At a time when politics dominates not just economics and society but even critical matters of national security, it has been satisfying to be able to tell a gathering that the Bharat Krishak Samaj is gifted with a heavy ideological endowment from the environment and nature that has constantly shaped its policy preferences, which do not need strong political convictions or moorings.
In less than a hundred days from now, the country will decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral future as the head of the government and the final, pre-ballot, budget of his government was expected to contain announcements to stem the angst arising out of the bleak rural landscape.
Rural India has been on the verge of becoming a maelstrom that threatens to suck in the entire country. After four years of slogans and promises not delivered, everything that this government says is discredited by the fact that the government said it. Farmers have stopped believing in miracles because it has been a long time since they have experienced any.
Since the grandstanding announcement in 2016 of doubling farmer income, the real income of farmers has actually fallen. Data confirms this. It rarely happens that the growth of gross value added for agriculture at current price is not higher than what it is at constant prices. Agriculture prices have remained below the rate of inflation of between three and four per cent. This is possibly the third time that this has happened since India became independent.
The announcement of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme is a measure to transfer `6,000 a year, amounting to `75,000 crores to farmers owning up to five acres of land, which will act as a stimulus for the rural economy. Sadly, it excludes tenant framers and landless labour.
Even if it did, it would have been challenging to identity each one and quantify their benefits. While this could be done by having them registered, it would require a firm commitment and a longer period of time to implement. The first big challenge lies in ensuring that all targeted farmers get the announced amount for the first time. The state government will be uploading the farmers’ list on a web portal for the central government to transfer the funds.
What is, however, not realized is that all the proposed schemes are actually exclusionary by nature because of the guidelines, prepared with great care and creativity, cleverly exclude beneficiaries, as is the case with the state farm loan waivers across India. Invariably, many beneficiaries will be left out due to paucity of quality data and information.
Doubling of interest subvention for crop loans, two to three per cent subvention for animal husbandry and fisheries, two to three per cent subvention for timely repayment of rescheduled loans to farmers impacted by natural calamity are welcome steps but one had hoped that interest subvention would be extended for farmer’s term loans.
Income-tax benefits should also have been extended to animal husbandry and fisheries by classifying them as agriculture income but these measures were overlooked. It goes without saying that the net loss to farmers over last few years is far more than that can be compensated by better announcements made in the budget 2019.
It is just as important to realize that budgets have lost relevance after the GST announcement and the government allowing non-state actors to influence the narrative. The unfolding consequences are telling. Again, one is not being facetious while using the example of funding for cows through the Gokul mission and Rashtriya Kamdhenu Ayog to make a point. While they seem good on paper, on the ground, farmers are busy chasing stray cattle from the fields and would have been happier to get subsidy for fencing of farm lands.
The bigger questions are whether the budget can create jobs, increase fruit and vegetable processing or transform livelihoods and the answer is clearly in the negative. It is more like using a band-aid where surgery was required. The finance minister, without acknowledging government mistakes made over the past four years, tried to assuage feelings of distressed sections of society that government policies have decimated economically.
This is a pivotal moment in Indian politics. The exodus of farmers to other livelihood options and the increasingly larger share of non-agriculture component in rural income will reduce those dependent on agriculture, as the ranks of consumers, who constantly demand lower food prices, swell.
Therefore, this might be the last general election in which farmers can influence the results decisively. However, the dissatisfied, aspirational generation and fears of re-election will haunt the members of parliament in the days that follow and one can say with a great measure of confidence that upwards of 70 per cent of the members will not return to the hallways of the parliament.
Regrettably, as Tom Perkins, the pioneering Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said, “after the battle was won, they found that the horse ate, as usual, too much hay, and crapped, as usual, all over the land scape”. Irrespective of who wins the electoral battle, there is a sense of dismay that has persisted over several months because of the prevailing sense of futility. Truth to tell, India and Indian farming in particular are witnessing not only risks of policy failure but of political success too.•