Somebody said the other day that every calamity provides an opportunity. I thought probably what it meant was like after incessant rains in the Himalayas and the resulting floods in the Indo-Gangetic plains, and after the damage has been done, the surging water leaves behind a layer of fertile soil. The calamity is over, and farmers can now look forward to a highly enriched soil courtesy flood waters.
I now realise that probably the scenario that I depicted is not what it actually means. At the time of the 2008 global food crisis, I am sure you would have observed that those who support the free trade regime, spearheaded by the director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), began justifying an early completion of the contentious Doha Development Round as the answer. A few months later, when economic meltdown began, the orchestra began chanting the mantra of free and liberalised trade as the way to emerge out of the global economic crisis.
While the rich and industrialised countries began to take a step back from the principles of liberalised trade by throwing in 'protection' measures, the developing countries were asked to further open up if they have to ensure that the negative impact of an economic slowdown is minimised.
How true. Every calamity does provide an opportunity. But the more important question is: an opportunity for whom?
Let us now zoom in to India. The continuing dryspell over the northwest and central parts of India, and the spectre of a looming drought, too provides an opportunity. For several weeks now, the media has focused on the erratic monsoons and tracked the dry days. I am often asked a question, that does irriate me, if the rural economy dips the FMCG sector which sells consumer durables is going to suffer which in turn would reflect on the national economy. Not many in the media are however concerned about the fate of millions of small and marginal farmers and agricultural workers who are languishing in a drought-like situation.
I was the other day on a TV show where a car manufacturer was being interviewed. The question asked to him was that will the continuing dryspell reduce the sale of cars in the rural areas. What a stupid question, I thought. When will the media began to to see economics beyond the sale of consumer goods? When will we understand economics as if the human beings matter?
The continuing dryspell and the spectre of drought is making way for another opportunity. I find the talk of setting up Special Agricultural Zones (on the lines of Special Economic Zones) gaining momentum. The Hindustan Times today carries a full page selling the idea. As part of the series Inspired India, it has even shown an artist's impression (under the head Ploughing for Profit) of what a Special Agricultural Zone would look like. The idea being that these specially demarcated areas would protect fertile lands from being lost, and focus on providing infrastructure like roads, markets and storage facilities in one compact area thereby making farming profitable again.
It sounds perfectly alright till you begin to see the politics behind it. Of course the inspiration comes from China, which according to the HT report has framed policies towards setting up Special Agricultural Zones. each zone will have first-class infrastructure, technology and access to markets. The proposed zones are already attracting foreign investment, from companies interested in helping set it up and from agro-professionals.
Well, I am sure you now know what I am trying to drive at. The Special Agricultural Zones in China are already attracting foreign investment. So it is quite obvious for whom the spectre of drought provides an opportunity.
Nevertheless, in a country where 60 per cent of the population is directly dependent upon agriculture, setting up of Special Agricultural Zones would mean that some islands of farm prosperity would be created in a sea of deprivation. There would be two kinds of agriculture -- the industrial and business model receiving bulk of the Budget incentives every year, and the rest of the countryside left to fend for themselves. For this huge mass of subsistence farmers, the NREGA will act as a lifeline. Already we know that in States like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, more than 60 per cent of the NREGA workforce comprise of farmers with small landholdings.
Special Agricultural Zones in any case would not be following crop models that bank upon sustainability. No business house or agribusiness firm is going to invest in sustainable farming practices. For the business, profit is the motive. Profit will come from intensive farming. And intensive farming will leave behind an ecological cost and social cost, which the poor farmer is expected to take care of. In other words, the Special Agricultural zones would be rendered barren and infertile after 4-5 years and since the land is pooled by the farmers as a cooperative, the companies will have nothing to lose.
I sometimes wonder why are our economists and planners so short-sighted. Why can't we look beyond corporate models for economic growth and development? Why can't we ensure that the entire rural India is turned into a Special Agricultural Zone? Is it difficult? Certainly not. All it requires is a visionary approach, which unfortunately is missing in the present breeds of economists and planners.
Several decades back, a semi-illiterate politician became the Chief Minister of Punjab. Not many of us would recall the name of Lachman Singh. He became Chief Minister for a short duration of about six months. He knew that he wouldn't last long, but was keen to enshrine his name in Punjab's history. Soon after taking over, he drove to Kharar (close to Chandigarh) to meet the distinguished agriculturist and administrator Dr M S Randhawa who lived in the outskirts of Chandigarh on his farm.
Dr Randhawa had once told me (he died some two decades back) that Lachman Singh seeked his advise as to what he could do so that he is remembered by the future generations. Dr Randhawa told him that he should provide for linking every village in the State with mandis (rural markets). Punjab farmers were reaping good harvest after the advent of Green Revolution, but much of their produce was not reaching the market for want of rural roads. If Lachman Singh could provide for a network of rural roads connecting the markets with the farms, Dr Randhawa's view was that it would help in sustaining the farm prosperity.
Lachman Singh did the rest. He not only provided the roadmap but also made financial provisions.
I am so glad that Dr Randhawa thought of entire Punjab as an agricultural zone. Imagine if he would have talked about a couple of Special Agricultural Zones within Punjab, the country wouldn't have achieved food self-sufficiency. More than 50 per cent of the country's food surplus comes from Punjab, and much of the credit for making that possible would go to Dr Randhawa and of course the political understanding exhibited by an illiterate politician. You don't have to be 'educated' to be wise.
I wonder when will we try to turn the recurring spectre of drought as an opportunity for the entire farming community. Treating the entire countryside as a Special Agricultural Zone is the best way forward.
I learn that the Uttarakhand government is planning to set up Special Agricultural Zones. I am aware that the class of visionaries like Dr Randhawa have become extinct, and so wiser sense is not prevailing. Uttarkhand's former Chief Minister Mr Khanduri had started a wrong precedence, and I fear other Chief Ministers will take it up quickly. There can be nothing more tragic than this.
Why such destructive things happen in the name of development? Well, let us not forget, it is money that makes the mare go. #