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`Knowledge vital for farm sector growth'

R. Balaji

TIRUCHI, Feb. 9

COMPETITIVENESS of Indian agriculture and the farmers has been adversely affected by Government policies and intervention, according to Mr Sharad Joshi, former chairman, National Task Force on Agriculture and founder, Shetkari Sanghatana.

Addressing the two-day Agri Conclave 2002, a conference and exposition on agriculture here on Saturday, he said the Government should restrict its intervention only to create an enabling environment to tackle international competition. For instance, in the WTO environment, knowledge was a key factor. Farmers will have to be provided with market intelligence, crop and weather estimates, and the ground level decisions will have to be left to the farmer.

Official policies, including unrealistic fixation of minimum support prices, have affected farmers' realisations. Centralised planning covering the varied agriculture conditions was not practical. The Indian farmer can compete only if he is not constrained by the policies, he said. Enabling remunerative prices will ensure that production targets are achieved, he said.

However, the Government appears to think that the farmers should be continuously monitored. Despite the promises in the previous budgets, the Centre has come out with a delayed announcement taking some commodities out of the purview of the Essential Commodities Act. Of the 12 commodities, just one, sugar, was agro-based, he said.

Quoting from the report of the National Task Force on agriculture, Mr Joshi said that the report has shown that during the last decades the Government policies had resulted in a financial loss of Rs 3,00,000 crore to the farmers. However, the total indebtedness of the farmer was about Rs 38,000 crore and on power tariff about Rs 45,000 crore. The Government cannot "coerce" the farmer to recover the dues, he said.

It was under such adverse conditions that the Government was opening up the markets and expecting the farmer to face international competition. Planning will have to be done in the context of this freeing of the markets.

The marketing mechanism needs to be totally revamped, he said. The agriculture-marketing committees should be done away with. These have only served to sanctify the position of middlemen. There is a need for a supermarket-based marketing environment with lesser layers of middlemen and closer links between the producer and the consumer, he said.

A proposal has been submitted with the Container Corporation (Concor) to utilise its real estate for establishing a super market network. Concor has agreed but it is asking for exclusive rights to the logistics in supplying to the marketing network, he said.

The two-day agri conclave, which began on Saturday, is being organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and is aimed at exploiting the agriculture-based industry potential available in Tamil Nadu, particularly Tiruchi.

In an informal chat with newspersons following his presentation, Mr Joshi said that he was not against levy of power tariff to agriculture. But the cost of power tariff will have to be fully taken into account by the Committee on Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP).

However, the farmer was now being supplied only residual power of a poor quality, which often burned out the irrigation pumpsets and caused losses. Therefore, under the circumstances they should not be charged the average cost but only marginal cost, he said.

The minimum support prices announced by the Government were invariably the maximum price that a farmer would get for the produce, and acknowledged by the Government to be lower than the international market prices, Mr Joshi said.

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