Winning the debate in agriculture

Pranab-babu laid out his four-pronged strategy for agriculture in India –

  • agricultural production, 
  • reduction in wastage, 
  • credit support; and 
  • thrust in post-harvest technology and food processing.

In reaction to the budget, was this piece by M S Swaminathan. He seems hopeful and optimistic (with the Finance Minister):

“Pranab Mukherjee, for the first time in recent years, has laid out a road map for agricultural recovery and progress based on integrated attention to the conservation of the ecological foundations essential for sustainable agriculture, cultivation based on the principles of conservation and climate-resilient farming, consumption with attention to food safety and quality, and farmer-centric commerce”

Swaminathan stresses on the importance of convergence of the different schemes and better coordination between the state and central governments. He expresses concern about the lack of attention paid to irrigation in the budget and lauds the government for focusing on post-harvest technology, in particular, grain storage. 

Alongside Swaminathan’s article, was P. Sainath. I admire Sainath’s tireless crusade to shine the light on the plight of poor farmers in India. Here is Sainath’s take on the Union Budget announced last week. Sainath makes his now-familiar sarcastic and passionate pitch, pointing out how vested interests have taken over and are systematically squeezing the small (poor) farmers. He blasts politicians for being hand-in-glove with corporate interests and exposes what statistics do not reveal when they report increases in agricultural credit over the last decade.

However Sainath also tears into almost every proposal in the budget. Commercialisation is a word he hates in particular. Sample this comment on the four-pronged strategy:

“The first of these, “agricultural production,” could mean anything. The other three are a goldmine for large corporations, not the countless millions of small and marginal farmers who produce India’s food. Take “Reduction in wastage of produce.” This means more big bucks for companies setting up storage facilities”

Sainath repeatedly reminds us that while the farmers got a one-time loan waiver of INR 70,000 crore, corporate tax payers have secured, this year alone, waivers worth INR 500,000 crore. As striking as these figures might be, there is no attempt by him to analyse whether any of the INR 500,000 crore will spur industrial activity in the country. And will that growth benefit any of us citizens (including the poor farmer) directly or indirectly? Of course, I do not believe that all growth will trickle down. I also do not think that corporates are not going to secure obscene amount profits as a result of these write-offs. However, its not that straightforward, right? Surely, there are benefits in having better food-grain storage technology, especially when our foodgrain stocks rot and go waste every single year.

I do love a serious critic. But Sainath comes across as a total conspiracy-theorist. And there is hardly a single line in his piece that offers a constructive solution; not one that suggests a way ahead, keeping in mind that we cannot wish away the strong lobbies at work. No one denies there are vested interests at work. No one denies that small farmers are in a extremely difficult situation. Only the naive would claim that the budget is not a reflection of the current state of the nation’s politics. But those precisely are the compulsions of policy-making at New Delhi. Resisting  the development of new technologies and emergence of corporate partnerships seems pretty futile to me, unless one can advocate better terms to manage these relationships and attempt to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable. As long as Sainath remains an advocate of the ‘ideal’ without mulling over what is possible and pragmatic, his criticisms unfortunately stand little chance of being addressed.

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