What about ease of doing farming?

The Hindu Business Line, December 10, 2015

The ministry of agriculture was renamed recently as the ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare. A welcome step and, perhaps, the Centre will devote better attention to farmers’ welfare and not just agriculture.

Notwithstanding the international dimensions or vagaries of weather, the plight of farmers is often reflected in supply constraints faced by key industries and muted consumer confidence due to low disposable income.

Without making doing farming attractive, ease of doing business will be futile. The Make in India programme has made commendable progress on the latter, and provides useful lessons for the former. It has five interlinked objectives: facilitate investment; foster innovation; enhance skill development; protect intellectual property; and build infrastructure. All these could be applied to usher reforms across the agrarian value chain.

Facilitate investment
Like any other business, investments could be attracted in agriculture if it offers reasonable and predictable returns. It also has small, medium and large investors, with each category looking for a different kind of support, like other businesses.
Subsidies have hitherto been provided for availing credit, procurement of inputs and output price support, etc. to farmers as a homogenous class.

However, we are increasingly realising that subsidies are effective only when targeted properly and provided in the form of direct cash support, without any preconditions. This learning should be used in agriculture by providing unlinked direct income support to small farmers. This will give them adequate assurance and flexibility to practice agriculture.

Also, while populist measures such as loan waivers might benefit a small proportion of farmers in the short term, it promotes delinquency amongst formerly genuine farmers and dissuades financial institutions to provide credit.

Instead, income support and ‘graduation’ programmes being run by several civil society organisations such as J-PAL must be supported on a large scale, for making farmers self-sufficient, and manage income fluctuations.

While the Centre and State governments have developed several schemes for crop insurance, measuring soil quality, their coverage and implementation remain patchy. Large scale coverage and time-bound implementation is the key to inspire confidence amongst the farming community.

Foster innovation
Research and innovation is as important in agriculture as in any other industry. The Indian Council of Agriculture Research conducts research on climate resilient agriculture, expert systems on crop management, State specific technological interventions for higher agricultural growth, productive seed varieties, and nutrient management.

Perhaps, it has not been able to reach to the masses and enable commercialisation. It has recently launched the Agrinnovate India initiative to bridge this gap.

The Make in India programme has used innovative mechanisms such as digital technology to link lab to market, and this is the need of hour in agriculture sector as well. There is no reason why farmers should not benefit from the digital revolution for enhancing farm productivity and enable agriculture growth.

Another area of innovation is sustainable agriculture. This includes use of non-renewable energy resources, and balanced use of organic crops and high yield varieties of seeds, which needs to be promoted through an effective communication strategy.

Enhance skill development
The Make in India programme lays emphasis on skilling for industrial use. Equal emphasis, with the same vigour, is required to promote skill development in agriculture and allied services such as dairy management. A spill-over effect will be reduced migration to cities.

The government has already launched mKisan SMS portal to provide information, advice and services relating to agriculture practices. Periodic evaluation and monitoring is necessary to ensure its effectiveness.

There is also scope to learn from other countries. For instance, the iCow mobile service in Kenya assists small-scale farmers to maximise their returns by facilitating optimal animal healthcare and nutrition. Similar programmes could be launched in India through the PPP mode.

Protect intellectual property
It is absolutely essential to protect and preserve traditional knowledge and practices to ensure sustainable development of agriculture. Protection of plant breeders’ rights and new plant varieties is important.

Intellectual property rights (IPR) and technology are mutually reinforcing and promotion of one results in development of other. We will not be in a position to launch another Green Revolution without a strong and effective IPR regime.

A strong IPR regime is essential as mega-regional agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are expected to promote the interests of member countries on agriculture and IP, to the detriment of excluded countries such as India. Further, our agriculture interests are up for a toss at the ensuing WTO Ministerial in Nairobi.

Build infrastructure
Like any other business, infrastructure is essential for the development of agriculture as well. At a time when ‘plug-and-play’ infrastructure is essential to attract industry, why can we not envisage similar facilities for agriculture promotion? Agriculture parks with requisite electricity connection, irrigation, road networks and warehousing facilities, could be built to attract investments.

While the government has initiated steps to set up an online national agriculture market, the initiative should be completed in a time bound manner.

Farmers will need to be educated to benefit from such online market facilities. Policy and practice reforms in food procurement, warehousing and marketing are long pending, and the government must show seriousness. Mere legislative changes will do no good sans implementation.

Effective communication
The Make in India programme has brought ease of doing business in national discourse and promoted competition among states. We need to understand that agriculture is also a kind of business and deserves similar attention. It supports half the workforce which can neither be overlooked nor be fully accommodated in manufacturing.

There is thus an urgent need for ‘ease of doing farming’ initiative to bring agriculture back into policy discourse at the Centre and States. Competition among States to promote agriculture will not only do long-term good for the economy, but will also ensure real success of Make in India.

The writer is the secretary general of CUTS International.

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