Wooing farmers

Print edition : July 02, 2004

Maharashtra's pre-election Budget, while providing several concessions to the farming community, fails to address the core problems of water scarcity and unemployment of landless labourers.

in Mumbai

IN a clearly election-oriented move, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra has presented a farmer friendly Budget allowing agricultural subsidies, lowered electricity tariff and easier access to agricultural credit, among other things. The Budget also promises more irrigation facilities and numerous (in some instances, dubious) regional and community packages. Spurred on by their overall electoral victory at the national level, but humbled by the setback they suffered in the State in the parliamentary elections (the combine won 23 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats), the Congress and the NCP are working together in order to ensure that the trend is not repeated in the Assembly elections, which are due later this year. The drought and the farmers' ire at inadequate State assistance were the major factors responsible for the upsets the combine's candidates suffered.

Finance Minister Jayant Patil (right) and Deputy Finance Minister Dilip Deshmukh going to present the Democratic Front government's Budget on May 27.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

While the budgetary concessions do provide some relief to a hard-hit farming community, they are inadequate because they do not address the core problems. Rural Maharashtra is facing a severe water scarcity and landless labourers are jobless. The budget sidesteps the need for a sound infrastructure. For the budgetary proposals to have any impact they need to be implemented in conjunction with interlinked concerns such as the strengthening of the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS). The EGS, the mainstay of the landless labourer in times of drought, is being systematically eroded. According to Census 2001, the total number of main and marginal workers in agriculture in the State is 4.21 crores, of which agricultural labourers constitute 26.85 per cent. This means that more than 55 per cent of the State's workers depend on agriculture for their livelihood. In times of drought they become the most vulnerable groups. Instead of strengthening strategic schemes such as the EGS, the government is allowing them to stagnate, thereby losing what Professor H.M. Desarda, a former Member of the State Planning Board, calls a "powerful instrument to fight drought". Desarda described the Budget as "brazenly populist and a meaningless catalogue of the provisions, proposals and packages for various castes and community groups and regions". He told Frontline that the proposals were of little long-term use since they added to an already financially crippled situation. The Economic Survey of Maharashtra, 2003-04 says that "...agriculture inputs like water and electricity are highly subsidised in the State. In order to remain competitive within the framework of WTO [World Trade Organisation], the State government needs to draft a strategic policy for reduction in the agriculture subsidy and target it only towards [the] poor."

The electricity subsidy is a reference to the unmetred billing that was introduced for agriculture. This made it impossible to segregate legitimate consumption based on a flat rate from technical losses and theft. The State is also aware of the need to reduce subsidies, making them available only to some groups. The Budget offers power at a concessional rate of 25 paise a unit to farmers who pay their electricity bills regularly.

For long-term agricultural stability, caution needs to be exercised while framing seemingly liberal policies, especially with respect to electricity tariffs. There are sufficient examples to prove that the energy policy for the agricultural sector is critical for the health and sustenance of the State's natural resources, especially groundwater. Highly subsidised or free power supply encourages unlimited and unmonitored drawal of groundwater. This inevitably results in the drastic depletion of groundwater reserves. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, power supply was made free to farmers in 1991. The outcome was a massive rise in groundwater extraction, to the extent that water levels fell by 70 metres in the past 15 years. Free supply of power encouraged a new enterprise: farmers pumped water not only for use in their fields, but for sale to their neighbours. A similar pernicious system exists in Gujarat. Thus, what was seen as a liberal and pro-farmer policy actually had long-term destructive effects.

Maharashtra certainly cannot withstand such an onslaught as the State's meagre groundwater reserves are already under severe pressure. There are approximately 3,50,000 registered tubewells and many unregistered ones across the State. The impact of this ceaseless drawing of water is already beginning to show. A Central Ground Water Board survey to ascertain the status of groundwater in the State painted a grim picture. From May 2003 to January 2004, water levels in 35 per cent of the wells in central Maharashtra fell by two metres. In the northern, southwestern and western areas of the State the fall was as steep as four metres.

Underground aquifers are not widespread in Maharashtra. The State depends largely on surface water sources, most of which are not perennial. More than 30 per cent of the State lies in the rain shadow region and about 84 per cent of the total cultivated area depends on the southwest monsoon. To add to these disadvantages, the soil, the topography and the climate are not inherently favourable to flourishing agriculture as is obvious from a low per hectare yield compared with the national average. Although 57.2 per cent of the State is under agriculture, the proportion of gross irrigated area is just around 16 per cent, accounting for the low per hectare yield. The problem is compounded further by three consecutive drought years and another one in which an erratic monsoon created scarcity in some regions.

The immediate future of the State's agricultural situation, by the administration's own estimation, is not healthy. Finance Minister Jayant Patil said that the growth rate in the primary sector (which includes agriculture and allied activities) is expected to be -1.9 per cent. Even the production of sugarcane, the most overprotected crop in the State, is expected to be about 33 per cent lower than the previous year's production.

"Scarcity has become a common feature affecting agriculture adversely and creating shortage of drinking water.... In spite of large spending over the years by the State government on creation of drinking water facilities, especially in the rural areas... the basic problem, instead of reducing, is aggravating year by year." This observation by the Economic Survey is the key to any sort of effort to improve the State's water woes. However, the State follows a policy that favours overcoming the immediate crisis year after year instead of addressing the core problem. For instance, tanker-supplied water to scarcity-affected villages is now accepted as sufficient response by the government to the chronic water problem.

At an Employment Guarantee Scheme work site at Pandhri in Beed district.-MEENA MENON

The Budget has made special provisions for tackling the water scarcity in some parts of the State. Expenditure on drinking water schemes is expected to go up to around Rs.1,479 crores. Between October 2003 and April 2004, Rs.108 crores was spent on alleviating the drinking water problem in 19,858 villages and 45 towns.

However, there are no provisions for a wholesome and well-rounded attack on further man-made droughts. This, despite the government's own figures that the drought has affected more than two-crore people. Little or nothing is done to implement concepts such as watershed development, seasonal bunding and afforestation, which can create earnings for local labour.

By its budgetary measures the State government has attempted to tune in to the rural voters' needs. At best these measures can be described as long-awaited and at worst as pacifiers. The ultimate verdict on this will depend on the sincerity with which the measures are implemented and whether or not the core problem of water shortage is addressed in a holistic manner.

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