Sep 26, 2013

Punjab Chief Minister warns against the tyranny of markets.


Harvesting in progress in Punjab

You can feel the anguish when Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal talks about the plight of farmers. Recently at a New Delhi conference (See the link here: http://bit.ly/1848rxW, he spoke about the conspiracy to ‘destabilize Indian agriculture’ and warned policy makers to be doubly cautious of the “advocates of the tyranny of the free market economy.” They will end up destroying India's food self-sufficiency, he warned. 

Food security is no less important than national security, and therefore he wants agriculture to be treated at par with defence services. 

A few days before the New Delhi conference, he was speaking at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Agriculture Summit that Narendra Modi had organized in Ahmedabad. Deviating from the written text, Mr Badal had lashed out at the votaries of the free market economy saying that if agriculture is lost, everything is lost. Amidst a loud applause, he said that many experts are being planted in India to undo the remarkable achievements of the Green Revolution, and once again make the country stand with a begging bowl. 

Several decades back, I remember Mr Badal’s loud warning against the continuous neglect of agriculture and the apathy towards farming. He was addressing a national conference. “This is a sleeping elephant,” I recall his words: “You ignore them at your own risk. Once the elephant wakes up, it will make you all run for cover.” And during the NDA regime when the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to decentralize foodgrain procurement, Prakash singh Badal led the group of chief ministers who opposed the move vehemently. Mr Vajpayee had to drop the proposal considering the strong opposition from chief ministers of the frontline agricultural states.

The Punjab’s agriculture story is well known. As a student of agriculture, and then as an agricultural journalist, and finally as a policy researcher and analyst, I have had a ring side view of the remarkable strides taken in agriculture. Once the pride of the country, Punjab’s farmers have now turned into a national burden. So much so that the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) leads a campaign to dismantle the food procurement system that has sustained Punjab’s agriculture ever since the days of the Green Revolution. Under the premise of making agriculture market-friendly, CACP chairman Mr Ashok Gulati, is actually finding fault with the higher and assured procurement prices Punjab farmers get every season.

In its Kharif report, CACP has even listed States according to its market-friendliness. These are Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal among others where paddy farmers for instance get a price of not more than Rs 900 per quintal. Punjab is at the bottom of the chart since farmers get an assured procurement price which is relatively high. CACP’s argument is that in a market economy, the assured procurement prices should be withdrawn. This is what has irked Mr Badal, and he has made it clear that any effort to dismantle the procurement system will destroy the very foundations of food self-sufficiency.

Interestingly, while Dr Ashok Gulati has been opposing wheat and paddy procurement prices, he has been advocating introduction of a procurement price for maize so as to shift the acreage from paddy under the recently launched crop diversification programme in Punjab. Intriguing, isn’t it? What is not good for wheat and paddy is being projected as savior for maize farmers.

At a time when it is generally believed that the era of price policy is over, the policy thrust is to move farmers away from the assured income through procurement prices to building entrepreneurship and linking farmers to the markets. This is where Mr Badal has time and again expressed his concerns. And, rightly so. But what I still don’t understand is that despite chief minister’s warning, the State’s agricultural policy is still designed on the same market economy pattern that he finds fault with. The ‘sharks’ in the free market economy will therefore continue to prevail.

I am often asked as to what a land-locked state like Punjab can do to prop up its economy if it does not shift farmers out of agriculture? Farming cannot sustain the economy, nor can the average household incomes go up. Land acquisition for the sake of industry and real estate therefore is being aggressively pursued. Perhaps this is what Mr Badal has been time and again told. But what is not being told is that if a tiny European country like Holland can emerge as the second biggest agricultural exporter in the world, and where average farm household incomes are 265 per cent higher than the national average, why can’t Punjab do the same? I am not advocating the industrial farming model that Holland had once adopted (but is now moving to LEISA -- Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture practices) but certainly Punjab can make suitable modifications to ensure that it doesn't repeat the same mistakes. 

Switzerland too is a small country. It hasn’t adopted the industrial pathway to development. It hasn’t therefore done any irreparable damage to its nature and natural resources. So Punjab certainly can carve a niche for itself by ushering in a sustainable model of development linking environment-friendly agriculture with rural-based industry. 

Unfortunately, while the Chief Minister is concerned, the kind of farm experts the State has are coming from the same school of thought that brought in the crisis in the first instance. Punjab therefore needs experts/leaders/advisors with vision and wisdom rather than free market ideologues. A little more imagination in planning, and a determination to build an agriculture-based economy which does not suck the groundwater dry, does not pollute with chemical pesticides, and which does not lead to farmer suicides is what is desperately needed. # 

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