New Delhi: Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget 2020 spells out sporadic measures to enhance farmers’ income without rising to the challenge of reviving rural economy and putting money in the hands of consumers.
The agriculture sector grew by 2.1 per cent of the GDP in the second quarter 2019-20, whereas it needs to grow consistently by at least 4 per cent to substantially contribute to the economy.
Raising rural demand and employment opportunities was what was expected of the budget at a time when the economy needs to be revived.
While seeking the cooperation of States in adopting sustainable cropping patterns and bringing in technology, Sitharaman said incentives shall be incumbent on States adopting Model Laws in Land Leasing, Livestock Marketing and Livestock Contract Farming and Services, these being the new areas of enhancing farmers’ incomes.
The 70 th Round of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2014 had found that the average monthly income of an agriculture household was Rs. 6,426 in 2012-13 from integrated crop cultivation, livestock rearing, wages and non-farm activity.
If the Finance Minister did not touch upon the flagship programmes of the government including Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and PM Kisan Samman Nidhi (economic assistance of Rs 6000 per year), it is because the spending in both the sectors has been lower than allocation last year. Kisan Samman Nidhi has again been allocated Rs 75,000 crore in 2020-21, to cover 14 crore farmers out of a total agriculture and allied sector allocation of Rs 1,42,762 crore. MNREGS gets Rs 61,500 crore.
Parampragat Krishi Vikas Yojna or organic farming had always been on the radar of the BJP-led NDA government. To this Sitharaman had added Zero Budget Natural Farming (a process of non-chemical farming with impressive returns) as a "sub-scheme" in her July 2019 budget presentation and termed it as "going back to basics".
But whether in her July 2019 budget, or in Union budget 2020, presented in Parliament on Saturday, the FM did not back her proposal with any fund allocation to promote ZBNF.
In fact, after she mentioned ZBNF in her July 2019 budget speech, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research scrambled to set up a committee for studying the efficacy of the technique which is being practiced largely in Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra.
The technique that involves creation of manure from a combination of indigenous cow urine, dung, gur, pulse flour, water and soil, was invented by Subhash Palekar of Vidarbha, which has seen the highest number of farmers’ suicides since 1995.
The idea is to treat the soil for fertility and seeds for quality and cut out input costs that contribute to unpaid debts by farmers. ZBNF is in harmony with nature. The technique-good for farmers with small and marginal land holdings- is being eyed by the government for its stated aim of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.
The Organic Farming sector has only received platitudes from successive finance ministers, no real backing whereas it is crying for incentives/subsidies, training of farmers, ease of certification, extension services, and markets. Eventually organic produce, though expensive but much in demand, is intended to enter the export market in a big way.
"Integrated farming systems in rainfed areas shall be expanded. Multi-tier cropping, bee-keeping, solar pumps, solar energy production in non-cropping season will be added. Zero Budget Natural Farming (mentioned in July 2019 budget) shall also be included," she said in her speech, adding that the portal on "jaivik kheti" shall be strengthened.
Some efforts have been made to involve youth in fishery extension through 3,477 "Sagar Mitra" scheme in coastal areas but again there is no serious exercise to get youth interested in agriculture sector which is seen as unremunerative.
Perhaps owing to their good record of returning loans, Self-Help Groups of women will be involved in Village Storage scheme for enhancing harvest holding capacity of farmers and in Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojna or alleviation of Poverty.
Another attempt at bringing some income to farmers’ with barren/fallow land will be through helping them to set up solar power generation capacity and sell it to the grid. Individual farmers will also be enabled to solarise their grid-connected pumps.
The budget stated government’s intent to rationalise fertilizer subsidy by encouraging balanced use of fertilizers including traditional organic ones as against incentivised use of chemical fertilizers. Budgeted subsidy for 2020-21 is Rs 71,345 crore.
Focusing more on agri-businesses, the Finance Minister outlined a proposal to run a refrigerated 'Kisan train' for perishables including milk, meat and fish in public-private-partnership mode. The extent of public partnership will have to be seen as the private sector has avoided investing in the food processing sector despite huge incentives.
Likewise, for value realisation of horticulture and floriculture produce, the government will launch "Krishi Udan" air freight.
As has become a norm, the institutional credit available to farmers has been hiked to Rs 15 lakh crore this year and the Kisan Credit Card has been linked to PM Kisan Samman Nidhi under which farmers get an annual income assistance of Rs 6,000.
The focus on 100 water scarce districts is a welcome step as also the attention to foot and mouth and other livestock diseases which take a toll every year. However, the PM Fasal Bima Yojna needed tweaking to meet the aspirations of farmers.
(Gargi Parsai is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.)