The Economic Survey 2008-2009 emphasized the need for accelerated agricultural progress, considering that growth in agriculture declined to 1.6 per cent during 2008-09.
According to the Survey, the following are some of the areas needing urgent attention: stagnation in productivity, shrinking farm size, lack of growth in the production of pulses and
oilseeds necessitating large imports, inadequate market infrastructure including warehousing and cold storage, and erosion of the foundations of sustainable agriculture such as soil and gene erosion, water logging, drop in groundwater table and decline in surface irrigation.
Compounding these is the likely adverse impact of global warming and climate change leading to more frequent droughts, floods, and sea level rise.
Also, since most of the new employment is coming from the unorganized sector, the Survey has reinforced the suggestion of the National Commission of Farmers that we should pay greater attention to rural non-farm enterprises. The Economic Survey also points out that malnutrition has remained stubbornly high and is currently affecting 45.9 per cent children below the age of three.
Some of these issues have been addressed by Pranab Mukherjee in his budget. He has rightly called for a minimum growth rate of 4 per cent in agriculture including animal husbandry and fisheries. Some of the additional measures proposed by him include increasing agricultural credit flow for the year 2009-10 to Rs 3,25,000 crore, the payment of an additional subvention of 1 per cent to farmers who repay their short term loans on schedule, and special attention to farmers who had taken loans from private money lenders and who have not been covered by the earlier loan waiver scheme.
The Finance Minister has proposed a nutrient based subsidy regime for fertiliser instead of the current product pricing regime. He has suggested that we should move to a system of direct transfer of subsidy to the farmers. This will help in promoting balanced fertilisation and thereby improve soil health and factor productivity.
It is proposed to step up the implementation of irrigation projects and assistance has been offered to exporters of agriculture produce and to the textile industry. The National Rural Employment Scheme (NREGS) will be further strengthened. NREGS could be the world’s largest programme for strengthening the ecological foundations of sustainable agriculture. This will need investing prestige to the workers and rewarding outstanding groups engaged in water harvesting and watershed development with awards. An allocation of Rs 39,100 crore has been provided in the budget for the scheme. The Finance Minister also announced the government’s decision to introduce a National Food Security Act (NFSA). Along with the NREGS, NFSA will help address the problem of persistence of hunger on a wide scale in the country.
Finally, the Finance Minister assured adequate support to the National Action Plan on Climate Change comprising eight national missions. One of them relates to sustainable agriculture. This will involve concurrent attention to conservation farming and green agriculture involving eco-technologies.
Climate change is likely to be a mega catastrophe leading to serious damage to both agriculture and fisheries as well as to the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities. I wish therefore that specific allocations could have been indicated on methods of minimizing the impact of climate change on agriculture and food security.
An allocation of Rs 500 crore has been announced for helping the Tamil population of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Agricultural renewal is the pathway to livelihood rehabilitation in this area.
On the whole, the Finance Minister deserves praise for dealing with a wide range of issues of importance to achieving the triple goals of inclusive growth, equitable distribution of benefits and a new deal for the youth of the country (below 35 years) who constitute 70 per cent of our population.
Converting outlays into outcome is the responsibility of various Union Ministries and State Governments and this often tends to be our greatest weakness.
(The columnist is father of India’s Green Revolution)