Column: Padyatra, politics and policies

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Updated: May 11, 2015 1:26 AM

Indian farmers need greater irrigation cover, not UPA-style loan waivers.

On April 30, Rahul Gandhi undertook a padyatra of about 15 kms in the Vidarbha region to register his sympathy and concern for farmers. Vidarbha has been reeling under agrarian distress for many years, and has also been an epicentre of farmer suicides. Cotton being one of the primary crops of this region, some activists blame Bt cotton for farmers’ distress. Political analysts described Gandhi’s padyatra as Rahul Gandhi 2.0, his re-entry into the sphere of gravity of Indian politics! But I am more concerned with his policy prescription to tackle this agrarian distress.

Gandhi’s main policy suggestion was that the NDA government should waive-off loans of farmers, as was done by the UPA government in 2008-09.

If loan waiver was a solution, one may ask, why did the agrarian distress keep re-emerging after 2008-09? Obviously, the roots of Vidarbha’s distress, particularly in the cotton belt, run much deeper.

If our political masters are really interested in rooting out agrarian distress, especially in Vidarbha, they need to first understand the underlying causes in a dispassionate manner, without bringing in petty politics. Maharashtra has the largest area under cotton (nearly 4 million hectares), comprising almost a third of the total area under cotton (about 12 million hectares) in the country. The problem is that less than 3% of the area under cotton in Maharashtra is irrigated, compared with 36% at the all-India level, 57% in Gujarat and almost 100% in Haryana and Punjab. As a result of this pitiably low irrigation cover for cotton in Maharashtra, its yield in 2012-13 was only 314 kg/ha (and highly volatile) compared with 603kg in Gujarat and almost 700kg in Haryana and Punjab. And this is the root cause of despair amongst Maharashtra’s cotton farmers.

So, one lesson that needs to be learnt in the case of cotton in Vidarbha is that the government must bring more area under irrigation. This is not rocket science, and most agri-experts know it well that one of the key factors, besides good quality seeds, that helps boost agri-productivity and stabilises production is the provision of assured irrigation. Is Maharashtra not aware of this? Or, does it not accord high priority to irrigation? Let us examine a decade-long story, in the 2000s, when the UPA ruled Maharashtra, and compare it with Gujarat when, in most of those years, Narendra Modi was the chief minister. It would also help us juxtapose the agricultural development model in the two states, under two different political set-ups.

Between 2000-01 to 2010-11, Maharashtra’s cumulative public expenditure on irrigation, at current prices, was R81,206 crore—that amounts to R1,31,076 crore at constant 2014-15 prices. This public expenditure led to an increase of gross irrigated area from 3.9 million hectares in 2000-01 to 4.1 million hectares by the end of the decade—a meager 5.1% improvement. In contrast, Gujarat’s cumulative public expenditure on irrigation over the same period was R39,369 crore at current prices—amounting to R64,799 crore at 2014-15 constant prices. This was almost half (49.4%) of what Maharashtra had spent. But gross irrigated area in Gujarat expanded from 3.3 million hectares in 2000-01 to 5.6 million hectares in 2010-11, an increase of almost 70%. These contrasting results of expenditures on irrigation in the two states and actual irrigation created, tell the true story of the farmers’ distress in Maharashtra, in sharp contrast to their prosperity in Gujarat. Gujarat’s agriculture GDP registered an average annual growth rate of more than 9% during this period. In Maharashtra, it will remain a mystery how so much public expenditure on irrigation simply disappeared, as water disappears in sand, without adding much to the total irrigation cover. The brunt of this is borne by the aggrieved farmers of Maharashtra today. It has nothing to do with the Central government.

So, where do we go from here in terms of the padyatra, its politics and policies? Padyatra is always good to connect to people. It also draws attention of the government of the day. In Indian politics, it has always been a potent tool, be it Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march in 1930 or LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990. The real solution, however, lies in the right policies and their implementation. No one can say that Maharashtra did not get enough money to spend on irrigation. Maharashtra spent a lot, almost double than Gujarat, but how it spent, and where it went, is the real issue that Rahul Gandhi needs to address. If he genuinely wants to help the farmers of Maharashtra, he must dig deeper to get the real facts, and let his party debate on this. By doing so, he would do a great service to the Indian peasantry.

But loan waiver, which Rahul suggests, is myopic and cannot be a sustainable solution to agrarian distress. Investment in irrigation can, provided it is undertaken in a transparent manner with tangible results in terms of substantially increased irrigated area.

The Modi government has realised the critical role of irrigation in agriculture, and accordingly launched the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana. The prime minister often talks about ‘per drop, more crop’. But the allocation to the scheme so far is very small (R5,300 crore). States are spending from their own budgets, but for the country as a whole, investment in water management (including irrigation)remains low. Given the number of pending irrigation projects, spreading the resources so thinly would lead to undue delays. A back-of-the-envelop calculation shows that country will need at least R50,000 crore per annum to be spent in the next five years on irrigation—from major and medium irrigation schemes to drips and sprinklers, to water sheds and check dams—if Indian agriculture has to be made more resilient to emerging climate challenges.

Once farmers get water, they can buy better seeds and fertilisers to give a boost to Indian agriculture. Can the PM and FM make it work? And can Rahul Gandhi undertake another padyatra for ensuring water to our farmers?

The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER.

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