Monday, April 27, 2015

Foster Farming ...... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ April 26, 2015

Foster Farming with Those Familiar with Ground Reality, Not Foreign-Educated Planners

If there is glory in fame, there is also cruelty in being a celebrity. Gajendra Singh Kalyanwat was just another depressed, nameless and faceless farmer from Rajasthan, until he hanged himself in front of thousands of AAP volunteers and TV cameras in New Delhi last week. Unsurprisingly, every politician irrespective of the colour of his flag, is agonising over the farmer’s tragic death. Gajendra has become a household name worldwide. His family wants him declared a Shaheed Kisan (martyr farmer). His semi-pucca house has become a pilgrimage site for the political class and TV channels. Barring corporate fat cats and Bollywood badshahs, almost every loquacious luminary has waxed eloquent on the abominable plight of India’s farmers. But the dismal discourse is more about the relief package for Gajendra’s family rather than diagnosing the real reason behind the rising number of farmer suicides. According to official figures, one farmer takes his life every half hour in India. Every fourth suicide in the country is that of a farmer. Fifty years ago, then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri coined the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ because he understood the contribution of agriculture to the Indian economy. Five decades later, the BJP struck an emotional chord during the 2014 elections by attacking the UPA with the war cry ‘Mar Jawan, Mar Kisan’ (die jawan, die farmer) depicting the dire state of the Indian agricultural ethos under the UPA.

The welfare of our farming community, however, has been degraded into mere election slogans, only to become the subject of a blame game debate when Gajendra and ilk are driven to death. Unfortunately, for the past four decades, India’s economic planning has only touched upon the agriculture sector, all the while working for the growth of the elite service sector. Less and less money is being invested in the rural sector from which over 60 per cent of India’s population earns its livelihood. Fifty years ago, agriculture contributed around 45 per cent to the GDP. It has dived drastically to less than 14 per cent. The policy of politically linking land and finance to the farmer is yet to be incubated. Let alone easy loans, kisans do not even receive on time basic necessities like fertilisers during the sowing season. On the contrary, marketwallahs are pressuring the government to withdraw foodgrain subsidy to avoid paying massive capital gains tax. They have been pushing direct transfer of subsidy on PDS but avoid arguing for providing farmers with fertilisers and power.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi realised the futility of the Planning Commission and similar institutions, which have been responsible for creating regional and sectoral disparities. He took a bold step of replacing the commission with a National Institution for Transforming India (Niti Aayog). Since Modi’s emphasis is on Digital India and Make in India, he has chosen well-known, foreign-educated economists to advise him on the country’s growth roadmap ahead. All of them have outstanding academic track records. But India needs to foster its farming community and the government should also choose those who are familiar with the heat and dust of Indian villages. The ruling class has conveniently forgotten that India still lives in the villages and aspires to enjoy the benefits of its growth story. But economic policies have been framed in such a way that service sectors can employ cheap rural labour to boost their bottom lines. It may be farfetched to connect the decline of Indian agriculture with the composition of the Planning Commission and the pace of economic reforms, but statistics and the track record of servile seneschals who ruled the commission at the Centre and in the states confirm that it was used to tailor policies and public investment in favour of the service sector at the cost of agriculture.
The process of economic reforms started in 1991 when Manmohan Singh was finance minister. At that time, the share of agriculture in GDP was about 35 per cent and that of services less than 30 per cent. But when he stepped down as the Prime Minister in 2014, the agriculture sector was staring at total extinction with its share plummeting to just 14 per cent. India is the first developing country in the world where the services sector contributes over 65 per cent to the GDP. It is evident that the Central government was promoting its growth and chose as advisors only those who were committed to markets over agriculture.
From 1991 onwards, almost all Planning Commission members held foreign degrees or had worked for multinationals or the World Bank and its affiliates. From 2004 on, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his four colleagues were only pushing investment in services and high-tech businesses, which yielded quick returns. Those who had no connections with the farming sector infiltrated even the state planning boards. Over the decades, theoretical Oxbridge pundits lacking any concept of the idea of Bharat have captured Indian institutional mechanisms. They saw foreign financial institutions and stock markets as the real symbols of prosperity in a poor country like India. None of those who are responsible for taking crucial decisions on agriculture have spent even a single night in an impoverished village, plagued by conscience or mosquitoes. Liberal resources were allocated for the setting up of elitist institutions like IIMs and IITs, while only frugal funds have gone into creating institutions that specialise in agricultural research and advising farmers on how to improve productivity and change cropping patterns. There has been little investment in creating irrigation facilities, leaving farmers at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather. On the other hand, liberal fiscal concessions were given to those who invested in the stock market. While big industrialists and techno-titans have been feted and awarded, hardly any official scheme exists to give financial incentives to those who introduce innovations in the farming sector.
India’s growth story will never be sustainable unless agriculture becomes the fulcrum of economic planning. The glorification of the elitist supply side model has to be buried if Bharat has to be revived. India needs a policy, which stops the trend of tillers turning into realtors because farming is becoming unprofitable. India’s neglect of the rural sector is visible on the shelves of upscale markets. One can find big stores in all the metros, selling imported fruits, food products and fancy vegetables while Indian produce has been delegated to the carts of vegetable vendors on the street. Modi will have to put in place a dream team, which supports him in his commitment to reviving the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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