Sitharaman’s 16-point plan for agri may not work if she does not do this

Published: February 7, 2020 4:35:51 AM

Unless the government builds in right incentives for its agriculture action plan, things will not work. As has been the case with e-NAM and banana trains

nirmala Sitharaman, poor nutrition, medical care, Krishi Udan, Kisan rail, PM KUSUM, NABARD, e-NAMThe details on PM KUSUM in solar once out would mark out the incentives.

By Sunil Saroj, Devesh Roy & Mamata Pradhan

One of the great examples that economists give on the power of incentives in Econ 101 class is this: Towards the end of the 18th century, England began sending convicts to Australia. The government-funded transportation was privately provided. A lot of convicts died along the way, from disease, poor nutrition and lack of medical care. Between 1790 and 1792, 12% convicts died. On one ship, 37% perished. Then the government changed the incentives. It decided to pay the captains a bonus for each convict that walked off the boat in Australia alive. In 1793, under the new set of incentives, a single convict died out of 322 transported; an amazing outcome.

Valentine’s Day for agriculture comes two weeks early. February 1 is the day, when irrespective of the political dispensation, agriculture is the arx illud. Budget 2020 was no different with the finance minister announcing a 16-point agenda for agriculture. The oft-repeated discourse on budget is that the devil is in the detail, viz, implementation. We ask a slightly different question:what incentives are being generated in implementation?

Whether it is solar power proposal, ‘Kisan rail’, Krishi Udan or introducing viability gap funding in warehousing, will the implementation systems and protocol generate the right incentives? This would determine if we want to jubilate or do a post-obituary again in a year or two from now, like what has happened to the much hyped e-NAM.

In her marathon budget speech, except twice while asking states to adopt model laws and in reducing chemical fertiliser use, the word incentive was absent. While the plans for the 16-point agenda are ambitious and to an extent earnest, it does not clearly weigh in the core problem of incentives. If warehousing, for example, were to be promoted through viability gap funding, without the right incentives, it would be prone to negative selection where the clever ones would move in to avail of funds and create systems precisely unviable after a short while. As NABARD will map and geotag the warehouses, to foster in the right incentives, it should also bring in a monitoring system and outcomes-linked funding. Else, there would be large gold plating to avail of the funds on the anvil like in case of retention pricing in fertiliser subsidy, where inefficiency would be remunerated.

The details on PM KUSUM in solar once out would mark out the incentives. Often solar power systems have very large subsidy, and this can lead to perverse incentives. From the point of view of incentives, it is not clear what is the deal with barren land clause.

Something similar has happened also in Farmer Producer Organisation, where promotion was conceived around viability gap funding or rather along the paradigm of infant industry protection. Promoters like NABARD would provide seed funds to help FPOs in the beginning. Our research finds stark differences in performance between the FPOs that were promoted vis-à-vis those that evolved organically through farmer collaboration. Incidentally, the budget also underlines the role of FPOs as the vehicle for improving farm outcomes and allocated Rs 500 crore. It proposes to form 500 fish FPOs. Notwithstanding the discourse around FPOs for creating opportunities for small and marginal farmers, the subpar performance in terms of outcomes and life span is partly reflected in being a function of negative selection at different levels. Most FPOs have not delivered in terms of product differentiation that can create value and give market power to farmers, increase farmer’s share in value and reduce risks. With no accountability in place for the FPOs to perform, closure or sub-optimal farmer outcomes have become the norm. This is an ailment even in the much-hyped “Clean India campaign”. With no fines levied, the propensity for Indians not to behave duly in the civic space remain as ever.

Targeting markets by way of “Kisan rail”’ or ‘Krishi udan’ is indeed a welcome recognition that the central problem in agriculture is that we have not got the markets right. Yet, for markets to work and getting the incentives right it would need the backend to work as well. How would consumer trust food coming from miles away and pay for it unless they are sure that it has been produced properly without risks to health and wellness? The incentives are misaligned without a credible system of grading and certification. Similarly, what systems will be in place such that the transporters do the due diligence. Estimates show that a 1-degree higher temperature in cold chains can bring in substantial saving in energy costs. All the incentive exists to tinker with temperature and save on costs. “Kisan rail” as a concept is not new. Earlier, banana train was started from Jalgaon (Maharashtra) to different mandis (Azadpur Mandi of Delhi). The horticulture train had to be suspended in 2016. The agents responsible for handling the loading of bananas did not have the right incentive to load bananas promptly and save them from damage. This spoiled consignment and did not lead to better price discovery. Similarly, e-NAM had limited uptake from buyers and sellers as the platform that it stands on has no built-in incentive to create and distribute value. It lacks in scientific sorting/grading facilities including quality testing machines that lead to product differentiation and bring in trust and willingness to pay. Et tu incentives.

Saroj and Roy are with IFPRI; Mamata Pradhan is with Tata Cornell Institute, Cornell University. Views are personal

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