Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised a new controversy with his teacher’- like exposition of the finances of the State Electricity Boards. In inaugurating a power station in Himachal Pradesh, the PM said free power to farmers is not justified and also asked for reducing power subsidies to farmers. This has raised a storm. The first to criticise the PM is the former Prime Minister Deve Gowda. Then, the CPI(M) secretary Prakash Karat raised the question of free power and asked for free power for poor farmers. He said the CPI(M) where it is in power, did not advocate free power. His advocacy of charging big farmers and “others with other resources” is very unclear and impractical. Better Mr.Karat ask the experienced hands in the UPA, like the DMK supremo and others!
May be, the CPI(M) is still trying to out up a brave face! Any fried of the poor, farmers must have to offer to the helpless PM some really useful help!
Then came the former AP Chief Minister Mr.Chandrababu Naidu. He of course is the most experienced Chief Minister with a track record to experiment with the abolition of free power and introduce the World Bank idea of charging a power tariff that was in accord with an economical working of the State Boards. In fact everyone applauded when the AP CM was doing this and as Naidu had pointed out that how Dr.Singh in his recent visit to AP had praised the working of the State government that gives free power. Naidu said: “On paper it is free power, but in fact it has put new burdens on farmers asking them to install capacitors”. The AP case is relevant for Naidu’s charging a tariff for power led to an outcry and the Congress promised free power. The first file signed by Dr.Rajasekhar Reddy was restoring free power! Now, Dr.Reddy himself is backtracking his promise in the face of realities. The Maharashtra government abandoned the free power midway in the face of economic crisis. On the PM’s statement, the AP CM, Dr.Reddy found himself in an embarrassing situation!
Out of the 1,529 farmers suicides during 2004-05, AP alone reported 758 such cases (between April 1,2004 and December 31,2004), an increase of 500 deaths in just nine months. Maharashtra alone has shown a substantial rise from 180 during 2003-04 to 524 during 2004-05, AP tops in farmers deaths and also farmers debts. Deve Gowda is rather blunt when he says that if the Congress is allowed to function alone, in the state, “another 1,000 farmers would die”. He had also recalled how the previous government in Karnataka was so callous, some 900 farmers died.
The problem had been written about so many times in these columns that now what matters is that Dr.Singh is exposing himself to be an insensitive Prime Minister, an economic expert he might be and he might quote any number of figures to justify his ‘academic’ expositions and calculations! The Prime Minister is becoming a prime target now for his total misunderstanding of the real human tragedies that are hitting the rural India, the agriculture India. He is totally unsuited to handle this growing rural India’s problem. He might be a good and silent administrator of policies. But when it comes to agriculture’s manifold problems he is better advised to seek expert help from those who know the subject.
May be one wise thing for him to do is to constitute a high power advisory council or a group with all those who had now expressed themselves on the subject. Certainly, such a farm advisory group for the PM must include such stalwarts like Deve Gowda, Chandrababu Naidu, Prakash Karat and of course the states where large number of farmers suicided had taken place. Why not include some leading media experts, journalists like P.Sainath who had been writing a lot on the subject In a latest despatch he cites the totally irresponsible acts of the government by giving or writing off so much of huge loans as unrecoverable from the big corporates while at the same time allowing the banks to convert the short-term farm loans into long term. Deve Gowda has spoken at some length and noted that how the Karnataka government had decided to give farm loans at 6 per cent while the Central government didn’t think fit to adopt this extremely wise decision on an all India scale.
Dr.Singh surely must consider first reducing the high interest rates on farm loans and how the banks are bleeding the farmers. The banks are shutting down the number of rural branches. In 1990 there were nearly 35,000 rural branches. By 2003, rural branches were down in absolute numbers as well in percentage terms. What the Prime Minister has got to say? People has a right to ask. Says P. Sainath in a recent column: “The UPA has no sense of how serious things are in the countryside. It seems to have forgotten what and who brought it to power”. The Government behaves itself,” as if May 2004 never happened”! There are reports that the private banks in particular are not able to find enough agri projects to lend their money to. So, they are either transferring the funds to the rural infrastructure fund or acting in concert with the large PSU banks.
The government by recent actions can be accused of becoming a pro-rich, pro-corporate -minded. It is gifting large chuncks of public money (Rs.45,000 crore write off in NPAs of big companies) to rich and the amounts work to, by one calculation, these write offs (16 per cent in 2004) could in part fund the primary education, rural health and many pro-poor schemes. While on education, the 2 percent much talked of education chess to go to the “Prathamik Shiksha Kosh” is yet to set up! So much for P.Chidambaram’s concerns and efficiency of administration!
It is the supreme irony of our farm strategy. We talk on the one side as if the farm sector is so important. And yet we also see or make policy to the end of not having enough farm development projects for which the banks have funds and yet they are not able to find enough farm projects. Deve Gowda had also spoken about how the land reforms activities had reduced farm holdings to unviable units. So, what have got the CPI(M) with its tongue in cheek tears say as to how to proceed? Should we talk of land reforms still and also ask for farm development? How to lend to these unviable tiny units? What has got the CPI(M) say to the current agriculture problems? We have to invite and make the W.Bengal CM too a member of the PM advisory group so that the country would at least has a chance to know how to lend more funds for farmers at the grass roots.
It is terribly frustrating to talk and talk in circles. We have no honest, open debate about what has to be done in the agri sector.
We have to make the agri sector attractive enough for private investors. This doesn’t mean at once giving away lands to big corporates. Nor does it imply drive out the poor from the lands. It simply means a honest, pro-farmer policy that would encourage a set of things, from training new entrepreneurs in farm sector, reforming our agri education and research priorities. There must be more market savvy skilled manpower forthcoming from our agri universities. There are some real obstacles. Old hands are now proving to be real obstacles to agriculture innovations!
Our plea is very practical “please listen to experienced hands. Then, listen to a cross section of farmers themselves. Finally, let the government know what new and innovative agri projects are going on and how they are succeeding in a market-driven environment. New crops, new processings, new management approaches, contract farming, exports, Internet -driven agri market innovations are some of the newer things we are working on. It is time to change our mindset. Time to change our course of direction. Time to look for innovations and give it a boost by government and policy support.