India’s 2016 Budget: Good for Farmers?

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India’s budget for the new financial year was announced yesterday. Earlier, the prime minister had described it as “pro-village, pro-farmer and pro-poor”. The announced objective of doubling farm income in five years is difficult to evaluate at this point but the additional support for the MNREGA scheme is expected to provide a boost to rural incomes.

The Economic Survey, identifying the roots of economic distress in the farm sector, noted: “The declining growth in agriculture owing to two consecutive drought years, and with decline in production and area sown of major crops, agriculture sector needs a transformation to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the farmers and food security for the population. The transformation in agriculture has to be steered by raising productivity in agriculture, by investing in efficient irrigation technologies, and efficient use of all inputs.”

The increasing scarcity of water, further exacerbated by climate change underscores the need for expansion of irrigation facilities and the allocation for this purpose may not be enough. Budgets in the past have also had the goal of improving irrigation but little progress has been made so more effort here would have been welcome.

While investment in irrigation is essential, the Survey also identified other stressors that need to be attended to: “agriculture requires a new paradigm with the following components: increasing productivity by getting “more from less” especially in relation to water via micro irrigation; prioritizing the cultivation of less water-intensive crops, especially pulses and oil-seeds, supported by a favorable Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime that incorporates the full social benefits of producing such crops .” Long term sustainable growth in agriculture needs more investment in research and extension so that new varieties that can withstand the changing growing conditions due to climate disruption are developed and farmers are informed about how to use these and other inputs effectively. How the government plans to achieve this is not clear.

The push for rural electrification and roads and the soil health card initiative are welcome steps forward. The push to bring more land under organic farming is a little confusing; for the vast number of rural poor struggling to eke out a living on poor quality soil without access to improved seeds or effective fertilizers, they are by default organic farmers. It is crucial that Indian agriculture avoid getting mired in the labeling game and focus on blending good farm practices that have been developed by our farmers over centuries and advances in agricultural biotechnology which have the potential to support drought and saline resistance, bring greater yields through pest resistance and via biofortification enable us to tackle widespread malnutriton and stunting.

On the whole though, the focus on agriculture is positive measure which will benefit the Indian economy as a whole. To sum up , from the Economic Survey again: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many indeed do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – the mother of all sciences; it remains the science which makes human life possible; and it may be that, before the century is over, the success or failure of science as a whole will be judged by the success or failure of agriculture.” –T.W. Schultz

With cautious optimism, it can be said this budget takes tentative initiatives in that direction of sustained progress.

(Image Courtesy: “Jodhpur, India, January 1, Unidentified Man Selling..” by Sira Anamwong, freedigitalphotos.net)

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