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Tuesday, June 12, 2001



Opinion | Next

National Commission on Agriculture -- Don't waste the opportunity this time

K. P. Prabhakaran Nair

RECENTLY, the Union Minister for Agriculture, Mr Nitish Kumar, announced the setting up of a National Commission on Agriculture, and the media reported that Dr M. S. Swaminathan has agreed to chair it. In India, commissions have a strange way of coming i nto existence, quite often with much fanfare, but as often fading out of public memory. Nearly five years ago, when the LDF government came to power in Kerala, a similar commission was set up under the same chairmanship, but nothing was heard of it subse quently.

There is already a Task Force on Agriculture. Indians are known to work at cross-purposes, and the duplication of time, money and energy are not uncommon to our ethos. The National Commission on Agriculture has come into existence at a time when the impa ct of the QR removal is being slowly, but remorselessly, felt.

This time the stakes are so high that the nation cannot afford to take it lightly. The Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), transmitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) a few months before the dismantling of Quantitative Restrictions (QR) is still a myst ery to the public, though its contents are gradually becoming clear.

Even when the suggestion for a `livelihood box' was made, a few months ago, it was like an afterthought. The terms of reference of the recently announced Commission are unknown to the public, except that -- as reported in the print media -- it would go i nto the entire gamut of Indian agriculture, including the functioning of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) -- the monolith that controls and directs central research, education and extension.

Here is another opportunity for Indians to say which way our agriculture, our lifeline, should go -- the corporate way or the Indian way that takes us on a tough road, hard to traverse in the beginning, but hopefully, smoothening out at the end.

With the removal of the QRs on April 1, the protection provided to farms and factories for the last half a century has ceased to exist. And it is only governmental obfuscation that perpetuates the pretence that the flood of farm imports will be sealed by tariff walls and what it fancifully calls `import risk analysis' measures. That there is a limit to the former is common knowledge, unless we are a country with both economic and political clout, like Japan, which restricts rice import into the country by the imposition of a phenomenal 2000 per cent tariff!

As for the second, the less said the better. Human amnesia is universal, but the Indian variety is particularly noteworthy. More than three decades ago, during the Kennedy era, sub-standard wheat, infested with the pernicious Parthenium weed, was shipped into India and thousands of tonnes disgorged in Indian ports under the charitable `food aid' programme, ubiquitously known as the `Public Loan (PL) 480'. More than three decades later, the Parthenium weed, still causes great problems in the wheat fields of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, where crores of rupees have been spent in eradicating the same using weedicides, with little success.

The dried weed resembles the wheat plant so much that controlling it is a great challenge to human ingenuity. And none of the `import risk analysis' measures, meaning quarantine measures, can prevent these mishaps. It is a laughing matter when tongue-in- cheek politicians talk of measures which, by their very nature, involve massive infrastructure and manpower expertise. India has none of these as of today.

So, when tonnes of agricultural produce pile up in Indian ports and the bureaucracy prevents their entry into Indian soil by invoking measures which we do not have adequate expertise to put in place, it will be no surprise if the exporting countries drag us to the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO for violation of basic laws and enforcing measures without adequately defining and demonstrating them. And simply invoking the `import risk analysis' clause will not wash.

The National Commission on Agriculture has an onerous task on its hands. If it is not to outlive its purpose, it will have to grapple with a number of problems and resolve them objectively. And, if it is to succeed, it might even have to be prepared for a head-on collision with the vested interests and the agenda -- both apparent and hidden -- of the very government which put it in place. All indications on the agricultural front point to an inexorable shift towards corporatisation.

The big money pouring into the `biotechnological revolution', contract farming, and so on, is symptomatic of this new trend. That corporate agriculture serves neither the producer nor the consumer is amply proved even in a highly industrialised agricultu ral country such as the US. If this trend continues, one can foresee a situation where farmers -- even the big ones -- are reduced to a subservient role as franchisees and share-croppers from their earlier status as producers and sellers.

A clear indication of this is in the wide gap between the original farmgate prices of many agricultural items and that of the processed foods in supermarkets. This is not to say that food processing has no place in the Indian market. There is plenty of e xcitement, through financial and tax holiday incentives, for this sector. However, if this well-intentioned initiative is hijacked by the `big money' houses, native or foreign, the hard-working farmer, big or small, will only be pushed to grow and/or dis card what the big houses dictate.

Even the functioning of the ICAR merits a thorough overhaul. Without intending disrespect, it must be plainly said that there is much that goes by the name of `research' that only results in is a colossal waste of the tax-payer's money. Equally distressi ng is the case in many State-run agricultural universities and the sprawling State departments of agriculture. It is worth remembering that within the developing countries, India has the largest public-funded R&D establishment, with only China and Brazil showing comparable levels of expenditure and staff size. Yet, our results pale in comparison.

China's population is about three millions more than India's, yet it's grain production is more than three-fold ours. Is the reward system in our agricultural set-up fool-proof and objective? Is there sufficient accountability? Why do we have deadwood th at does `negative research' and mercilessly expends public money? Why does not the ICAR put in place a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) that might stem the perpetual drain of public money? Why do we have academies who only perpetuate sycophancy and prof essional ladder-climbing, throwing to the winds genuine cases of merit through back-stage manipulation and covert lobbying? Above all, why do we have this subservient mentality where questioning authority is tantamount to professional suicide?

The National Commission on Agriculture has been constituted at the most crucial time in the country's agricultural history. If it fails to restore a decent livelihood to the poor and impoverished farmer of this vast land, it will go down in history as th e most futile task ever undertaken. What the poor Indian farmer needs is the guarantee of a decent livelihood, so that he can keep his head high, as his forefathers did.

(The author is visiting scientist, ICAR, New Delhi.)

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