The Union government’s target of doubling farmer income between 2015-16 and 2022 has been much discussed, and indeed there has been increase in the allocation for this sector since then. But if we care to examine carefully recent trends, some of the announced hikes were rolled back and a resource crunch is plaguing other important schemes.
In 2018-19 a total Rs 1,38,564 crore was allocated for the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. However, in the Revised Estimate, this was cut to Rs 1,09,750 crore.
A cut of Rs 29,000 crore [over 20%] is not insignificant.
The most publicised scheme is Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (or direct benefit transfers). Its original budget last year was Rs 75,000 crore which was cut in the Revised Estimate to Rs 54,370 crore, a cut of more than Rs 20,000 crore, or 27.5%.
In the case of the Market Intervention Scheme and Price Support Scheme (MIS-PSS) the original allocation in 2019-20 of Rs 3,000 crore was reduced to a Revised Estimate of Rs 2,010 crore. Similarly, the allocation for White Revolution was reduced from Rs 2,240 crore to Rs 1,799 crore. When the actual expenditure in 2018-19 was Rs 2,422 crore, the implication is that the government is not even meeting the expenses incurred in past years.
In the case of the National Mission on Horticulture, the allocation last year was cut from Rs 2,225 crore to Rs 1,584 crore. This was also much less than the actual expenditure of Rs 2,027 crore two years earlier.
In the National Food Security Mission the cut took the allocation from Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 1,777 crore, an over 11% cut.
The budget of the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana was also cut, by 26%, slipping from Rs 3,745 crore to Rs 2,760 crore.
The Budget of the Krishi Sinchai Yojana is spread across several ministries. If we add all the allocations up, the original allocation of Rs 9,843 crore was cut to Rs 7,958 crore in the Revised Estimate. And, even this is less than the actual expenditure of Rs 8,221 crore during the previous year (2018-19).
Published data on actual expenditure on agriculture up to 30 November 2019 reveals that only around 49% of the allotted funds had been used up to date, covering eight out of the 12 months leading up to 31 March 2020, while in the previous year the utilisation in the first six months was around 70%.
What is the difference between the financial years 2018-19 and 2019-20? Obviously, in the previous year the country was waiting for the general election.
There is also a growing concern that the poorest farmers are being left out of many government schemes. A beneficiary of the Krishi Samman Nidhi and Krishi Bima (farm insurance) scheme must have his or her name recorded on the land ownership documents. But share-croppers and tenant-farmers—basically the landless or near-landless poor farmers—are typically not mentioned on these records. It is important to remember that there are more than 14.3 crore landless farmers in India according to Census 2011. Therefore, it is a large section that is being deprived of the benefits of these schemes.
Even though some effort has been made to start providing insurance and disaster relief to farmers, overwhelmingly, the poor farmers are either not recognised as farmers or denied benefits. Hence, despite their contribution to the country’s food security, and although they often perform the more hazardous tasks, this section of farmers loses out on the benefits of targeted welfare schemes.
Considering that smaller farmers are also the ones who tend to lose their lands on account of severe indebtedness, it is even more important that they and the marginal farmers are included in these schemes and programs, along with those who migrate due to economic distress.
Women farmers, particularly in migrant households, often assume charge of responsibilities that are generally associated with male farmers. Yet, land records typically do not mention women, which hinders their access to credit and government benefits. Progress in amending this flaw is also slow.
Another concern has to do with the food subsidy system. It is under growing pressure due to the budget cuts announced in 2019-20.
At present, how much the government can raise procurement prices while also ensuring low prices of grain in the public distribution system, while keeping food subsidy within manageable limits, is the question. The government will surely have to cope with this difficult question.
One way out is to decrease costs at the farm level, thereby increasing the net income of farmers. This can be done by low external-output farming and organic farming, which is also more environment friendly, and hence highly desirable. The finance minister has been making welcome references to ‘zero-budget’ farming in her speeches, but the trouble is that not enough thought is being put into systems that can actually achieve sustainable farming.
The influence of corporate groups who lobby for genetically-modified crops and multinational companies strengthening grip on our food and farm systems is also a worry. Hence, there arises the paradox of many references but little progress on eco-friendly farming.
While doubling farmers’ income is a populist slogan and promise, the challenge is to create a firm base for sustainable progress of farmers and production of safe food in an eco-friendly way. These goals do not seem to a priority for the present regime. Despite occasional steps in the right direction, pressures leading in the opposite direction appear to be stronger.
As is evident from the emphasis in the recent budget on three model legislations, which, among other things, will facilitate big business’s role in agriculture, the balance of power within the ruling regime is much more in favour of corporates, including some of the biggest multinationals.
If the states are pressurised to accept these model legislations, or if the availability of central funds is linked to this acceptance, it will lead to problems even for those states which want to opt for genuinely more pro-poor policies and allocations.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements. The views are personal.