On April 30, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi undertook a padyatra of about 15 km in the Vidarbha region to register his sympathy and concerns for farmers. Vidarbha has been reeling under agrarian distress for many years, and has also been an epicentre of farmer suicides. Cotton being one of the primary crops of this region, some activists blame Bt cotton for farmers’ distress. Political analysts described Gandhi’s padyatra as version 2.0 of his re-entry into politics. But I am more concerned with his policy prescription to tackle this agrarian distress.
Gandhi’s main policy suggestion was that the NDA government should waive farmers’ loans, as was done by the UPA government in 2008-09. If loan waivers were a solution, one may ask, why did agrarian distress keep emerging after 2008-09? Obviously, the roots of this agrarian distress in Vidarbha, particularly in the cotton belt, run much deeper.
If our political masters are really interested in rooting out agrarian distress, especially in Vidarbha, they first need to understand the underlying causes in a dispassionate manner, without bringing in petty politics. Maharashtra has the largest area under cotton hovering around 4 million hectares (mha), comprising almost one-third of country’s cotton area (about 12 mha). The problem is that less than 3 per cent of the cotton area in Maharashtra is irrigated, compared to 36 per cent at the all-India level, 57 per cent in Gujarat and almost 100 per cent in Haryana and Punjab. As a result of this pitiably low irrigation cover for cotton in Maharashtra, its yield in 2012-13 was only 314 kg per ha (and highly volatile), compared to 603 kg per ha in Gujarat and almost 700 kg per ha in Haryana and Punjab. This is the root cause of despair amongst Maharashtra’s cotton farmers.
So, one lesson that needs to be learnt in the case of cotton in Vidarbha is that it must bring more area under irrigation. This is not rocket science and most agri-experts know that one of the key factors, besides good quality seeds, that help boost productivity and stabilise production in agriculture is the provision of assured irrigation. Is Maharashtra not aware of this? Or did it not accord high priority to irrigation? Let us examine a decade-long story of the 2000s, when the UPA ruled Maharashtra, and compare that with Gujarat when, through most of those years, Narendra Modi was chief minister. It would also help us to juxtapose the agriculture development model in the two states, under two different political set-ups.
During the period 2000-01 to 2010-11, Maharashtra’s cumulative public expenditure on irrigation at current prices was Rs 81,206 crore, which amounts to Rs 1,31,076 crore at constant 2014-15 prices. This public expenditure led to an increase in gross irrigated area from 3.9 mha in 2000-01 to 4.1 mha by the end of the decade, a meagre rise of only 5.1 per cent. In contrast, in Gujarat, the cumulative public expenditure on irrigation over the same period was Rs 39,369 crore at current prices, amounting to Rs 64,799 crore at 2014-15 constant prices. This was almost half (49.4 per cent) of what Maharashtra spent. But the gross irrigated area in Gujarat expanded from 3.3 mha in 2000-01 to 5.6 mha in 2010-11, an increase of almost 70 per cent. These contrasting results from expenditure on irrigation in two states and the actual irrigated area created tell the true story of distress in Maharashtra’s agriculture, and prosperity in Gujarat. Gujarat’s agriculture GDP registered an average annual growth rate of more than 9 per cent during this period. In Maharashtra, it remains a mystery how so much public expenditure on irrigation simply disappeared, as water disappears in sand, without adding much to irrigated area in the state. The brunt of this is borne by the aggrieved farmers of Maharashtra today. It has nothing to do with the Central government.
So, where do we go from here in terms of the padyatra, its politics and policies? A padyatra is always a good way to connect with people. It also draws the attention of the government of the day. In Indian politics, it has always been a potent political tool, be it Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 or L.K. Advani’s rath yatra in 1990. But the real solution lies in policies and their implementation. No one can say that Maharashtra did not get ample money to spend on irrigation. Maharashtra spent a lot, almost double what Gujarat spent, but how it spent and where the money went is the real issue that Rahul Gandhi needs to address. If he genuinely wants to help the farmers of Maharashtra, Rahul must dig deeper to get the real facts on this issue and let his party debate them. He will do a great service to the Indian peasantry. But a loan waiver, as suggested by Rahul, is myopic and cannot be a sustainable solution to agrarian distress. Investment in irrigation can, provided it is undertaken in a transparent manner and has tangible results in terms of a substantial increase in irrigated area.
The Narendra Modi government has realised the critical role of irrigation in agriculture, and accordingly launched the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana. The prime minister often speaks about “per drop, more crop”. But the allocation to the scheme so far is small (Rs 5,300 crore). States are spending from their own budgets, but for the country as a whole, investment in water (including irrigation) management remains low. Given the number of pending irrigation projects, thin spreading of resources leads to undue delays. Our back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the country will need to spend at least Rs 50,000 crore per annum for the next five years on irrigation, from major and medium irrigation schemes to drips and sprinklers, water sheds and check dams, if Indian agriculture has to be made more resilient to emerging climate change and raise productivity in agriculture.
Once farmers get water, they can buy better seeds and fertilisers to boost Indian agriculture. Can the prime minister and finance minister make it work? And can Rahul Gandhi take another padyatra to ensure water to our farmers?
The writer is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at Icrier