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India cannot 'shine' with its villages in darkness

June 19, 2007 15:08 IST

For the mandarins of the reform process in our country, over the past one and half decades, the disquiet in our countryside is becoming difficult to dispel.

The advocates of the reforms find the comforting environs of television studios or the soothing warmth of centrally heated international convention centres in Davos and other locations across the developed world more suited to defend the outcome of the Indian reforms. They do so on the strength of macro economic fundamentals of the economy.

It is not surprising that they find, burning their night oil over the harsh reality that the Indian countryside presents, wastage.

But the situation has become too compelling for them to overlook the evidence that raises fundamental questions about the outcome of the reform process. It is not only the question of the cotton growers of Vidharbha, tobacco growers of Andhra Pradesh, or farmers from the spice country - Wyanad in Kerala. Their deaths in thousands - many of whom extinguish their own life could perhaps have been overlooked.

But, the misery of the peasant producer in the country has now reached such a pass that it is affecting the very economy. Agricultural production is coming down. Per capita foodgrains output has declined since the beginning of nineties.

Even absolute foodgrains output has become stagnant since the beginning of this decade. Indian agriculture with the GDP growth (from agriculture) slipped from 3.62 per cent during 1984-85 to 1995-96 to less than 2 per cent between 1995-96 to 2004-05.

The irony, however, was that while per capita availability of foodgrains came down by leaps and bounds, the policies of the government successfully obfuscated this grim reality.

In 2002, the government's stocks went up to 63 million tonnes. This brought the well-known spectacle `empty stomachs, overfilled godowns' alive in India. This "marvel" was achieved not through any enhancement of production but by putting a squeeze on the earnings and affordability of the population!

A major element of this obnoxious exercise consisted of brazen attempts to dismantle the public distribution system. The other aspect of the policy is now on evidence. The opening up of the procurement of foodgrains to the private sector companies is leading to a major reduction in the procurement levels of the government which leaves it with a much lower level of stocks.

Such a situation is leading to a complete break down of the Public Distribution System. On the other hand, the forward trading of foodgrains and futures in the commodity exchanges has legitimised speculative trading of foodgrains. This has led to the sharp rise in food grain prices this year. It has been a principle factor for the sharp acceleration of the inflation rates.

Given this overall critical situation, which, apart from affecting large sections of the peasantry is also leading to large unrest among the poor and the middle classes in the urban areas as well.

In spite of specific commitment in the National Common Minimum Programme to improve the lot of farmers and notwithstanding the recommendation of the National Farmers Commission headed by Prof. Swaminathan, agriculture is not only languishing but the situation in our countryside is becoming explosive.

The Left parties which have been supporting the present government had been all along pleading for addressing the concerns of agriculture and those of the rural poor. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was an outcome of such pressures.

However, the budgetary allocation for the scheme is far too little and does not commensurate with the requirements and scope of the programme. And, in any case, the urgency with which the whole issue of crisis in agriculture needed to have been addressed was conspicuous by its total absence.

Now that the situation is telling on the overall performance of the economy, the mandarins of the reform process find themselves in an unenviable position. The growth of GDP, which the reformers appear to be exclusively relying on, also faces the threat of getting derailed because of the performance of the agriculture sector. The outcome of the Tenth Plan where the growth in agriculture is around two per cent is a case in point.

Apart from economics, the issue is also moving politics. The great anti-incumbency factor which seems to be influencing electoral results both at the Centre and in the states with a regular frequency is largely influenced by the rural disquiet.

The authors of `shining' India found this out much to their discomfiture, notwithstanding the rosy prospects they were allured with by election pundits. With two years left for the next general elections, the economic establishment has perhaps realised the need to visit these realities.

This was the context in which for the first time in the last three years, the National Development Council was convened to discuss the issue of food and agriculture. Unfortunately, the paradigm that appears to have been preferred by the establishment does not underscore a proper comprehension of the crisis that has overtaken our rural masses.

The paradigm seems to continue to believe that corporatisation of Indian agriculture is the only way out of the present crisis. The NDC resolution, however, grudgingly conceded the need for augmenting public investment and has announced a Rs. 25,000 crore (Rs 250 billion) additional central assistance to state plans.

It has also announced a national mission on food security with a 20 million tonne additional foodgrain production by the end of the Eleventh Plan. The NDC also conceded the need for greater investment for irrigation and agricultural research.

It is also quite apparent from the resolution that the entire approach of the establishment still continues to be growth-driven. The issue of support price and other questions which is a major determinant for sustainable and livelihood of the farming community do not appear to be a subject of urgent concern.

In an overwhelmingly peasant production based agriculture sector, our decision makers cannot afford the luxury of such an ostrich-like attitude. Investment, infrastructure and technology are all important elements in our search for strengthening our agriculture, but the human being is no less.

Finally, the NDC also witnessed an important debate; the insistence of some of the state governments to be allowed freedom and resources to pursue the specific paradigm that they have pursued to improve the situation in their respective states.

In a small measure, the NDC had to recognise and concede this approach. This is necessary, for ultimately in a country of India's size and diversity in terms of agro-climatic regional realities, a uniform straightjacket is bound to be a gross failure.

At the end of it all, India cannot `shine' with its villages in darkness. Agriculture will continue to be a mainstay of our economy and society for sometime to come. With livelihood of 60 per cent of our population depending on this sector, let us re-visit our priorities.

Nilotpal Basu is a Central Committee member of the CPI (M) and of its leading spokesman. He is also a former Rajya Sabha member.

Nilotpal Basu, Commodity Online