The Congress government initiates a number of measures in accordance with its electoral promise to transform the rural economy of the State.
THE first action of Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy after he took over as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh on May 14, 2004, was to order the waiver of power dues of and allow free supply of electricity to farmers. He had a clear task - reviving the agricultural economy, which had been neglected during the previous Telugu Desam Party regime, retrieving the irrigation sector from possible collapse, restoring the extension services, and distributing land to the landless poor. As promised in his party's election manifesto, Rajasekhara Reddy shifted the priorities from hi-tech governance to a village-oriented approach.
A prolonged drought, shrivelling crops, unremunerative prices for farm produce, meagre institutional credit facilities and mounting debts had driven hundreds of farmers to suicide in the State. The neglect of the farm sector, best reflected in the way its average annual growth rate for 1994-2003 plummeted to 1 per cent from 2.4 per cent in the previous decade, spelt disaster to a State whose economy continued to be predominantly agriculture-based. Agriculture provides employment to 65 per cent of its 7.67-crore population.
Recognising the magnitude of the crisis, the government embarked on a thorough overhaul of the agriculture policy, keeping in mind the requirements of the farmers. Budgetary allocations under Plan and non-Plan categories have been stepped up from Rs.17,479 lakhs and Rs.10,879 lakhs respectively in 2004-05 to Rs.21,938 lakhs and Rs.11,833 lakhs in 2005-06. The policy gives a boost to areas such as distribution of seeds, farm mechanisation, quality control, and improving access to credit. A relief package for farmers, imposing a six-month moratorium on the repayment of loans taken from private moneylenders, was also announced.
A Cabinet Sub-Committee was constituted to study farmers' suicides and formulate measures to deal with the situation. It was in accordance with one of its recommendations that a Commission on Farmers Welfare, headed by the economist Jayati Ghosh, was formed to study the reasons for the distress. The exhaustive report and the recommendations submitted on December 11, 2004, touched upon all aspects of the crisis. These include the role of government policies, land-related issues, rural credit, availability of water and power, irrigation facilities, agricultural research and extension, inputs, crop prices and marketing, farmers in drought-prone areas, farm employment, social issues and expenditure on health and education. The government accepted most of the recommendations.
The electoral promise of establishing Indiramma Rajyam (the rule of Indira Gandhi) meant the implementation of several welfare measures. For the first time in the country, the State government introduced free surgery for poor children below the age of 12 suffering from congential disorders. In the past, pensions to the aged and widows never used to be disbursed regularly. The Congress government not only increased the pension amount from Rs.75 to Rs.100 but directed that they be paid every month. Empowerment of women was another major initiative by the new government. Interest on DWCRA loans was reduced from 15 per cent to 3 per cent to benefit lakhs of women. In order to help the low-income groups, the Rajiv Griha Kalpa scheme was launched under which the government is providing civil infrastructure and land. The quantum of assistance under this scheme was raised to Rs.5,000 for each of the houses allotted.
The increase in budgetary allocation for the irrigation sector to Rs.6,350 crores, nearly 40 per cent of the planned Budget, is in itself a record. The blueprint to complete 26 irrigation projects in five years at a cost of Rs.46,000 crores is a "Jala Yagnam" undertaken by the government. Work has commenced on several irrigation projects. The vision of the government has made it undertake the stupendous task of linking the Godavari and the Krishna to prevent nearly 3,000 tmc ft of water flowing into the sea every year.
Rajiv Yuva Shakti, a scheme to provide 30 per cent subsidy on loans given to youth groups for self-employment, has come as a new hope to unemployed youth. A major step taken by the government is the removal of a ban on recruitment for government jobs.
The government has taken the concept of participatory management in governance to a new high with the launching of the Rajiv Palle Baata and Rajiv Nagara Baata programmes under which the Chief Minister, along with government officials, would visit urban and rural areas frequently. The successful `Praja Patham', which entails visits of MLAs to their constituencies during the difficult summer days, complements this. Praja Patham has helped ease the drinking water shortage in several areas as the officials were directed to dig borewells or make arrangements for supplying drinking water.
The mega land distribution programme undertaken on a single day in the State saw 1.25 lakh landless poor securing ownership of 1.55 lakh acres (52,000 hectares). The government has also launched the Indira Prabha scheme with Rs.500 crores to develop more than 3.5 lakh acres (1.4 lakh hectares) in the State. Of the 106.03 lakh operational landholdings in the State, 85.51 lakh belong to small and marginal farmers. They constitute 81 per cent of the total holdings.
The government has planned an Agriculture Technology Mission with the Chief Minister as Chairman and experts to suggest strategies for the development of agriculture and allied areas. In order to check the menace of spurious seeds, a State Seed Regulation Bill, 2004, for regulating production and sale of seeds, has been drafted. It provides for enhanced penalty for suppliers and dealers and adequate compensation for farmers in the event of the failure of seed. A Bill to promote eco-friendly fertilizers is also on the cards.
Seed and fertilizer testing facilities are provided in each district headquarters at a cost of Rs.25 crores. Under the "seed village" programme, it is planned to produce one lakh quintals of certified seeds during rabi 2004-05 for supply for kharif 2005. As part of the plan to increase foundation seed production from 200 quintals to 5,000 quintals, action has been initiated to strengthen 27 existing State seed farms. Farmers benefited from the establishment of seed development centres - 1,100 in all - and the extension support given to 2.03 lakh Rythu Mitra (farmers' friends) groups in the State.
Another innovative project is to create "bio-villages" in all agricultural divisions to promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and the use of bio-fertilizers through trained facilitators. Groups of farmers would be trained on these concepts throughout the crop season on crops such as cotton, paddy, pulses and oilseeds.
In order to give impetus to the transfer of technology to farmers, the government has cleared 491 posts of agricultural extension officers and 275 mandal agricultural officers. A Rs.20-crore farm mechanisation plan was under way. The government has given its approval for the establishment of a Rs.3-crore DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) fingerprint laboratory.
Keeping in view the problems faced by farmers in the area of crop insurance, the State has suggested changes in the existing National Agricultural Insurance Scheme. These include restoration of 50 per cent of premium subsidy to small and marginal farmers, enhancement of indemnity levels to 80 per cent, reduction of premium rates to 2 per cent for cereal crops and 3 per cent for commercial crops and payment of compensation in two spells for kharif and rabi crops. The Central government's approval is awaited to implement these changes. Insurance cover was provided to the tune of Rs.18 crores for crops, and an agricultural development scheme was introduced with Rs.64 crores.
The industrial sector is also recovering with the announcement of several incentives such as power supply at a lower rate, tax concessions, and speedier clearances for setting up industries. "It is just the right beginning. There is a long way to go. The transformation of the rural economy might not be a distant dream," the Chief Minister said.