It is time to celebrate the biggest spectacle of democracy on this planet. About 900 million people are eligible to exercise their right to choose their representatives to the Lok Sabha. This festival of democracy will last for about a month-and-a-half. Notwithstanding several shortcomings of democracy, it appears better than dictatorships or centralised communist regimes. China may have done better when it comes to economic growth, but can Indians accept the one-child norm that China enforced between 1981 and 2016? Can there be open dissent in China’s media about its government’s policies as we have on Indian media channels? The obvious answer is no. We can accept a lower growth rate of 7 per cent per annum, compared to China’s 9-10 per cent, but cannot compromise on our democracy, no matter how messy it is.
But a political system must lead to policies that improve people’s welfare. The state’s first duty is to provide security to the lives and property of people. Next, it must eliminate poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. The entire gamut of policies should work towards this fundamental objective. Our record on this front is mixed — the glass is only half full. That should be the central point of the debate in this election.
Since more than two-thirds of our population still lives in rural areas and their main occupation is agriculture, agri-food policies are crucial to the welfare of the masses. The manifestos of political parties should be evaluated by keeping this yardstick in mind.
Since the mid-1960s, when India was living from “ship to mouth” for basic foodgrains, and when people used to queue up for two hours to get two litres of milk, even in Delhi, India has come a long way. Bold, timely and rational policies undertaken by governments of the day — the Congress, BJP or coalition governments — brought about the Green Revolution (wheat and rice), White Revolution (milk), Red Revolution (meat, especially poultry), Blue Revolution (fisheries), Golden Revolution (fruits and vegetables), Gene Revolution (cotton) and so on. India is today the largest exporter of rice, buffalo meat and the second largest exporter of cotton. Overall, it is a net exporter of agri-produce — although in the last five years, agri-export surpluses have come down significantly.
Those who say that they have done more work in the last five years than the Congress did in 55 years only reveal their arrogance and ignorance of India’s history. Surely, some governments do better than the predecessor in some respect or the other, but they also do worse. If we compare the NDA’s performance with UPA 2, the former comes out better in road construction but much worse in agriculture performance — agri-GDP grew at 2.9 per cent per annum as compared to 4.3 per cent under UPA 2. Over a longer period, since 1991, the Indian economy has attained a growth of 6.8 per cent, and the agri-GDP has grown at about 3.15 per cent. And, it is likely to continue roughly at this pace unless bolder policy decisions are undertaken to spur further growth.
While we feel proud of what India has achieved in the food and agri-sector, policy-makers cannot be complacent. The task of eliminating hunger and malnutrition remains an unfinished one. The Global Poverty Clock puts India’s poverty at about 5.5 per cent in 2018 (there is no figure from the government on poverty after 2011) but the Global Hunger Index for 2018 ranked India 103 out of 119 countries The country’s score on the hunger index (31.1) is the highest amongst all BRICS countries, almost four times higher than that of China, and has been categorised as “severe” (see graph). While we gloat about the improvement in India’s ranking (77th) in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, we don’t want to talk about India’s hunger index ranking, which is the real indicator of people’s welfare. That reflects the elitist biases in our politics and policy-making. Can any political party promise in its manifesto that in the next five — or even 10 — years, that India’s GHI ranking will improve so that the country is among the top 50 countries, if not 25? That will require a major shift in policies.
It is in this context that we look at what Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have recently announced as direct income support (DIS) to certain sections of society. While PM Modi has announced Rs 6,000 per year per farm family (owning upto 2 ha) under the PM-KISAN scheme, costing roughly Rs 75,000 crore to the exchequer, Rahul Gandhi has promised a Rs 72,000 per family per year support for the bottom 20 per cent (5 crore) of the population, through NYAY, which may cost the exchequer nearly Rs 3.6 lakh crore. Both these policies, in a way, acknowledge that small and marginal farmers as well as the bottom 20 per cent of the population have not benefited from the current set of policies as much as they should have. These, then, are desperate attempts to get votes. Both schemes are supposed to be add-ons to the existing subsidy schemes. Both schemes beg the question: From where will the resources come and how will the potential beneficiaries be identified? There are no fool-proof lists about incomes of people — even land records of farmers.
Solutions are not easy. Much groundwork is required before such schemes can be effectively rolled out. But who has the time? It is time to promise the moon and then go scot-free without fulfilling promises.
It is here that the media has a national obligation to ask tough questions to political leaders and educate voters to make better choices.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 1, 2019, under the title ‘A festival of rash promises’. The writer is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER.