the problems facing the agriculture sector. And this is perhaps why he has decided to set up an expert advisory council to advise the finance ministry.

2002-03 has been a bad year for agriculture. The sector is estimated to have registered a negative growth of 3.1 per cent. According to the Prime Minister, the year also witnessed the worst drought in 15 years. The most unkindest cut was to raise the prices of fertilizers in a time of distress. Even if the decision was right, it was the wrong time. I was, therefore, not surprised that Jaswant rolled back the increase and confessed, to our delight, that he was a farmer.

I look forward to the day when the farmer-finance minister will deliver on the two promises he has made. One, that private banks will be encouraged to open rural branches and, two, that post offices will be used to deliver agricultural credit (besides our letters)! In Jaswants Budget, unintended humour has taken the place of Urdu couplets (which Manmohan Singh used to quote) and verses from the Tirukkural which I was fond of.