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If the finance minister’s budget speech next week reflects an intent to tackle the agrarian crisis in the country, it will be a speech worth remembering, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:37 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Money makes news. When it is found, promiscuously. And when it is lost, presumptively. And when it is found to lie hidden. Also when it stands brazenly, as in election candidatures. Does hunger, to satisfy which money, income, wages — the power to purchase food — are needed, make news? Does the crisis in our agriculture make news?

When Amartya Sen speaks of hunger and malnutrition, when MS Swaminathan does so at an agriculture convention, or when P Sainath writes about those subjects, the media clears space in the way traffic edges sideways to let a screaming ambulance pass.

But, by and large, the ‘national shame’ of hunger as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described it, does not make it to the front pages. Starvation deaths in Orissa’s Kalahandi, are now history, news wise. Farmers’ suicides are taken as a continuing tragedy. Breaking News desks are for trauma, not tragedies. One suicide every 35th minute (based on 2009 tallies) is not traumatic enough, not any longer.

How would Jawaharlal Nehru have reacted if he were to have been told that six-and-a-half decades after he became PM, a global mapping of hunger levels would place India at rank 67, below Sri Lanka (39), Pakistan (52) and even Nepal (56)? Using an expression he often employed — vaahiyaat (nonsensical, scurrilous) — Nehru might well have exploded: kyaa vaahiyaat baat hai!

But there it is. In the new global hunger index by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, that is precisely where we are. In deep hunger. We have to accept the message of this finding even if we debate its calibrated precision. Close on the heels of this comes the report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation that says as of 2010, 28% of the world’s under-nourished lived in India.

So, did our planners go wrong ? A few ‘firsts’ help piece the sequence. Our first finance minister RK Shanmukham Chetty, in the first budget speech in 1947-48, said: “The various steps necessary for making the country self-sufficient in foodgrains must now claim the highest priority.”

The years between Independence and the first Lok Sabha election in 1952 saw the Planning Commission come into being and a scheme launched during World War II, ‘Grow More Food Campaign’, continued. But it was food anxiety not food, that grew.

In the budget speech for India’s first elected Parliament (1952-53), finance minister CD Deshmukh admitted as much, but obliquely: “… in the case of foodgrains, the additional production from the ‘Grow More Food’ schemes was more than offset by the fall in production in large areas of the country affected by drought”.

PM Nehru having gone on record saying ‘everything can wait, but not agriculture’, the ministry of agriculture and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) did not wait. With the dynamic MS Randhawa at the ICAR and the peasant leader Panjabrao Deshmukh as agriculture minister, a momentum was attained. But before its results could be felt, Nehru was gone. Finance minister TT Krishnamachari in his first post-Nehru budget speech (for 1965-1966) assured the country: “We shall… take care that… the farmer… will have a continuing incentive for producing more…”

From mid-1960s to mid-1970s, it was given to three Tamils, minister C Subramaniam, secretary B Sivaraman and ICAR (a 1929 Raj creation) director general MS Swaminathan to pioneer the green revolution comprising three leveragings — high yielding seeds, intensified use of chemical fertilisers and increased acreage through double cropping and intensified irrigation through deep bore wells.

Can agriculture be leveraged unmindful of nature’s grammar and the prose of land-labour dynamics? PM Indira Gandhi sensed the crisis for she inducted the former agriculture minister C Subramaniam as her finance minister during the Emergency. His first budget speech (1975-76) admitted to a ‘sluggishness’ in the farm front which he as agriculture minister had done so much to rejuvenate. Subramaniam placed a new focus on farm production. The continued sluggishness of agriculture since 1971-72 has contributed to the distortions which have emerged in our economy in the last two or three years.

But the resolves of the past have played their role. With 100 ICAR institutes and 50 agricultural universities, we have increased the production of foodgrains by four times, horticultural crops six times and fish by nine times since 1950-51. And yet we are among the world’s hungriest and see a farmer suicide every 35 minutes. It is more than likely that Census 2011 will acknowledge the resultant fall in the number of our farmers.

With ground-water plunging, loan-burdens rising and smaller holdings yielding less and less, Swaminathan tells us that “farming has become unviable”. He warns: “We are entering a state of agrarian crisis. This crisis has many dimensions. It is not a single or simple cause that is responsible for this… We need to have new systems of management. We need to put all pieces together. We don’t have an integrated approach… There are so many ministries and departments to take care of water, rainwater, food- grains and food processing. How are we going to deliver it as one offering to farmers would hold the key.”

Decisions are called for well beyond what money can do. They are directional, not budgetary. They have been signposted in the Report of the Farmers Commission. The finance minister’s speech on February 28 will address the fiscal issues it is meant to. But if it also reflects a serious intent to address the farm crisis, it will be a speech to remember and to be grateful for.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor The views expressed by the author are personal