A Budget that Ignores the Farm

  • Ajay Vir Jhakhar

The finance minister’s frequent references to the “Amrit Kaal”   India’s 25-year-long lead-up to its first centenary of Independence in 2047   in her budget speech, frame, in no small measure, the government’s accomplishment of running the world’s largest welfare programme: Feeding 800 million in the country free or subsidised food. As a farmer, however, one hopes a better measure of accomplishment would have been the country not having to feed anyone for free because everyone can afford nutritious meals.

Times have been harsh and, with the pandemic adding to the severity of the situation, the youth in all parts of the country has been engulfed by anxiety. Over a fourth of the country’s youth are without employment and that is without even factoring in the disguised unemployment across rural India. After the farmers’ protest   globally the largest and the longest   ratcheted up pressure on the government, students are now agitating for jobs. It seems that an era of mass protests is beginning. The finance ministry has lost its appetite for bold announcements and the government, overly influenced by foreign consultants and businesses, remains resolute in falsely assuming that a trickle-down economy will solve the problem. Unemployment remains the biggest challenge faced by the country. It is like a powder-keg waiting to go off.

There is much more at stake though. Inflation has raised its head and the emerging picture is frightening. People will only be able to afford less nutritious food, poor households will see their savings dwindle, medical treatment will be deferred, more food will be cooked by burning wood, and education degrees will lose their relevance. That will be India adjusting to a new normal. The illusion of PM KISAN is unravelling in the villages   the monthly dole of Rs. 500, limited to the landowning classes, does not even cover the rise in gas cylinder prices, two-wheeler fuel costs, the hike in tractor diesel prices, or healthcare and education costs that have shot up multiple times. It’s quite possible that in Budget 2023, a year before the parliamentary elections, the government will double the PM KISAN amount to Rs. 1,000.

This year, at least, the finance minister did not fall for electoral populism. Arguably, the backlog of problems received by Nirmala Sitharaman left her with little room to manoeuvre. The rising global fuel and fertiliser prices have forced tougher choices upon the nation.

The allocation for the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying is up substantially, as are the funds apportioned for the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. One can only hope the talk of millets and oilseeds will be backed by real resources unlike the allocations for natural farming. But there are also instances of reduction and stagnancy in budgetary allocations for departments like rural development and health. Programmes guaranteeing rural employment have been slashed as well. Even when there is an increase in allocation   for instance, agriculture research and education   it does not even offset the level of inflation. After six years of rhetoric, the slogan of doubling farmers’ incomes has expectedly and conveniently been forgotten. This budget will be remembered for its eerie silence on making a difference to Indian agriculture. International inflationary concerns were flagged as a problem in the Economic Survey, but one must realise that improved international commodity prices also help agriculture grow. Farmers have responded to higher prices with higher agriculture productivity. The FM, however, tripped up in not declaring a statutory imposition of import duties on crops where the landing cost is below the MSP (where declared) or below remunerative prices (where there is no MSP)  this would have ensured that these crops do not enter Indian markets below a threshold price.

The states   as well as the Centre   are highly indebted with a large portion of revenue receipts being used for interest payments. But there is a desperate rush for creating new physical infrastructure rather than prioritising human resources by filling up vacancies in all critical departments such as the police, health, agriculture extension, animal husbandry, education, revenue, and administrative services. These omissions are tantamount to transferring the costs, including the costs of missed opportunities, to future generations.

The government refuses to confront the reality that social welfare schemes need to be sustainable. It has also wasted the occasion by not committing to repurpose farm subsidies to payment for farm ecosystem services. Hope for a shift of MSP procurement to crops other than wheat and paddy has been belied. Overall, one senses the absence of a long-term vision. Agriculture, like other departments, has been asked to solve its problem in isolation. It is not as if India’s growth story is jinxed. It’s just that the policymakers routinely mistake a plan for a strategy and refuse to even acknowledge the difference.

The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj Courtesy: The Indian Express