Budget recycles old commitments on agriculture

The government’s vision for agriculture and rural areas is ambitious – like most previous programmes for rural areas and agriculture. PTI file photo

Agriculture and rural areas were given a pride of place in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s speech – they were read out in the initial part of her speech itself. Budget 2019 had lofty statements about the vision of the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government on rural India. The government’s vision for agriculture and rural areas is ambitious – like most previous programmes for rural areas and agriculture. However, in terms of tangible, new outlays, there is nothing much that the farming community has gained. Hence, it is likely that for the present, agriculture has to be satisfied with programmes like PM-Kisan, introduced in the Interim Budget.

The promise of 100 new clusters for encouraging artisans and facilitating 75,000 entrepreneurs through 100 business incubators are interesting statements. The Budget also promised increased spending under old programmes related to rural infrastructure, including on roads under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (an increase of about 22 per cent), housing under the PM Awas Yojana (promise of 1.95 crore houses for second phase), rural electrification and MGNREGA (9 per cent increase). Additionally, as in many previous budgets, it promised to strengthen infrastructure in the agricultural value chain. 

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The budget speech was long on intent: It promised a transformation of rural lives by creating improved amenities and better connectivity among other things. It even went one step ahead and promised ‘ease of living’ – a concept that has not been defined and one that has a lot of elasticity. The more sweeping and perplexing statement is the vision that the government wants to move towards ‘Zero Budget Farming’ which will mean non-use of chemical fertilisers and no dependence on credit for inputs, etc. Hopefully, this will not mean a surgical, disruptive ambush on present agricultural practices and techniques.

India is staring at a water crisis. The recent summer has clearly shown us that the water crisis is not something that the nation will face one day in the near future. Rather, it is one that we are staring at in the present. The positive aspect of the Budget is that it has recognised that there is a water crisis and that should be seen as a good beginning. It has promised the constitution of a Jal Shakti ministry under which about 1,592 critical and overexploited blocks across 256 districts have been identified for as yet unannounced policy interventions. Considering the water crisis, the government appears audacious in promising piped water to all rural households (Har Ghar Jal) by 2024 under Jal Jeevan Mission.

Unfortunately, as with many other important statements of intent, the government has not provided any outlays other than saying that it will provide money and where necessary convergence will be an important aspect in its implementation. One can only hope that the government is serious and will quickly find the resources necessary for its quick implementation. Any delay may not augur well for the simple reason that India has no time to waste. A large part of Indian agriculture depends on exploiting ground water. Canals provide water only to about 1.627 crore hectares out of the net irrigated area of 6.810 crore hectares. In contrast, tanks, tube wells and other wells irrigate about 4.328 crore hectares. This means unless the government invests heavily on expanding water storage and recharging our water resources, there is unlikely to be a dramatic improvement for agriculture or water availability in rural areas.

An important aspect of the budget is that it makes at best only a passing references or is silent about some of the important problems plaguing agriculture, including those related to tenancy, land leases, revamping agricultural credit or remunerative prices to agricultural producers. Some of the promises like encouraging Farmers’ Producers Organisations (FPOs) or revamping Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMC) are akin to old wine in an old bottle and something that has not happened for a long time. Considering the legal complexities in these issues, one can only hope for the best.

In a nutshell, the first budget of NDA-3 creates hope that it will start on a long journey to build sustainable rural areas with the required infrastructure that goes beyond access roads. Any beginning that improves investments in water and other physical infrastructure without adding to existing problems should be considered a good beginning. Only time will tell if the new government is long on vision and effective in implementation or whether it is afflicted by the same problems that plagued previous governments – long on vision but short on implementation.

(S Ananth is an independent researcher based in Andhra Pradesh)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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