As the Planning Commission member in charge of agriculture, Abhijit Sen is one of the minds behind the Prime Minister’s new deal for agriculture that will be unveiled at Tuesday’s National Development Council (NDC) meeting. “Agriculture is big because all the people are out there,” said Sen, who is also the head of a government-appointed committee studying the impact of the futures market for commodities and grains on their prices.
In the run-up to the meeting, Sen spoke to Mint about the issues facing agriculture in the country. Edited excerpts:
What are the crucial issues before the NDC? Will you discuss the Budget B (a special budget for agriculture akin to the Union budget) that you talked about earlier?
There will be a Budget B later, but some aspects of it could be revealed in the meeting. The main purpose will be to get some commitment both from the Centre and the states on agriculture. One commitment is that we should at least maintain, as a proportion of our respective plans, the amount we should spend on agriculture and that, unlike earlier plans, there is no cutback. We’ll also try one aspect of what we launch in Plan (Budget) B, which is, if states spend more (on agriculture in the 11th Plan) than they spent in the last year of the 10th Plan, we’ll give them Re1 more for every rupee spent. That is higher than what we’re doing so far, and we’ll do this as an incentive.
What other measures do you plan to introduce?
Spending is not enough. We don’t have a technical miracle, no Green Revolution, seeds to distribute to farmers, etc. What we do have is information on where there are (yield) gaps, and where we’ll get higher output if we fill these up. But states will have to work this out at the district level, at the agro-economic zone level, and so on; they should have a district plan, which does this gap-filling exercise.
One big national gap is that foodgrain production hasn’t increased at all in the last five years, which showed up (or resulted) in inflation. If this continues, we estimate a minimum import need of 20 million tonnes at the end of the 11th Plan. So, there will be a Central scheme to ensure that this 20 million tonnes extra production takes place. That’s the other part of Plan B. But foodgrain will not give you 4% growth; at best (they will give you) 1%.
Problem areas: Plan panel’s Sen says the reduction of land is happening mainly because of speculation
So, there has to be a fair amount of diversification. Which means planning of agriculture has to be different and unified, not divided in different departments, such as animal husbandry, horticulture, etc. So, as long as the states have a unified plan, we will, a) do the matching, and, b) use the Central schemes in a unified manner to help them.
What about measures to improve agricultural productivity?
Two other issues that won’t pay off in the 11th Plan are technology, and soil and water resources. On technology, we have to recognize that...unlike the days of the Green Revolution, technology is not available for free from the rest of the world. Today, research is happening largely outside the public system and is entirely patented. So, we should be prepared to buy technology. We also need to do a lot of basic research and (need) a strategy to do it. A likely case is biotechnology, which is not as strong in Icar (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) as in Council for Scientific and Industrial Research labs or private institutes. So, Icar has to refocus to become a first-rate strategic research institute, willing to cooperate with others, and delegating to state agricultural universities its current regional research. This will be major research, in terms of major genetic improvement, so that we’re going to get leaps of the kind seen in the Green Revolution, not necessarily in yields, but in the ability of plants to withstand all sorts of stress, including drought. And we can do it.
The other big area is our land, soil and water, all of which are under tremendous stress. On water, the biggest problem is how we view irrigation. In the 10th Plan, the entire spending by states and the Centre on agriculture is about Rs50,000 crore and on irrigation, roughly Rs100,000 crore. In this, the NDC meeting will be very interesting as only a few states do bulk of the spending, especially Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. But despite this huge spending, the potential we created was half of the targeted 16 million hectares. So, we are doing very badly in irrigation. To do better in this Plan, we must complete unfinished projects, desist from starting new ones, and rehabilitate the canal systems built by the British to make them more efficient. But let’s face it, 60% of the country will not see any irrigation. So, we need to institutionalize watershed management, which comes under rural development, and is not linked to agriculture. This will be part of the incentive plan. We expect the states to link their state plan with the irrigation plan, transferring the major part of the irrigation to watersheds. This may be difficult to achieve because there is money in irrigation and no money in watersheds.
What are you going to do about fertilizer subsidy?
We have to do something. Most recommendations are still not in the shape of being implemented even if the political will were there. Fertilizer subsidy is creating a soil health problem, but you need to bite the bullet on increasing the price of urea. A dual-price system leads to more corruption. Even the APL-BPL (above the poverty line and below the poverty line measure) hasn’t done all that good on the foodgrain side. But most chief ministers are likely to shut up on (urea) price hikes.
There’s a shortage of foodgrain, yet area under food production has dropped. Is that worrisome?
I’m not too concerned about this. I’d expect this, because, when we talk about diversification, that land has to come out of foodgrain. If food demand needs to grow at 2-2.5% per annum, we can allow 0.5% of the area to go to horticulture, provided there is a yield growth of 3-3.5%. Foodgrain occupy almost 60% of the total area. So, 0.3% of the total area will come out (of food) every year, while the gain will be 3% for horticulture, which is big, and occupies only about 10% area. This is also desirable. But the real worry is that total agricultural land is going down.
Will the SEZ (special economic zone) scheme have a huge impact on land?
Not only the SEZ scheme, everything (will have an impact on land). It is essentially more urbanization. But we also see a lot of speculation. The moment we have, say, highways announced, speculators buy up vast stretches of land much in advance. So, a reduction in land is happening mainly because of speculation.
Will we get the targeted growth of 4% for agriculture?
We’ll have around 3% this year. I have a suspicion that it will be closer to 2.5%. As for the 11th Plan target of 4%, we’ve never done it. But the average of the last three years of this government comes to 3%. So, things are slightly better now, it’s just a question of raising it to 4%.