Mumbai, February 28, 2007
He made it a point to mention that he had devoted a generous 15 to 20 minutes of his speech to agriculture. But in those 20 minutes, Finance Minister P Chidambaram steered clear of the ‘S’ word.
In all the talk about agrarian crisis and the government’s concern about the same, suicides of thousands of cotton farmers in Maharashtra found no specific mention in the two-hour speech.
Little wonder then, that people like Kishore Tiwari of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti are ‘disturbed’ after the budget. The reason: no clear-cut measures announced to stem the spate of suicides in Vidarbha — Maharashtra’s cotton belt.
“The government spoke so much about the agrarian crisis in its economic survey but the budget does not address this,” Tiwari said. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 3,750-crore relief package in July 2006, the spate of suicides continues with 79 suicides in February alone — 12 of these in the 48 hours preceding the budget.
Tiwari felt the budget should have considered the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF). “We have been demanding that farming be made profitable. Input and output costs should be regulated. Giving high-maintenance milch cows is like giving the farmers another reason to commit suicide,” Tiwari argued.
There seems to be no immediate relief in sight for distressed cotton farmers. Farm credit has been expanded which means more money available for borrowing but no reduction in interest rates. But the state government says it is grateful that at least more money is available.
“Having identified the problem in both human and statistical dimensions, the budget fails to provide a strategy for agricultural renewal,” NCF chairman MS Swaminathan wrote in an e-mail to this paper, reacting to the budget. “In the suicide-ridden districts of Vidharbha, we need an integrated package consisting of appropriate and affordable technology, services in terms of seeds, credit, insurance and extension advice. Above all, an assured and remunerative marketing facility.”
Swaminathan welcomed the increased outlay on irrigation and the expansion of farm credit. But he added that this was “not going to prevent farmers affected by economic penury from committing suicides”.
“Vidharbha needs rural godowns and warehouseing facilities which can ensure that farmers are able to get the best possible price and are not forced to resort to distress sales,” Swaminathan explained. “Unfortunately the budget is silent about farmer-centric marketing.”
The state government, though, is trying hard to hide its disappointment and focus on budgetary provisions it can make use of. “Expanding farm credit is an important step because it is crucial that loans are available to farmers,” Agriculture Minister Balasaheb Thorat told HT.
“We can make good use of the Mission for Pulses to increase their production. If it works, many farmers could get diverted towards pulses from cotton.”
The finance minister did outline some long-term solutions: an unimpressive Rs 100-crore for rain-fed area development programmes and Rs 12,400 crore towards water-related schemes.
Fertiliser companies will receive subsidies of over Rs 22,000 crore. Based on a study to be conducted, a pilot programme will be implemented for delivering these subsidies directly to the farmer, the budget stated. But in Swaminathan’s words: “The time for ‘pilots’ is gone and what we need is a movement like the one which triggered the green revolution in the sixties.”