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Last Updated : Jan 14, 2020 01:03 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Budget 2020: To fix the slowing economy, begin with agriculture

After all, the economy is hurting real bad. And to understand the reasons behind the pain, it is essential to understand why farms matter


The Union Budget is barely three weeks away. There are talks about tax sops and financial incentives. But none of them will go very far if the basics are ignored.

After all, the economy is hurting real bad. And to understand the reasons behind the pain, it is essential to understand why farms matter.

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First, over 50 percent of India’s population depends on the rural economy. And that means agriculture. Irrespective of the contribution of the agricultural sector to India’s GDP, the sheer scale of population requires any government to pay heed to the well being of this sector and to make it sustainable – not through doles, but through policies that make this sector healthy.

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Second it is important to note that unlike the Asian tigers – including China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore among others – India is not an export driven market. It is a consumption driven market. When you have half of India’s population living in rural areas, this becomes a critical consumption market – especially for things like motorcycles, tractors, harvesters, seeds, fertilisers, nutrients and a host of consumer goods.

Third, hitherto, except for a brief period when Lal Bahadur Shastri tried to promote agriculture (and coined the slogan Jai-Jawan-Jai Kisan), successive governments have short-changed agriculture. As a result the farmer earns pathetically little from agriculture, as NABARD studies (see table) have shown Therefore, if the economy has to be revived, agriculture needs some key inputs. Here are some suggestions.

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One reason why the farm sector’s contribution to India GDP is just around 14 percent is because the farmer is allowed to earn very little for his produce. Leave alone milk where, thanks to Verghese Kurien, the farmer can earn as much as 80-85 percent of the market price for the milk he produces.

Similarly, keep aside the politically pampered rice and wheat crops, where the Food Corporation of India (FCI) guarantees procurement from most large farmers and thus gives them a remunerative price. Ditto for politically protected crops like sugarcane and plantations.

But take the rest of the agricultural sector and you discover that when it comes to vegetables and fruits, the farmer earns barely 10 percent of the market price for his produce. With other non-procurement products, the farmer is lucky if he gets 30 percent of the market price for his produce. As a result, the farmer’s purchasing power has remained poor.

If the government wants the farmer to earn more, it must make provisions for him to earn a better price. That can be done in two ways.

For crops other than vegetables and fruit, the government can actually get the FCI intervene in the commodity markets and offer to pick up any crop at the declared Minimum Support Price (MSP). Typically, even if 5 percent of the produce is picked up by the FCI, traders will increase their price offering and provide the farmers a better deal.

Alternatively, the government has to immediately allow the farm sector to create an autonomous body like the NDDB, which comes in as a market maker. Unless the farmer can receive 50 percent of the market price for his produce, the farmer will remain exploited.

Doles are counter-productive, as they teach farmers to depend more heavily on the government. That will make them more vulnerable. In fact, both the NCDEX and the MCX and their affiliates had made similar suggestions to the government some years ago. But the government hasn’t done anything.

The second thing that the government can do is to announce -- as part of the Budget proposals – to make stopping a meat wagon a punishable offence.  Meat kept by the roadside, in Indian conditions, becomes unfit for human consumption in a few hours. The madness unleashed by the gau-rakshaks has hurt farmers, cobblers and the meat industry very badly. The farmer has been the worst affected.

Let’s leave aside cows for the moment. If the cow is to be protected, so be it. But why touch buffalo meat? Most farmers are already moving to adopting buffaloes instead of cows for two simple reasons. First, buffaloes are not considered holy, so they can be sold to the trader – for onward sale to slaughter houses – without any qualms. Second, buffalo milk has more fat content. That fetches farmers more money per litre of milk produced.

But when a buffalo stops lactating, it must be sold. The cost of maintaining a barren or old buffalo is crippling. The farmer normally gets Rs 20,000 per old buffalo. To this he adds another Rs 20,000 and purchases a young milch buffalo. If the trader refuses to purchase the old buffalo from the farmer -- because his consignments can get seized by crazed gau-rakshaks --  then the farmer loses his ability to procure fresh cattle heads. That reduces his income, and increases his expenditure. And, in turn, the scare to take away old buffaloes affects the leather industry and the beef industry – both major employment and forex generators. The minimum estimated loss on account of this could be over Rs 23,000 crore a year

The third thing the finance minister can do is to take away the power to import agri produce from the hands of the bureaucrats and to put it in the hands of farmer groups. Imports cause domestic prices to fall. That hurts farmers. When domestic prices go up – as with onions – let the farmer body import, but sell it at normal market prices, not at less than market prices. That is what NDDB was taught to do under Kurien.

You cannot protect consumers forever. The farmer is a producer, and must also be protected. It is insensitivity to such a requirement that actually emboldened some bright boys in the government who thought that they could allow New Zealand to divert 5 percent of its non-liquid milk dairy produce exports to India. Thanks to a spirited resistance put up by farmers, this move was dropped. The same thing happened a few years ago, when import of pulses was resorted to. Such madness should be avoided.

Unless such situations are remedied, the farmer loses income, hence purchasing power. And, as a consequence, the wheels of the economy have grist thrown in them.

Can the finance minister usher in these measures for the sake of economic revival? It would go a long way towards fulfilling the prime minister’s promise of doubling farmers’ income. It must be said that even this assurance is too little because a doubling of 10 percent is still 20 percent, far below the 50 percent desired level.

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First Published on Jan 13, 2020 12:18 pm
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