Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar may be accused of many things, but pessimism is not one of them. He remains relentlessly upbeat in the face of a sputtering monsoon and a Sensex wobbling on the fears of a poor kharif harvest.
Monsoon winds have a strong impact on the Sensex. A good forecast drives it up; a delayed monsoon makes it fall. The political Sensex also responds to a poor monsoon and hence, it is a major fear for ruling parties. Even as the monsoon showed signs of putting in a belated appearance over north and central India, Pawar made it a point to tell the nation that the rains were not deficient; they were merely delayed in certain parts of India and would soon make up.
The problem of late rainfall, said Pawar, can easily be addressed by providing farmers with late-sown varieties of seeds. If the rains should be scanty, they can always sow drought-resistant crops or seeds. The state governments have prepared contingency plans and the agricultural extension workers are prepared to advise the farmers and distribute seeds. Even if the monsoon is deficient, there is no reason to worry as the country has plenty of food stocks, he said. And the main food basket of the country, Punjab and Haryana, which provide the bulk of food grains for the public distribution system, are 90 percent irrigated and therefore not subject to the vagaries of the monsoon. In short, all is well.
This optimistic attitude was not shared by stock market players – even as Pawar made his cheerful statement, the Sensex fell. After all, agricultural production depends on a number of inputs: water, power, fertilizers, pesticides, seeds and labour. Merely providing seeds cannot ensure that the farmers will survive a bad monsoon. In 2009, food grain production declined by 17 million tonnes due to a deficient monsoon in some parts of the country.
Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians waited for the annual flooding of the Nile, which would irrigate their fields and also deposit a rich layer of fertile silt on the soil. If the Nile did not flood, the crops would fail that year and Egypt would suffer. We are in much the same position. If the monsoon is bountiful, we have a bumper harvest. If it is deficient, crops fail. A single monsoon failure could transform India from a net exporter to a net importer of grain.
But Pawar has always maintained a positive attitude regarding agriculture. With good reason, as he has been able to announce several bumper harvests during his tenure. Since he took over as minister for agriculture, food grains production increased from 214 million tonnes to 242 million tonnes. A slow but steady improvement. In 2012-13, it could well be 251 million tonnes. In 2010-11, the growth rate of agriculture, forestry and fishing sector was 6.6 percent (in 2011-12, it is likely to be only 2.5 percent, but that is not mentioned at press conferences).
What the ministry of agriculture does not talk about is the cost at which this “growth” has been achieved. First of all, this “growth” is not spread across the country – it has been concentrated in a very few parts. Lately, the focus has been on East India, particularly West Bengal, which has provided some of the most key political players of UPA I and II. It has received substantial funds from the centre for starting a “second green revolution”.
Second, this growth has been made possible on the back of huge subsidies. The power subsidy excluded, total subsidies in agriculture are Rs 2.16 lakh crore! This is a big increase from Rs 46,000 crore in 2004. So total subsidies have gone up more than four times and fertilizer subsidy has gone up four and a half times since the UPA came to power.
Thirdly, this growth is not enough to offset the increase in population, so that per capita availability of food remains low and malnutrition rates remain high. Per capita food availability in 2010 was 438 gms per day, as compared to 442.5 gms in 2007. To beat malnutrition, this figure should be in excess of 500 gms per capita per day.
As for the subsidy on electricity to farmers, Pawar says it is not the concern of his ministry. This unconcern is not tenable, as power has a big impact on the agricultural sector, especially in a bad monsoon year. Irrigation depends largely on power availability. Right now, the country is facing a power shortage. Agriculture consumes more than 30 percent of total electricity in Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In a bad year, this figure goes up as dependence on ground water for irrigation increases.
When electricity is in short supply, as now, farmers increasingly rely on diesel pump-sets for farm operations. A powerful lobby in the government is pushing for deregulation of diesel prices, which would have a serious impact on farmers in a drought year. Pawar may need to intervene on the policy front, to ensure agricultural output does not suffer.
In the case of Punjab, the power subsidy bill for the farm sector this year is expected to be Rs 4,600 crore – an increase of six times in eight years! The reason is that Punjab has over 1.15 million tube-wells and most farmers have shifted to high horsepower submersibles. The state is estimated to “export” 21 billion cusecs of water every year. The same trend is being seen in central India, with steadily increasing power subsidy and falling water tables.
With the water levels in the Bhakra and Pong dams low and power generation down, farmers of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana are seriously worried. But the minister of agriculture is not.
“Jab life ho out of control/ Honthon ko kar ke gol/Seeti bajaa ke bol/Aal Izzz Well.”