Updated: August 27, 2015 1:10:12 pm
Three-time Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar, who was at the helm of Krishi Bhawan for 10 years, in an interview with Harish Damodaran, analyses the current agricultural situation and this government’s performance on the farm front. Excerpts:
How do you assess this government’s performance in agriculture so far?
One year is too short a time. In agriculture, whatever you plan and execute takes 2-3 years to have an impact. Also, agriculture under the Constitution is a state subject. The Centre can just guide and provide financial resources for certain important schemes. But even there, the execution is totally with states. The other area where the Centre has a role is in research. This is a major responsibility because research requires lot of money and expertise. There are over 90 institutes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) dealing with different crops, each engaging in research and also extension services. The results of research have to ultimately reach the farmer.
ICAR has limitations, but its institutes can definitely communicate their research to the various state agriculture departments. Fortunately, we have more than 5,000 scientists working in ICAR institutes. The agriculture ministry has to see that their good research percolates down to the fields through the state agricultural departments and the 70-odd state agricultural universities. These universities also have a big role in education, research and extension. Besides, they have the infrastructure to undertake demonstration trials and make available the new seeds that farmers will eventually use. The Centre’s job at a national level is to motivate, encourage and support the states, and also the scientists, professors and vice chancellors working in various agricultural institutes and universities.
The farm sector under you did quite well in terms of growth. To what extent was it due to luck — mainly high global commodity prices — and how much really policy-induced?
It was basically policy. Firstly, the financial budget for agriculture prior to me was meager. I saw to it that enough money was made available, particularly for research and extension services. Secondly, one has to motivate the entire team, including state governments, which was my whole thrust. That is how in 2013-14, we produced 265 million tonnes of foodgrains, the highest since independence. Besides, India became an important player in the international market.
Earlier we were importing, but now we became the world’s largest rice exporter and the second biggest in wheat, sugar, cotton, and buffalo meat. Even if you see the commodity prices of last 9-10 years, they were not uniformly high. In sugar, for instance, global prices between 2004 and 2007 were lower than even current levels. They started going up only from 2008.
But things are different today. Take sugar, where mills will start the new season with over 10 million tonnes stocks. We had the same level of opening stocks even during your time in 2007-08 and 2008-09. How did you deal with a similar situation then?
The only solution is exports, for which whatever is the gap between the global market price and the domestic production cost has to be filled by the Centre. In our time, we provided substantial quantum of subsidy for exports thrice — in 2004, 2006 and also February 2014. The first two times, though, the international market changed substantially once we started exporting. So, the eventual subsidy burden turned out much less.
It only proves you were lucky then. This time, we seem to be in a permanent bear phase.
I’m not sure. The latest crop reports from Brazil aren’t very good: You have drought there. The government should substantially support exports, which is the only solution.
What about enforcing more ethanol-blending in petrol or building a sugar buffer stock on government account?
I welcome the Prime Minister’s emphasis on ethanol and increasing blending levels. But today, out of the 550 or so sugar mills in India, only 140-150 have distilleries. Ethanol is a long-term solution that will take time.
The immediate priority should be to reduce stocks, for which exports are the only way out. Buffer stock won’t help because this sugar will only remain within the country. It will not improve the price sentiment. If I am a trader and I know you have got ample stocks, why should I buy? Today sugarcane growers are in trouble because realisations for mills are poor. The government is, on the other hand, saving lakhs of crores because of lower commodity prices, especially oil. At least a small part of these savings can be used to help out our farmers.
Things seem particularly bad in Maharashtra, with mills selling sugar at Rs 1,900 per quintal and cotton also down. Even milk is reportedly fetching Rs 16-17 per litre.
Farmers are getting Rs 15-16. Milk prices have really come down, even while fodder and water charges have gone up, more so with drought. Maintaining animals today is not easy. Even providing drinking water to every cattle requires spending Rs 15-20 per day. On top of it, there is Rs 150-200 per day fodder cost. The situation in cotton is not that bad, but still the market is down. Moreover, it’s not just Maharashtra. Even Uttar Pradesh has sugar mills. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh also grow cotton.
How serious is the drought in Maharashtra?
Vidarbha has had good rains and there is not much problem, except in districts like Akola and Buldhana. But in Marathwada, the entire region has a problem. Take Latur. The town alone has half a million population and the people there are now getting even drinking water once in 15 days. The water is reservoirs may also be enough only till September.
After that, they will have to bring water from somewhere else. The chief minister is planning to start water trains for bringing water to Latur from Pandharpur about 180 km away. Other districts in Marathwada are facing similar situation. Even in western Maharashtra — right from Nasik, Ahmednagar and Pune to Satara, Sangli and Solapur — there is a serious drinking water problem. I was, on Monday, at a meeting of the state cooperative sugar factories federation. Everybody there was saying that it would be difficult to start crushing operations because there is no water this time for sugar mills themselves. Nor is the cane crop in good condition because of the Maharashtra government’s decision to reserve water from reservoirs only for drinking purposes. Irrigation will obviously receive second priority, but it will also affect the crop.
On the whole, is this government relatively indifferent towards agriculture? You talked of the Centre’s role in promoting farm research. Does it concern you that institutions like the Indian Agricultural Research or Pusa Institute are without directors?
I don’t understand why there is delay in appointing a director for more than one year. And there are so many vacancies (in other ICAR institutes), I don’t know why.
We did a story about you writing a letter to the Prime Minister seeking doing away with state-level approvals for field trials in genetically modified (GM) crops.
Jairam Ramesh, while he was environment minister, had practically stopped trials. So far, we have released just one GM variety, i.e. Bt cotton. Many other GM crops — including Bt brinjal and corn — were ready for release and yet we were taking trials again and again. Now, even trials have been stopped, which is too much. That’s why I wrote to the PM: How can you stop research or trials? If a particular GM crop is creating problems for other crops or for humans, animals, soil, water and environment, one can think of not giving clearance. But that does mean not allowing field trials.
Isn’t this government only doing what the UPA was?
I think the PM is quite serious. His approach was quite positive when he was Gujarat chief minister. Under him, Gujarat allowed trials of various crops, whereas Bihar under Nitish Kumar stopped all trials.
Will you, then, say agriculture isn’t receiving adequate attention from this government, despite Narendra Modi?
The present agriculture secretary Siraj Hussain is a good officer. He was doing extremely good work under me. I don’t know what are the issues and problems they are now facing. Whether there are budgetary constraints or cuts in allocations, I haven’t gone into all these.
What about new initiatives like the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana? The focus now is more on micro-irrigation based on drip/sprinkler systems and building farm ponds to harness rainwater, rather than large irrigation projects.
Anything for irrigation is a good thing. But drip irrigation and farm ponds also requires water. There has to be a source of water from somewhere. Like, in Latur, they are talking of bringing water by rail all the way from Pandharpur. Also, drip and sprinkler irrigation requires money. What is the total budgetary provision they have made? Hardly Rs 400-500 crore! If you were to install drip systems for sugarcane, it costs more than Rs 20,000 per hectare. How many farmers can afford this? And, 80-85 per cent of sugarcane holdings are below one hectare.
If the current low commodity price regime continues, won’t it lead to many farmers going out of business?
Where will they go? What alternatives do they have? In the coming days, there will be more pressure on government to provide help to farmers: low interest rates, subsidies, financial support for basic infrastructure and price support.
Is it possible today to implement the Swaminathan committee formula to fix MSPs to cover 50 per cent of production costs?
Well, the BJP (when we were in power) was insisting that the Swaminathan formula be implemented. They have to implement it.
But the agriculture ministry has recently submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court that the formula cannot be implemented.
Have they? I don’t know. My expectation is that this government will encourage research and extension services and also ensure prices of agricultural produce are at such levels that viability is not disturbed. The main thinking today seems to be to ensure that prices of essential commodities come down. I have nothing against that thinking. But simultaneously, production and productivity at the farm should not get affected. It is equally important to focus on production cost and remunerative prices.
What is your reaction to the government practically banning onion exports?
This happened even when I was agriculture minister. There was a ban on onion, sugar and milk powder exports. But they were temporary. I think this government’s focus is more on the consumer than on producers. Generally, there is a pressure from the urban population and this government is more likely to succumb to that pressure. My worry is it will affect production not today, but in future, as farmers will shift from onions to some other crop. If you see onions prices, there are hardly 15 days to two months where the farmer gets to make some money. In the rest 9-10 months of the year, the prices are at levels where even production costs aren’t easy to recover. Our government actually had a scheme where we, for the last 5-6 years, were financing the setting up of onion storage structures by farmers to allow them to get better prices.
What do you think of this government’s efforts to promote organic farming and indigenous cattle breeds?
Organic farming is good, but it will not solve the issue of hunger. For a populous country like India, we have to guarantee availability of food. Organic cannot be a solution for availability. Similarly, it is all right if somebody is happy to maintain indigenous breeds. That is his personal choice. But it should not be policy. Ultimately, we have to improve production and productivity, which in milk cannot happen without crossbred cows. The country’s real milk problem has been solved by these Holstein and Jersey types of cows, not traditional cows. With traditional cows, you will get 2-3 litres of milk; with crossbreeds, it is 14-15 litres.
And what about the Maharashtra government banning slaughter of all cattle?
It was a foolish decision. Farmers are very unhappy with the ban. What will they do with the animals that are not useful? Since they won’t get a single buyer now, they will just leave the cattle loose. There will be lot of abandoned animals.
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