Slogans are pet political tools. They also reveal the direction in which the political masters of the day want the country to move. But unless slogans are backed with appropriate strategies and perseverance, they often fizzle out without delivery, remaining only as showbiz.
Late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri raised the slogan “Jai jawan, jai kisan” in the mid-1960s, highlighting the importance of the armed forces in securing our borders and farmers in ensuring our food security. After all, armies can’t march on empty stomachs. Even today, that slogan resonates and inspires.
Late PM Indira Gandhi’s most famous slogan was “Garibi hatao”, in the early 1970s. She took several socialist steps to eliminate poverty, including the takeover of wholesale trade in wheat and rice, only to be given up after a major fiasco. Has garibi vanished over all these years? UPA 2, on its last legs, was still counting whether the poor constituted 21 per cent, 30 per cent or 67 per cent of the population — the poor they wanted to provide highly subsidised food through the National Food Security Act, 2013.
But no past political master can match our present PM, Narendra Modi, in coining new slogans and catching the imagination of the masses. Who won’t like slogans like “Sabka saath, sabka vikas”, “Swachh Bharat”, “Make in India”, “Per drop, more crop”, JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile), and so on? Each is well intentioned, with a lot of showmanship. The lion of Make in India is now widely visible in every effort to woo investors. But in a number of recent meetings I’ve had with India’s top investors, one question that most had on their lips was, “Slogans are fine, but where is the commensurate strategy to turn it into reality?” And that’s worrying.
Let me dig a little deeper into at least one slogan I think can be the most fruitful. If implemented through a solid strategy, it can bring rich dividends, political and economic. And that’s “Sabka saath, sabka vikas”. It was meant to work across the spectrum of parties, states, socio-economic and religious groups. But where’s the strategy to make it a reality? I’m not an expert on how to get “sabka saath” to get work done in the Rajya Sabha, or how to promote harmony and tolerance, although I feel that India, in general, is quite tolerant.
But I’m definitely concerned with “sabka vikas”, and it’s here that I feel the government’s strategy is getting increasingly skewed in favour of those who are already better-off. We hear a lot about FDI, Make in India, smart cities, bullet trains, etc, which are going to benefit the middle and upper-middle classes. But we don’t hear, at the same pitch and frequency, what the government is doing to tackle deepening rural distress, the increasing water scarcity, including drinking water, etc. Why do we boast of our overall growth rate of 7-8 per cent, when agricultural growth was just 0.2 per cent in FY15 and is not likely to improve much in FY16? Chances are, it may be negative.
We are concerned about this because almost half the workforce and about 60 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture. If their growth is less than even their population growth, it should be a matter of serious concern, if not shame. The danger signals are clear: During November 2014-October 2015, tractor sales collapsed by 23 per cent over the corresponding period the previous year; fertiliser consumption — 141 kg per hectare (ha) in FY11 — has come down to 130 kg per ha in FY15. This sagging rural demand doesn’t auger well for industry. The lion of Make in India can’t run unless rural masses have the purchasing power to demand industrial products. Investors are increasingly asking when the rural economy will revive. The answer: There are no indications it can revive in the next one year. But yes, thereafter, it can, provided government policy towards agriculture is proactive and taken up on high priority.
What are the two or three big-ticket things the PM can do in the agri-food space to ensure “sabka vikas”? First, he needs to resurrect the crop insurance system urgently, with sums insured at, say, Rs 40,000 per ha, covering at least 100 million hectares, with premiums down to less than 3 per cent (Rs 1,200 per ha), half of which can be paid by the Centre, 25 per cent by states and the remainder by farmers. Crop damage assessment should be done through high-tech automatic weather stations, drones, low earth orbits and satellites within, say, a maximum of two weeks. All farm plots should be digitised and locked with owner/ tenant accounts, Aadhaar and phone numbers, and the compensation paid directly to farmers’ accounts without their asking. This will help stabilise farm incomes and also give a floor to our industry.
Next, the PM needs to turn to direct benefit transfer (DBT) of food and fertiliser subsidies. These subsidies exceed Rs 2,50,000 crore today. Converting them to DBT will help plug massive leakages, reach the poorest, and still save at least Rs 40,000 crore per annum, which can be used for augmenting and better managing agricultural water resources. This will, in turn, help in drought-proofing the agri sector.
Unless these big-ticket reforms are put in place, Modi’s slogan of “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” may remain a distant dream.
The writer is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at Icrier