‘All this is possible only if my farmer can produce… we must see he gains’

As Parliament prepares to take up the Food Security Bill,Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar speaks to Pranab Dhal Samanta

Written by Pranab Dhal Samanta | Published: August 26, 2013 3:59 am

As Parliament prepares to take up the Food Security Bill,Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar speaks to Pranab Dhal Samanta

What are your thoughts on the Food Security Bill?

I was in FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) in Rome. And one figure struck me in their report for this year on the overall heath condition of young children — 71 per cent of children are facing the problem of malnutrition in India. It’s a huge issue. How to resolve this? Provide a full meal. And a full meal means not just wheat and rice. You require vegetables,pulses,fruits and edible oil. If you are non-vegetarian,you require egg,meat and fish. Wheat and rice we have,but a lot of the other things are not available. You can see the prices of meat,poultry products and even some of the pulses are on the higher side and that’s why young children are unable to get full nutrition in terms of calories. I think this decision on bringing a food security bill will definitely find a solution. Even today the bill is only supposed to give a guarantee for wheat and rice,but the rates of Rs 2 (wheat) and Rs 3 (rice) are even lower than the rates at which they are currently given to the BPL population. So large sections of people facing malnutrition today can save here and spend on vegetables,fruits,pulses,meat and eggs. From that angle,it’s a very good decision. And ultimately,if any country cannot provide food security,then what type of administration is it?

So I am for the bill. But there is also the other side. All this is possible only if my farmer is able to produce a substantial quantity of the food. Today we are fortunate. Five or six years ago we had to import,but today India is the largest exporter of rice in the world,the second largest exporter of wheat and sugar. About six years ago we were importing cotton,today India is the second largest exporter of cotton. My export earnings from agricultural produce is about Rs 2,32,000 crore. Things are definitely changing. We have to constantly improve productivity so that the farmer is not disheartened.

Is that a concern?

My worry is not today or tomorrow,but when it (Food Security Bill) will be in full swing. Demand will grow. By next year,the subsidy bill will go up to Rs 1,25,000 crore. My worry is that any finance minister or finance secretary will not be happy with this burden and their advice to the council of ministers will be,don’t hike the minimum support price because this will only increase the burden. That will directly affect farmers. And if the farmer gets hurt,he will shift from crop A to B. If he shifts from wheat and rice to some other crop,how are we going to implement food security? We will have to import.

Secondly,what if there is one bad season due to drought or something? While we have made the provision in the bill to compensate financially,we will have to simultaneously make arrangements for food,and so we have to purchase from the international market. Now,international market players are worried that this could distort the global market. In fact,during lunch at the FAO meeting,I met agriculture and food ministers from many countries; they were asking curiously about the Food Security Bill. I asked them,why are you so curious? One of them said we are quite happy with the decision your government is taking,but we are worried that one bad year and you will come to the international markets,start purchasing and send prices shooting up because your demand will be high.

So,for that,we have no choice but to produce more. We have to provide money for irrigation,electricity,concentrate in a big way on research for development of new types of seeds. We have to see fertiliser is available. We have to develop the infrastructure of our marketing. We have to see that the farmer also benefits.

Will there be pressure on curbing exports due to the increased demand?

That’s why we have to produce more. I am of the view there should be no restrictions on export and import of agricultural produce. Now,there was lot of pressure to ban export of onions. While nobody is exporting onions because domestic prices are so good,we should take corrective measures in advance to avoid such a situation. Unfortunately,not everybody takes these issues seriously. We had sent a circular on June 21 to all state governments with an offer. Since we had information that there would be a problem of onions,we tied up for large quantities at a particular rate near Nashik and communicated to all states,but not a single government responded. I am the policymaker,but agriculture is a state subject; we can only sound them. We said Rs 15.50 per kg plus only 2 per cent administrative charges. We also said we will not only purchase,but also store. We had especially tied up for storage.

So,exports will be affected?

Yes,if we don’t take appropriate steps to improve production. But now the UPA government is quite serious about improving production. For instance,last year foodgrain production has gone up to 259 million tonnes,the highest in the last 60 years. In 2013-14,it will break all records because of the good monsoon. Till a few years back,we used to depend on Punjab,Haryana and Western UP. Yes,these are the important states,but the worry was that due to continuous rotation of rice and wheat,the groundwater and soil texture is being affected,resulting in fatigue in the soil. So,we introduced the concept of bringing a green revolution to eastern India — we concentrated on Bihar,Chhattisgarh,eastern UP,Orissa,West Bengal and Assam. We provided a lot of support and I must say,irrespective of which party the chief minister belonged to,each cooperated immensely. Today,a substantial quantity is coming from these states to the national kitty. You will be surprised Chhattisgarh is a major producer of rice today. Orissa is also a very important producer of rice. A speciality of these states is there is no shortage of water unlike in other states such as Maharashtra,Karnataka or Gujarat. The main problem was technology,quality seeds and making arrangements at the proper time. Because of all these efforts,these eastern states are producing 55 per cent of the country’s rice today. It has never happened before.

How is the country placed to meet the requirements of the bill?

What we produce today is sufficient to meet the requirements of the bill. But our efforts are not to take any risks and see how continuously we can improve production. That will give relief to the farmer and also allow him to continue to enter the international market as well as fulfil the domestic requirement.

But most steps you have identified are long-term in nature?

Some steps we can do immediately. Credit,why should we delay? Fertiliser,MSP,why should we delay? We have gone in that direction,that’s why we are here. But there my worry is about financial resources. There is one view in my party about the timing of this bill because of the weakening rupee. Certain sections in my party feel this is not the time to roll out populist schemes. But then this has been in the manifesto.

Do you share their view?

Not necessarily. Because we will not be able to implement this policy this year. Delhi and Haryana have done something,but not all states. The ordinance gives six months to all states to finalise the list of beneficiaries. We issued the ordinance in July,so the lists will be ready only by January. Eventually,we will be ready to fully start in the next financial year. So this year,when we are quite worried about economic issues,I don’t think there will be too much pressure on the economy because of this. There will be some states that will start,but their requirements will together not be that high.

Can genetically modified crops play a role in ensuring food security?

Firstly,nobody should oppose efforts in science and research in any field. India is very conservative about GM foods. Till date,we have only cleared one crop,cotton. Six years back,India was importing cotton. Last year,we exported 81 million bales of cotton,making us the second largest exporter. In 2003-04,the area under Bt cotton was 1.23 per cent of the total cotton cultivation of 137 lakh bales. In 2012-13,it is 91 per cent and production is 352 lakh bales. This jump shows that the farmer has accepted Bt cotton which has,in turn,influenced productivity. But knowing this well,we are very,very cautious. If we have to clear any crop,we do trials for years together in the north,east and west,even during different seasons. We see if there are any effects to the soil,cattle or on another crop and also human beings. So we take precautions from all angles and only after five or six years of observation does the government take any decision. Now,the Indian Council of Agricultural Research is in my department. We are doing this job. But the clearance for these varieties is not in my ministry. That we have kept in the environment ministry.

I can understand that we have to be very careful,but I don’t understand why ban,why not allow trials. There are a number of crops where our scientists have developed a good variety of transgenic crops but they are not even allowed to take trials. When we are discussing food security,we cannot bypass modern technology and new varieties that are providing more productivity. So in the larger interest of the nation and also from the food security angle,we cannot oppose GM just for the sake of opposition. Days ago,you had farmers from Punjab,Haryana,and even southern states demanding the removal of the ban. You see,we should take the views of those who are supposed to produce and not a few NGOs.

Are you disappointed at the state of economic reforms today?

Not at all. In fact,if you see the country’s growth rate,we have maintained above 7 per cent,except this year. Yes,we are facing problems. I am not saying we are in a healthy position but it’s the policy of liberalisation that has improved productivity. Take automobiles. In my state,I remember I was the chief minister and Fiat was a manufacturer and there was a quota for the chief minister to allot 10 vehicles every month. I recollect there was even a quota for Bajaj scooters. MLAs and other workers used to come to me with requests to allot a scooter. Today you see fleets of scooters and cars on sale across India. Prior to liberalisation,I argued with the industries minister to allow Fiat to produce more than 60 vehicles a day. So,there was even a restriction on how many vehicles one can produce in a day. Today that is not the case.

But should more have been achieved by now?

Well,at least we have done this much. Take the case of IT. Pune alone has 50,000 IT technocrats.

What about mining?

You see,there are certain issues on which,because of courts and environment,we couldn’t do much. The government policy was clear. But suppose the highest court of the country puts a total ban on mining,then what can we do? It has affected us. In fact,one of the reasons we are facing this problem today is because our export of iron ore is substantially down. The foreign exchange that used to accrue has now stopped. And even steel factories are unable to run at full capacity.

So,are courts at fault?

I am not blaming anybody. But I am making the point that whatever we have achieved is because of the policy of liberalisation.

What is your outlook for the future?

We should continue (with liberalisation). My own assessment is that this year agriculture alone can improve the economy of the country. If a substantial population,about 55-60 per cent that depends on agriculture,can produce well and get good prices,then their purchasing power is improved,which will impact other sectors. Rajiv Gandhi started this (liberalisation) process but then there was a gap. Then Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh — I was part of that government — took a bold decision and that paid dividends. Yes,there are exceptions like this year but then some other decisions are being taken to improve the investment climate.

There is a view that the situation is almost similar to the pre-1991 days.

Certain decisions that were taken have certainly created an impression in the eyes of a lot of people that we are going back. But if we have taken those decisions,we have also started taking corrective action. See,ultimately,we have no choice. Anyone can rule,but the policymaker has to improve the investment climate,take action in such a manner where your productivity and production is improved. And for that purpose,a restrictive policy in any sector will cause harm.

What were those decisions?

It’s not proper for me to get into this as I am part of the government.

Now that you won’t contest Lok Sabha elections,what is ahead for you?

I have had 46 years in politics without a break. Once you are in the hurly-burly of elections,either Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha,you are morally responsible to be always there for the electorate. I spend sleepless nights if I can’t pay enough attention! I feel this is the right time to enter the House of Elders. My party has two seats in Rajya Sabha which fall vacant in February. I intend to attend Rajya Sabha regularly.

As an elder in politics,what do you think of today’s young MPs?

I get the opportunity to meet young MPs because of my daughter who has many friends across parties. And on several occassions,they have come to my house. I feel happy the younger generation,irrespective of party,is taking up causes. Some years ago,they chose malnutrition. They went to Bhubhaneswar,visited two or three affected districts. They met Navin Patnaik and also me. It’s a good thing that youngsters are coming together on issues and not letting party rivalry come in the way. That is a good sign.

And what about Rahul Gandhi?

I don’t know. I have no personal knowledge about his abilities. His family background certainly equips him with better knowledge of various situations. He can assess them better. But I personally have had no association with him.

Should Rahul Gandhi be in Cabinet?

That is the prerogative of the Prime Minister and the Congress party,which is the largest party in our set-up. If they bring him in,then it will be a good thing.

What is your assessment of Narendra Modi?

My observation is that if anyone tries to project himself too early,he invites trouble. I think the BJP and Narendra

Modi have started their projections too early and with a definite position. I don’t know what will happen. Secondly,in coalition politics — which will continue — the PM candidate should be someone who has acceptability among all regional parties. In my view,the key figures after the next Lok Sabha elections will be Mamata,Navin,Mulayam Singh,Mayawati,Nitish and Jayalalithaa. They will get some definite numbers after the election. On their own,they may not be able to reach that magic figure,but without their support nobody will be able to reach that magic figure. Now,use your own brain on who will support whom.

What are the NCP’s plans?

We are with the Congress and will remain with the Congress. The UPA’s line will be our line.

Do you have aspirations to be the PM?

I have contested elections for 46 years,spent 28 of them as a minister here and there. I think I have had enough. Now,let me enjoy my life.

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