Jul 7, 2009

Budget 2009: Cultivating Agriculture

Guest Column - Devinder Sharma
The Telegraph, Kolkata, July 7 2009

Call it a Thanksgiving budget or a much-needed push to social spending; Pranab Mukherjee has provided a neat blend of economic stimulus that targets the rural and agriculture sector comprising nearly 70 per cent of the population.

For a crisis-ridden agriculture sector, suffering more from an acute paucity of farm labour, Pranab Mukherjee has tried to apply the balm by integrating the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) with agriculture, forests and water conservation. By doing so, the finance minister has shifted the focus of the flagship programme from digging roads and ponds and turned it into a more meaningful and productive investment.

This in reality is an economic stimulus that the agriculture sector was eagerly waiting for. To be launched in 115 pilot districts and, with an enhanced budgetary allocation of Rs 39,100-crore, the NREGS (for agriculture) will now be able to rescue an ailing farm sector. In my opinion, the integration of NREGS with agriculture and forestry should provide the right impetus. Instead of launching new schemes, it is much more useful to ensure how the existing programme be made more effective.

Increasing the credit flow to the farm sector from the existing Rs 2,87,000-crore to Rs 3,25,000-crore, providing relief to farmers by extending the loan recovery period to the end of the year, and setting up a task force specially for the Vidharba farmers are surely steps in the right direction. Add to it the correction promised in fertiliser usage by shifting the subsidy from product base to a balanced application of nutrients base will help in removing the imbalance in fertiliser application that has led to the destruction of soil health.

After the farm loan waiver in 2008, I wasn’t expecting any sensational announcements in agriculture, but surely Pranab Mukherjee has tried to make an effort in bridging the urban-rural divide by pushing social welfare spending. Besides the promised National Food Security Act and the enhanced outlay in NREGS, the UPA government has made budgetary allocations for the unorganised workers including weavers, fishermen, toddy tappers, leather and handicraft workers, plantation workers, bidi workers and rickshaw pullers.

Health insurance for the BPL families, under which 46 lakh families have been covered in 2008-09, an additional Rs 2,057-crore allocation over the interim budget provisions of Rs 12,070-crore under the National Rural Health Mission, providing interest subsidy for the self-help groups, housing for urban poor, the Adarsh gram yojna for the dalit villages are surely welfare schemes that need to be appreciated. The plan to bring every child under the age of 6 years under the Intensive Child Development Scheme (ICDS) comes at a time when it has been estimated that 47 per cent of Indian children below the age of 3 are malnourished.

At a time when climate change is emerging as a major global issue, the finance minister has promised to make allocations for the eight missions under the national action plan on climate change. More than treating climate change as a separate subject, I suggest the government takes appropriate corrective steps in its economic policies and programmes. In fact, much of the global crisis arising from climate change is the result of faulty economic policies, and it is here that I don’t see any realisation on the part of the government to nip the evil in the bud.

THE AUTHOR HAS BEEN A MEMBER OF SEVERAL PANELS ON AGRICULTURE

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