June 13, 2021
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Gift-Wrapped Ennui

Why doesn't the PM spend more time in reforming his country-wide bureaucratic setup and the antiquated rules that govern them, instead of announcing fancy packages? Why doesn't he make sure that those who govern learn from previous mistakes?

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Gift-Wrapped Ennui

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Rs 3750-crore package for the Vidarbha region, which has seen over 600 farmer suicides in the past year alone, was greeted with howls of protests from the Opposition parties in Maharashtra, while a pink paper described it, a "new deal for rural India".

New deal indeed. If it were not so tragic, it would be funny. But the Vidarbha crisis should not be called a mere tragedy. It should evoke anger, even rage at the dilapidated administration. Why doesn’t the PM spend more time in reforming his country-wide bureaucratic setup and the antiquated rules that govern them, instead of announcing fancy packages? Why doesn’t he make sure that those who govern learn from previous mistakes?

What has the long-awaited visit brought for farmers this time? What does the package contain? Rs 50 lakh as immediate relief to affected families for each of the six districts, Rs 1,296 crore of agriculture credit rescheduled over 3-5 years with one year moratorium in the six drought affected areas of Vidarbha, Rs 2,177 crore for major, medium and minor irrigation projects in the six districts over the next three years, waiver of Rs 712 crore of interest overdue till June 30, Rs 180 crore for new cotton seeds to the farmers, Rs 240 crore for water harvesting and construction of check dams in these districts, Rs 225 crore for the National Horticulture Mission, Rs 135 crore of subsidiary income through livestock, cattle and fodder, Rs 78 crore for micro-irrigation projects, and Rs 3 crore for the agri-extension network. Most of this will be direct central grant, from the PM’s National Relief Fund, and will be monitored, as with many other projects, by the PMO.

Phew! That’s quite a large sum of money, even by Indian debt-writeoff tradition, being sent here, there and everywhere to chase a target that’s so far proved very elusive: a cotton farmer thinking of death. And it’s not the only relief announced, though it may look like the cherry on the icing. Buoyed by the PM’s largesse, the state chief minister has also announced a Rs 10,000-crore package, albeit with some overlapping with the former. In fact, the local administration hasn’t yet finished implementing a Rs 1075-crore package announced a few months ago. There is also talk of total debt writeoff being considered by the Congress high command, finances permitting.

So why does the PM’s package evoke a feeling of déjà vu among the farmers? Been there, seen that, buddy, several times too, said farmer Kishore, a day after PM’s visit, and jumped in front of a train. The three million affected farmers, those that remain, say that the package does not address their basic demands: a higher purchase price for cotton, a total loan waiver, and duty hike for cotton imports.

Mind you, nobody’s questioning the PM’s intentions and sincerity. In Vidarbha, the PM gave a patient and sympathetic hearing to his visitors, mainly weeping widows, ignoring district administration officials who were keen to separate the genuine grain from the "non-genuine" chaff. He took along a large entire team -- the fact-finders, agriculture minister, planning commission members. But it’s also true that, faced with this monstrous regularity of suicides, the toll rising like the aftermath of a Richter-8 quake, the Prime Minister of the country had to be seen to be doing something. And when politicians come visiting, they usually come with a basket of financial promises.

Promises that may not be kept and promises that cannot be kept. The Vidarbha crisis began in 1994-95 and has festered now for ten years with the full knowledge of the state government and of Sharad Pawar, current agriculture minister and top Maharashtra politician. The central government has little role to play, beyond landing up as messiah and soothe sentiments. Two things it can immediately do but probably won’t: protect Indian cotton-growers from imports--unlikely in the WTO regime-- and make sure that the ten irrigation projects stuck in the state are finished as fast as possible, would need huge investments. It can also crack the whip over the state government, at least bureaucratically through the PMO, though how far that can be achieved, given the PM’s political standing, is anybody’s guess.

The causes of the Vidarbha farmers distress are too many and too well-known: the poor quality of crop, imports from outside the state and country, no minimum guaranteed price, the collapse of the state procurement federation and non-payment of farmers’ dues pushing them to usurious moneylenders, dishonest traders, spurious seeds and costly transgenics, total dependence on farming, lack of employment opportunities, lack of risk diversion, lack of timely rains and irrigation… In a post-WTO globalised world, they are caught in a timewarp; everybody is just waiting for them to die so that the rest of the economy can conveniently restructure itself. Yet, it was the unknown wonders of globalisation that pushed many of these farmers to a commercial crop like cotton, diverted from other crops like jowar which dropped from 30 per cent to just 7 per cent of acreage, at a time when cotton went through its worst returns ever. And when things are left to rot, don’t the vultures make merry?

Indian agriculture is in the process of coming out of its shackles. Manmohan Singh is very keen to make it profitable, complementing our manufacturing industries, and has commissioned solutions. One of them is food processing where the second green revolution is apparently waiting in the wings. Last fiscal year, $41 million of FDI proposals were approved, pushing the cumulative inflow in this sector towards $3 billion. This in addition to $55 million going to sugar and edible oil companies and $3 million to mega food parks. It also has an amazing employment potential. There is little scope for poor, low-caste, unlettered farmers here unless proper, rule-bound contract farming emerges on a large scale. Meanwhile, Vidarbha’s farmers will queue up for these new loans. Till another failed crop. As any Indian villager will testify, pesticides are much closer home than medicines.

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