The key orientation of the Economic Survey 2020 is towards denying the overall slowdown and distortions in the economy, making India into an exporting hub by adding an “Assemble in India” component to the earlier “Make in India” focus, and in promoting privatisation and wealth creation. The finance minister’s deliberations second the Survey’s focus on an industry, manufacture and infrastructure-oriented economy and reduce the common person’s concerns to declining food costs, or what the Survey presents as a “Thalinomics”.
What significance do declining food costs have for the agriculturist and the rural and agrarian economy are questions that are not addressed. In fact, the Budget entails the failure to see the linkages between ecological conditions, land holding size, livelihoods and the larger economy. By neglecting to understand the complex rural and agrarian economy, the Budget continues to foster sharp rural vs urban and agriculture vs industry divides. Worse still, there appears an unstated assumption that farmers are citizens who are dispensable to both the nation and to society.
Is it any surprise that a government that came to power largely by disseminating a populist Budget in 2018, which made PM-KISAN a flagship programme, should now place farmers and agricultural issues as only a footnote to the economics of food? Agricultural and rural issues seem to be placed under the “aspirational India” rubric, with an assurance for crop insurance so that farming can be “competitive and liberalised”. In reinforcing the integration of the agricultural sector into the financial and market system, this government is strengthening the adverse integration of even small and marginal farmers. That such forms of integration only exploit the resources and labour of disadvantaged farmers while subordinating them to the capital, chemical inputs, and technology markets is forgotten.
Agriculture is a state subject and, therefore, a key part of the federal system (and the rights and autonomy of states). The FM’s call for all states to adopt and implement the three key Model Agricultural Acts that the BJP has formulated has significance in this regard. Although farmers are referred to as “annadata”, no real allocations were announced to improve the overall living and livelihood opportunities of a majority of farmers. Despite studies indicating the positive impact of MNREG schemes, the allocation seems to have decreased this year and the past arrears to various states have been put into limbo. The Economic Survey critiques the periodic agricultural loan moratorium (which only benefits large farmers and creates a range of problems) but makes no recommendations as to how the problems of agricultural profitability can be addressed. If the Budget meant to address this, and to focus on resolving the problem of the extant conditions of soil and water depletion, the onset of climate change and the devastation that periodic droughts and floods have wrought on the rural landscape, it might have considered making support payments to farmers for conserving their soil, water and seeds.
There is an absurdity with which agricultural productivity and marketing are to be supported. Recommendations are made to convert dry lands into solar energy generating parks, a scheme called Krishi Udaan is to provide civil aviation facilities to make air transportation of agricultural produce possible, overlooking how monocultivation has been devastating and is fraught with ecological problems, the FM recommends a “One District, One Product” or cluster-based type of cultivation. The BJP’s most populist programme, the PM-KISAN scheme (from which only 26.6 percent of eligible farmers have received the full benefit so far) is reiterated as being one of the “five jewels” that will make farmers and the nation prosperous. Not much has been done to promote farmer-producer organisations. That many of the schemes suggested for rural India are either misplaced or are contradictory to the dominant trends is to be assessed in the domain of seeds. Citing the need to conserve seeds and recognise the role of rural women, the FM suggested a scheme called Dhanyalakshmi in which women’s self-help groups will be able to get loans and support to set up seed storage centres. Such a suggestion is perhaps meant to hide the fact that the government has been active about subordinating the nation’s farmers to international seed regimes, including the corporate control of seeds via GMOs.
Although the FM claims to promote a “caring society” there was no mention of special support to families where the heads of the households have committed agriculture-related suicides. Despite the fact that several civil society organisations and victim families have petitioned the government for support to widows and children of agricultural suicide victims, they have largely been ignored. Attempts to address the severe water crisis in the nation is linked to promoting new water conservation schemes in 100 water-stressed districts of the nation but no substantial allocations or plans have been made to have an integrated water use and conservation policy.
This Budget lacks the vision to craft a policy and allocate suitable funds to address the myriad problems of rural India. Rural India’s challenges have become sharply manifest in the high proportion of land that is uncultivated, the decline in food crops, and the devastation wrought by droughts and floods. Our current crop of elected representatives have largely become mouthpieces of the ruling party and most seem far removed from any concern with rural issues. So, the onus for these trends and conditions must now be placed squarely on the electorate that has elected such representatives who seek to provide only poisoned thalis for the “annadatas”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 3, 2020 under the title ‘For farmers, an empty plate’. The writer, a social anthropologist, is based in Bengaluru
Opinion | PB Mehta writes: Budget 2020 reads like a five-year plan with lots of targets but no road map
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