A farmer spraying pesticides on wheat crop near Ramgarh village on Dakala road in Patiala on Sunday. (Bharat Bhushan/HT photo)
No big bets. Given that the political environment is risky, no blockbuster reforms either. Yet, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has delivered one of India's most farm-friendly budgets in decades.
While many would argue for a budget that looks at agriculture as a source of growth, not votes, Budget 2012-13 still primarily focusses on food self-sufficiency. And coming as it does in the wake of some of the worst bouts of food inflation, it stresses on taming prices by addressing supply-side constraints.
As was widely expected, Mukherjee announced full budgetary support for the National Food Security Bill, the flagship social security legislation of the current government.
"The government has decided that from 2012-13, subsidies related to food and those meant for administering the Food Security Act, will be fully provided for," he said, presenting his annual budget for the fifth time as part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
With India spending more than it earned during 2011-12, the finance minister spoke on keeping all its subsidies under 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or total national income, to meet fiscal targets. So, despite little financial legroom, he has managed to spare big bucks for the farm sector (see related stories).
"I could not have asked for anything more. All my needs are taken care of," agriculture secretary PK Basu told HT on Friday.
Removing supply-side constraints - a major cause of food inflation - is among the five focus areas that Mukherjee outlined in his speech.
Steps likely to follow include importing food in small amounts during occasional shortages to keep supplies up, taking perishables out of government regulation, avoiding multiple taxation of food items and increasing inter-state trade.
Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand, which would have been the biggest farm-sector reform, is still stalled amid political opposition.
"Agriculture will continue to be a priority for the government," Mukherjee said.
Total funds for the department of agriculture have gone up to Rs. 20,208 crore in 2012-13 from Rs. 17,123 crore last year, up 18%.
As it takes farmers to grow food, but scientists to show them how, the new budget has set aside Rs. 200 crore for boosting research in the field of agricultural technology.
Kisan credit cards for farmers are being upgraded to smart cards that can be used in ATMs.
However, despite all the positive factors, the big miss continues to be big-ticket reforms, which alone can deliver high farm growth.
The country's contrast with China is stark, which began with reforms in agriculture, not industry.
India freed industry first, but remains cagey about opening up its farm sector. Without reforms, agriculture cannot do anything more than just feed the nation.