‘Farm income increase must be priority’

Former Agriculture Secretary Mohan Kanda spent over two decades of his career in government focusing on the agriculture and rural development sector. With a Masters in Mathematics and a doctorate in cooperative agricultural credit, Kanda joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1968. He was Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh before moving to the Centre and finally being promoted as Union Agriculture Secretary. Post-retirement, Kanda was a member of the National Disaster Management Authority and closely monitored relief and rehabilitation work after the 2004 tsunami in Andaman and Nicobar, the Kosi floods in Bihar in 2008 and the Kurnool and Mahboobnagar floods in Andhra Pradesh in 2009.

Kanda has authored several books including “The Tinctured Canvas” (Concept, Practice and Strategies in Rural Development), “Vasundhara” (An Anthology of Land Resources in India), “Forgiving Earth” (The Dynamics of Policy Support Reforms for the Millennium Farmer in the Asia Pacific Region) and “Not by Others’ Hands” – An Anthology of a Century of Credit Cooperatives in India (A tribute to the Cooperative Movement in the International Year of Cooperation 2012). In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, Kanda spoke on the agrarian crisis and the problems faced by farmers in the country. Excerpts:

How do you see the present status of agriculture in India? Farmers are committing suicide as they are not getting returns on their investment.

The entire sector is in distress. Agrarian crisis is a matter of grave concern. If you noticed, in some places in Andhra Pradesh people have preferred crop holidays for they were not getting the right remuneration for their produce. These are very disturbing symptoms. And naturally, things are going to worsen in the coming years. The scourge of farmers ending their lives on account of crop failure will continue. Every year we talk of production and crop yield and not what farmers are getting. We have inherited a British legacy for 70 years. Increasing production and enhanced productivity do not necessarily reflect healthy farming systems. In fact the majority of suicides by farmers happened in the wake of glut in commodities such as cotton, tobacco, chillies, potatoes and onions, following record production and yields.

The Centre and states should seriously take a relook before it is too late. Our policy makers should understand that everything can wait but not agriculture.

In the past five decades, the agriculture sector’s contribution in the GDP has reduced to more than half. What needs to be done to help the farming community and increase their share in the GDP?

The relationship of India’s agriculture sector to the economy has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, with its share of the GDP falling steadily from 51.8 per cent in 1950-51 to 13.9 per cent in 2013-14, indicating a shift away from the traditional agrarian character of the economy towards one dominated by the services sector. However, more than 70 per cent of the workforce is still employed by the farm sector. Actually, agriculture is a state subject but all the funding is from the Centre. Most states are cashstarved, and whatever money they havethey spend on other programmes rather than on strengthening the agriculture sector.

The government cannot have a cafeteria approach and provide one solution to all. Like Kerala has no illiteracy, Tamil Nadu has no shortage of houses, Punjab has no agricultural labour, how can you design one programme for all. Actually, planning has to be done at the Government of India level. And how to convert a programme into an activity should be left to the states. Implementation and execution of the plan must be decided at the state level or at the district level. Secondly, the Centre is preoccupied with running a large number of programmes. As a result there is a dangerous disconnect between various stakeholders in the agriculture sector.

The Ministry of Agriculture needs to undergo a self-imposed “one-timecatch up” exercise to remain au fait with the rapidly changing external environment. The Centre should give bulk funding to every state and set a target for them and then leave them to meet the target. The Centre should make a policy decision and set guidelines for states to follow it. Like use of non-conventional energy in agriculture sector, stop excess use of chemicals.

One of the main demands of farmers is to link minimum support price to the production cost of a crop. In fact the MSP is so low in some areas that farmers prefer ‘crop holiday’ rather than going for farming. What do you think is the best solution that would be a win-win situation for both government and farmers?

MSP is not a solution. Market is a game of demand and supply. If you create demand in the market for the farmers’ products, they would get the price. It is the job of the government to ensure that required quantities of a product are sown to avoid excess supply of a product. Warehousing is another problem, the government needs to make a policy at the Central level. Money is not a problem, banks are there to finance it; agriculture marketing committees are also flooded with money to finance warehousing.

According to a rough estimate, 45 per cent of the harvest in developing countries is wasted. What is the point in increasing our food production by 5 per cent annually if our wastage rate is as high as 45 per cent in some cases. We are short of 35 metric tonnes of warehousing capacity. Sixty per cent of the warehouses are in North India, little has been done in South and East India. There is also an urgent need for cold storage facilities to store perishable items. We have just 10 per cent of the cold storages we need.

How do you rate the Modi government’s performance in agriculture sector? Are the steps taken by the present government sufficient?

The scheme launched by the new government has almost all the ingredients – Krishi Vikas Yojna, Krishi Sinchai Yojna, Fasal Bima Yojna. Government is pumping in money, it has increased flexibility in projects, and it seems to have political will power as well. But there are still areas where the government should lay special emphasis. MNREGA is a good rural job guarantee programme, but it should not be encouraged during agricultural seasons.

The government should also discourage subsidies, or loan waiver to farmers. This is not a healthy practice. While in service, I calculated that if we divert fertiliser subsidy and subsidised PDS foodgrain supply into irrigation projects, we can complete all the projects in five years.

And what about the government’s ambitious aim of doubling farmers’ incomes in the coming five years?

Yes, the government’s priority should be to increase farmers’ incomes. Growth can be achieved and sustained only if farm incomes rise and the farmers’ share in the consumer-rupee increases by the realisation of remunerative prices and reduction of transaction costs.

So it is not production but farmers’ income which is important. If farmers get good prices, production will increase automatically. Somebody should recognise the value of agriculture at national level. It should be taken up at the highest level. Giving subsidies or loan waiver is no solution till it actually reaches the small and marginal farmers who need it the most. Areas where the government should lay stress on are the use of information technology in agriculture and promotion of contract farming.

The government should make use of IT to inform the farmers what to sow and when to sow it. Educating farmers should be the government’s primary duty.

Source: The Statesman

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