Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had some good news to break on his first day in office on Monday. He said his ministry would pull off the Congress’ promise of cheaper rice or wheat for the poor. He also said that he was not in a hurry to lift the ongoing ban on export of rice and wheat.
“We will have a scheme to provide wheat or rice of a particular variety at a particular price. Stock positions show that availability is there. We will be able to fulfill the promise,” Pawar said.
The Congress manifesto had promised 25 kg of rice or wheat at a hugely subsidised price of Rs 3 for people living below the poverty line.
According to the World Bank’s ‘Global Economic Prospects for 2009’, India is now only slightly ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa among developing countries in terms of the percentage of population below the poverty line.
By 2015 a quarter of India’s billion people will be living in extreme poverty or earn less than Rs 100 a day.
Implementing the cheap food scheme could be a task that Pawar will take up first. The agriculture ministry is sitting on huge mountains of grain. The UPA government procured record wheat and rice: 233 lakh tonnes of wheat and 291 lakh tonnes of rice till mid-May this year.
The discounted food scheme will benefit an expected 400 million people. However, none of this is to say that India’s agrarian crisis has eased.
Cheaper food is as important as cheaper loans for suicide-prone farmers, who take private loans at usurious rates.
Pawar has chalked out his priorities.
The government would try to bring down farm credit interest further from the present 7 per cent, which was brought down from 10 per cent by the first UPA government. “Credit available to farmers outside (other countries) is cheaper. There is scope to lower this,” Pawar told reporters.
He would also focus on diary development and major milk schemes could be on the anvil. Pulses, oilseeds, dairy and fishery are areas that need attention. Pawar said farmers tend to neglect pulses as it is a long-term crop and pays less. “Faster-growing pulses have been developed and we will introduce them,” he said.