We must stop treating the Covid Relief Package as a holdall into which every action of the government, including agriculture reform, is conveniently stuffed in.
As far as Covid relief goes, we will see more and more of the welfare state return through schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Public Distribution System.
In a country ravaged by famines, it was natural that food security should have become the dominant paradigm of its agriculture policy post Independence. Public works’ programmes have been historically been used in India to provide employment at time of distress — the MGNREGS is a successor to those programmes.
Post Independence, India witnessed three recessions — all of them a result of distress in agriculture. However, 2020 is the first recession in which agriculture is the only sector seeing normal growth of 2.5% — provided the allied supply chains function.
On the larger question of reform, the enabling law or ordinance is like the bullet train we aspire for — however a bullet train still needs tracks to run on!
While we have found it easy to pass ordinances and laws, we continue to lack the wherewithal to implement them. We must find honest answers to the question: why farmers have not gotten proper prices even in states that abolished the APMC?
Policy thrust remains top down when the hard labour needs to be done at the grassroots. Building tracks on the ground has been the difficult part — that is something that must be done in what is a difficult and extremely diverse terrain.
India graduated to a food surplus economy with the successes of the Green Revolution. However, the policy paradigm remains unchanged. A mindset of scarcity inspires millions of tonnes of surplus food rotting in government godowns.
Minimum Support Price (MSP) policies have only shifted production preferences to wheat and rice — the issues afflicting India’s richly diverse agriculture remain unattended.
Agriculture support remains focused on doles and loan waivers. Resources are not spent on improving agricultural infrastructure.