All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. In Anna Karenina, only if a person is satisfied on all counts will she be happy. The allocations in the budget cover every sector, with umpteen implications, and no person’s expectations can be fulfilled on all counts. While every expectation can’t be met, it must be acknowledged that Finance Minister (FM) Arun Jaitley has presented a budget which focuses on rural India and is a great leap forward for the policy-battered farm sector. According to Article 112 of the Constitution, the Union Budget is simply a statement of the estimated receipts and expenditures of the government for a particular year.
Rather than the budget being an annual jamboree for announcing policies, the prime minister should address the nation with his ideas for the coming year, based on which the FM should subsequently present the budget. The first step towards atonement and for penance is to acknowledge past failure. As the Economic Survey rightly states, real incomes of farmers have been stagnant. The next step is to take corrective measures and redeem the situation. An effort has been initiated in that direction in this budget.
Assurance of purchase of all crops for which MSP is declared is a positive step. If the government’s promise is of A2+50 per cent profit, then it is half-baked. It should have simultaneously announced acceptance of the Ramesh Chand Committee’s recommendations on the calculation of MSP, which it has not. The Niti Aayog is finally evolving into the credible policy think-tank we had been hoping for. It is also supposed to come out with a suitable mechanism to enable institutional credit access to lessee farmers.
The Agri-Market Infrastructure Fund, with a corpus of Rs 2,000 crore, is to be set up for developing and upgrading agricultural marketing infrastructure in the 22,000 Gramin Agricultural Markets and 585 Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). This will enable farmers in remote locations who are devoid of any institutional mechanism to connect to markets. ‘‘Operation Green’’ on the lines of ‘‘Operation Flood’’ to tackle the volatility of tomato, onion and potato prices is a positive development. The long-standing demand of income tax exemption for farmer producer organisations has been fulfilled. A Rs 10,000 crore fund to finance the infrastructure requirements of fisheries, aquaculture and animal husbandry will generate rural employment and supplement farmer incomes.
The intent to mitigate the air pollution woes of Delhi-NCR by subsidising the machinery required for in-situ management of crop residue has now been addressed. Targeted programmes like those under the Prime Minister Krishi Sinchai Yojna for 96 irrigation-deprived districts, where less than 30 per cent of the land holdings get assured irrigation, is the way forward. The focus on horticulture clusters and converting cattle dung and solid waste in farms to compost, fertiliser, biogas and bio-CNG is also commendable.
The flagship National Health Protection Scheme to cover over 50 crore poor and vulnerable beneficiaries providing coverage upto Rs 5 lakh per family per year for hospitalisation is outstanding. But the fund allocation for the programme is insignificant. I wonder if it will suffer the fate of many of last year’s budget announcements which have not materialised due to lack of allocations. In Davos, there was a general scepticism regarding the data presented to project the Indian growth story. A similar apprehension persists regarding the fund allocations in this budget.
Climate change worries have not been addressed as agriculture R&D has been ignored. Nor is there a mention of the balanced use of fertilisers. The magic-bullet demand for changing the Centre-state funding ratio from 60:40 to 90:10 for agriculture-related schemes has unfortunately been overlooked.
A constant red thread running uniformly through the budgets of the past 10 years, presented by three finance ministers of India, is that farmer suicides have not abated. In the last three years, over 36,000 farmers have committed suicide.
Power is the capacity to change the lives of people. The prime minister must direct his immense power to bring the sorry saga of farmer suicides to an end. Budget allocations serve as the perfect instrument to change the narrative of resentment to one of hope. He must quickly solve farmers’ crises or heed the warning, given in different circumstances, by Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately”.