Intellectual Thoughts by Sanjay Panda !!!!!: Agricultural reform


Sunday, December 31, 2006

Agricultural reform

When the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) mooted the idea of putting agriculture on the Concurrent list of the Constitution so as to bring it under the direct control of the Centre, nobody expected the states to readily agree to this radical suggestion and that’s what happended during the meeting of state agriculture ministers who met in New Delhi last week to discuss the recommendations of the NCF. No party in power would want to give up control over policies and programmes that could influence the vast rural vote bank. But that does not mean that there is no merit in NCF’s proposal, which was aimed primarily at addressing the issue of multiplicity and dissimilarities in taxes and levies, marketing laws and curbs on goods movement in different states.

The present scenario is far from conducive for creating a single all-India market for agricultural produce, which is what has been suggested by the NCF in one of its preliminary reports. While getting agriculture onto the Concurrent list will not happen in the foreseeable future, it is good that the states have endorsed most of the other recommendations of the NCF which included, significantly, the point that a distinction should be made between minimum support prices (MSP) and the procurement prices at which the government buys grain for its buffer stocking operations and for feeding the public distribution system. This means that market intervention at the MSP should be only to prevent distress sales by farmers, while grain procurement for the public distribution system and the various welfare schemes (like food-for-work) should be on commercial terms. Had such an approach been adopted in the last rabi marketing season, wheat procurement would not have been so low as to necessitate 5.5 million tonnes of imports by the government, at heavy cost to the exchequer.

Equally noteworthy is the NCF’s recommendations regarding the conservation of soil and water resources, and its opposition to the allotment of prime agricultural land for the creation of special economic zones and other non-agricultural purposes. Any perceptible shrinkage of farm land would not be advisable, especially at a time when the overall farm productivity has tended to stagnate, for it would gravely impact growth in the agricultural sector. In fact, what is needed is reversal of the process of land degradation through a massive programme for the reclamation of degraded lands so as to bring them under crop cultivation or, else, under productive plantation or forest cover. The objective of most NCF recommendations is to improve livelihood and income opportunities for farmers so as to prevent them from falling into a debt trap, leading to extreme cases like suicides. The need for moving in this direction is borne out by the National Sample Survey finding that over 40 per cent of farmers want to give up farming because it does not yield an adequate income. The NCF has suggested creation of income-generating opportunities in villages through activities allied to agriculture, besides in the non-farm sector. Now that the formulation of a national policy for farmers has begun, on the basis of the recommendations of the NCF and the views of state governments, these issues should be kept in focus and emphasis must be laid on the farmers income & livelihood rather than the cheap vote bank politics which politicians are exploiting for last several decades.

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