Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sharad Pawar, agriculture minister. More agony, less ecstacy.-OUTLOOK

Pass the sugar Sharad Pawar poses for photogs at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai
agriculture: Sharad pawar
Sharad Pawar, agriculture minister. More agony, less ecstacy.
Pawar’s Report Card
The Negatives
  • Per capita availability of cereals and pulses has fallen in last eight years
  • No improvement in irrigation, 60% of agriculture still dependent on monsoons
  • Farmers growing cereals, sugarcane, oilseeds and pulses assured higher MSP, but majority don't benefit
  • Production up, but not productivity. Farmer suicides are on the rise.
  • Poor market advisory on exports being misused to buy cheaply from farmers and make profits overseas
  • Pawar referred to as “sugar minister” for promoting sugar industry interests
  • Big push to private seed companies is raising farm input costs with little hope of recouping expenses
The Positives
  • Pushed the boom in horticulture, fisheries, poultry. Has helped Indian farm sector chalk higher growth.
  • Has ensured higher production in cotton, milk, fruits and vegetables
Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar is trying to re-establish his ‘farmer-friendly’ politician image but it’s been hard going with the flip-flop on commodity exports and rising farmer suicides. In April, he wrote to the prime minister criticising the government’s export policies for being “against the interests of the farming community”. This raised many eyebrows. For it is exactly the same charge farmers’ groups have been levelling against Pawar and other central ministers for their decision to ban cotton exports, leading to a market glut and crashing prices. A spate of suicides followed in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, including five on May 1. Since January, over 320 farmers have committed suicide in Vidarbha alone.
The flip-flop on cotton and sugar exports led to hundreds of Maharashtra farmers hitting the streets in protest. Sensing the mood, the National Congress Party chief, a key man in the UPA set-up, rushed to contain the damage by announcing a major farmer rally on May 16 against government policies. Then, after getting the government to open up sugar exports for all—reversing a policy he had himself put in place while holding the food ministry portfolio—Pawar called off the rally.


“Pawar has to take the blame for farmer suicides in Vidarbha...he promoted cotton, a water-intensive crop, on dry land.”Kishore Tiwari, Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti


If all this seems a bit rich, remember it comes from a man who has been India’s longest-serving agriculture minister. For all the sobriquets thrust upon him—broadly pointing to an uncommon mix of political astuteness and administrative command—he is often mockingly referred to as “sugar minister” (for promoting the sugar industry’s interests) or even “cricket minister” (given his engagement with the game as ex-BCCI boss and current International Cricket Council president). Eight years then is as good a time to gauge the performance of Pawar the minister, particularly since his beat affects 60 per cent of India’s population. Despite repeated requests, Sharad Pawar did not speak to Outlook for this story. The scenario now is in sharp contrast to ’04 when the UPA swept to power and Pawar opted to lead the agriculture and food ministries. Hardly anyone then questioned the decision. Sompal Singh Shastri, agriculture expert and a former Union minister, recounts how through technology inputs and the right kind of policies (like the concept of adequate finance), Pawar as Maharashtra CM had helped the farmers, particularly in horticulture. “I had hoped he would lend the same kind of leadership throughout India but it did not happen, which was a huge disappointment,” says Shastri, who admits to have often said as much to Pawar, a close friend.
There are many agri experts and scientists who share the disappointment that Pawar, a practical farmer very knowledgeable on agriculture issues and a heavyweight politician, failed to deliver on the need to raise investments in agriculture, which still remain abysmally inadequate. “Economic reforms have remained confined to providing more space and incentives to the corporate sector while agriculture has been wholly neglected. The most glaring proof— the agriculture marketing system is still mired in many restrictions,” adds Shastri.

Gone to seed Grieving family of a cotton farmer who committed suicide in Vidarbha. (Photograph by Atul Loke)
Public investment in agriculture in the last eight years has been just 0.6 per cent of GDP. Irrigation infrastructure too is abysmal. While foodgrains production has gone up, per capita availability of cereals and pulses has fallen steadily in the last eight years. Food inflation has been high through his tenure, attracting a lot of flak (and prompting Pawar to relinquish the food ministry in 2011). Worse, the lot of farmers has not improved. Over 80 per cent of farmers have less than one hectare of land, and more than 60 per cent of them are in debt, says nsso data.


“As Union agri minister, Pawar has been a huge disappointment. Economic reforms have neglected agriculture.”Sompal Singh Shastri, Ex-Union minister, agri expert


Nationwide, there were over 2.6 lakh farmer suicides between 1995 and 2010 —tellingly, 1.18 lakh suicides took place between 2004-10. While Pawar’s native place Baramati (described by noted agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan as a “symbol of resurgent agriculture” and “a mini-Israel”) is held up as an example of a successful agri-business model, the nearby Vidarbha region lays claim to the maximum number of suicides. Every day on an average, 2-3 farmers commit suicide in drought-prone Vidarbha. “If anybody has to be blamed for the spate of farmer suicides in Vidarbha, it is Pawar—he promoted a water-intensive crop like cotton in the dry land. He also forced Mahabeej, a state government seeds organisation, to become an agent of MNCs,” says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (VJAS). By pushing hybrid seeds, farmer input costs went up. Tiwari alleges ministerial attention to the region has been scant and that promised relief is yet to materialise.
Journalist P. Sainath, a strong critic of India’s agriculture policies, says it would be wrong to hold any individual responsible for the wave of suicides over the last 15 years. “It is a matter of policy, not an individual. All these are essentially the outcome of a policy regime that is devastating to small farmers and geared towards corporate interests,” Sainath says. He, however, points out that Pawar has sat on the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers “for five out of eight years as agriculture minister without implementing or promoting discussions in Parliament. This is a panel he set up but they possibly did not give the recommendations he wanted”.

Perish policy Rotting foodgrains at an FCI godown in Fatehgarh Sahib dist, Punjab. (Photograph by Prabhjot Singh Gill)
Swaminathan, who was that commission’s chairman, describes Pawar’s tenure as a period “marked with both ecstasy and agony”. On the plus side, Swaminathan puts the success of farmers producing more than hundred million tonnes of rice, innovative schemes like the National Horticulture Mission and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. On the flip side, the RS member points to the farmer suicides, high food inflation, and enormous wastage of cereals and other perishable commodities due to a mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies and storage capacity.
“Coordination between the commerce and agriculture ministries has also been weak, with the result that food inflation stays high. Our export-import policies have not had the interests of producers and consumers as the bottomline,” says Swaminathan. This holds true even now when agri production data swings from one extreme to another. Typically, after farmers have sold off stocks in distress, prices suddenly rise (for reasons unstated), giving the industry a reason to push for exports to calm domestic markets.
At present, the same thing is happening with cotton, when for reasons unknown an export ban was imposed despite market knowledge of a bumper crop and global prices ruling high. The recent reversal of the decision has brought no relief to distressed farmers with different arms of the commerce ministry giving conflicting signals. And it’s just not cotton. Even in the case of sugar and wheat, we have witnessed India pushing exports with subsidy followed by imports with subsidy. In 2007, we saw wheat exports being pushed, only to import again at exorbitant prices to calm domestic prices and bridge a possible shortfall.
“Before Pawar became the minister, he always came out as someone who understood the needs of agriculture and farmers. This was particularly felt during India’s negotiations with the wto. But there is a disconnect, as he is only talking about the agriculture business, whether it is pesticides, fertilisers, seeds, GM (genetically modified) crops or so on,” says Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert. To be fair, Pawar makes no bones about his interest in commercial farming, be it contract farming or GM crops.
His views are in tune with government policy, which is pushing Indian farmers to take up large-scale farming in Africa, even as fertile land gets diverted within the country for real estate and industrial development. The irony is that while Pawar’s tenure has seen agriculture production set new records for most commodities, “one also has to admit that there is no commodity that India has not had to import during his tenure as food minister”, says Prof Sudhir Panwar of Kisan Jagriti Manch. For all his shrewd, strategist image, there are too many such omissions in the career of Sharad Pawar, agriculture minister.

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