‘Business as usual is no longer an option’ has become a catchword with the current financial crisis, but was initially mooted by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) that presented its synthesis report in April 2008. Despite being a signatory to it, despite the acknowledgement of the larger agrarian crisis that the country has been facing and despite the similarity in purpose envisaged in the ‘inclusive growth’ slogan of the Eleventh Five Year Plan and IAASTD’s emphasis on ‘the reduction of hunger and poverty, the improvement of rural livelihoods and human health, and facilitating equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development,’ one does not find much mention of it either in the current interim budget of 2009-10 or other recent relevant policy documents.
The initiatives and achievement under agriculture, keeping the welfare of the ‘Aam Aadmi’ in mind, increased the plan allocation for agriculture by 300 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09 and launched the Krishi Vikas Yojana in 2007-08 to increase growth rate of agriculture and allied sectors to four per cent during the Eleventh Plan period. A good initiative that requires bottom-up planning from village to taluka to District Agricultural Plans and aggregating to form State and National Plans. Its implementation is tardy and an imposition of a target from the top makes the approach self-defeating.
Keeping 2003-04 as base, the government announced a package of doubling agricultural credit in three years and actually achieved a three-fold increase of credit by 2007-08. The fact that the Government had to come up with the Agricultural Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme in June 2008 is itself perhaps indicative that the ground work to make agriculture remunerative was not done which also means that appropriate project appraisals were not done by the banks while doubling/tripling of credit. The debt waiver is a book-keeping exercise. It does reduce the mental burden of the farmer and makes him eligible for fresh loans, but not a single rupee from this Rs.65,300 crore would lead to investments that is required to spruce up the agrarian economy.
On the one hand, the long overdue increase in the Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) in recent years is a bit of relief that would help improve the returns to agriculture. On the other hand, the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) will ensure food security to those below poverty line. While talking of poverty, the Government should have updated the consumption-expenditure with appropriate nutritional measures, dealt on multi-dimensionality of poverty and on identification to avoid exclusion of the poor, of course, some of these go beyond the budget. Another matter of concern that remains is the huge subsidy bill on fertilizers, which largely goes to the industry and only indirectly to the farmers. There has been no increase in the fund allocated under Rural Infrastructure Development Fund (RIDF) when compared with the previous year.
Education, health and some other social sector initiatives are indicated. The question that one is haunted is, as indicated in the United Progressive Alliances (UPAs) Common Minimum Programme (CMP), whether the promise of doubling of public expenditure as a proportion of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) achieved. A silence on this indicates that the answer is no.
Some of the notable initiatives in recent years have been the Right to Information and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Though there are hiccups, the efforts are indeed laudable. The need of the hour is to complement the wage-employment scheme with an equally comprehensive self-employment scheme. This requires revamping of the Sampoorna Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) through institutional innovation to help organize the poor, financial innovation to make required credit accessible and administrative innovation to improve facilitation. This is also very essential under the current financial crisis because it would encourage a large number of smaller players. Such an effort will also have its multiplier effects not only in stimulating the economy but more importantly in improving the livelihood of the poor and also help us in easing the load on agriculture.
The finance minister rightly quotes Professor Amartya Sen while emphasizing on the need for security during this down turn. But, note that this has nothing to do with increasing defense related expenditure. Rather, such protective security should also address the poor returns to farmers which on a per-capita per day basis is even lower then a liter of bottled water. Notwithstanding the increase in the revenue and fiscal deficits, one is left with the question, where is the ‘Aam Aadmi’?
A similar version has been published in the Financial Express, with the title Debt waiver is a book keeping exercise.