Farmers | Too Little, Too Late

To address widespread dissatisfaction among farmers, and going a step beyond farm loan waivers announced by various states, the Narendra Modi government, in its interim budget a hundred or so days before the Lok Sabha election, announced what it called the first direct income support scheme for small and marginal landholder farmer families (with holdings of less than 2 hectares). Under the Prime Minister Kisan Samman Nidhi or PM-Kisan scheme, as it is called, Rs 6,000 will be transferred directly into the bank accounts of such farmers in three equal instalments every four months. Going by the budget projections, PM-Kisan will benefit 100 million of the country’s 140 million farmers, including 22 million in the electorally pivotal state of Uttar Pradesh.

Expected to cost the central exchequer Rs 75,000 crore a year, the government says it has already made provision for Rs 20,000 crore and expects to transfer the first instalment by March. The scheme will be implemented with retrospective effect from December 2018 and the benefit will accrue only to those farmers whose names figure in land records before February 1, 2019; any change in land records after that date will not be considered. However, given the patchiness of conventional land records and in the absence of a central digitised record of land ownership across the country, the March deadline seems unrealistic. Other than Kerala, Telangana and West Bengal, where land reforms have been partly successful, most states, especially those in the Hindi heartland, have hardly any written records, digital or otherwise, of individual farm ownership. So, if the scheme is meant as a sop to win rural votes, it might come a cropper in precisely the areasthe Hindi heartlandwhere the BJP fervently hopes it will be received well.

Says Binod Anand of the Rashtriya Kisan Pro­gressive Association who works with farmer producer organisations: PM-Kisan may have good intentions. But there are hardly any digital or non-digital records of farm ownership in Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, MP, Chhattisgarh and other states of the Hindi heartland. It’s very difficult to identify the individual owners of farms. Most farm ownership is family-based without much by way of indivi­dual records. How will the money be transferred directly? To whom? It will neither help in addressing farm distress nor will it fetch the BJP votes in 2019.

Not just that, the amount ofRs 6,000 or Rs 16.4 a day per farmer family, and that too disbursed in three instalments of Rs 2,000 every four months, is so paltry as to not make any difference to the plight of the farmer. The timing of the PM-Kisan scheme, 100 days before the Lok Sabha election, says Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj, gives away the primary motive: a budget geared towards winning an election. But it might not work, he maintains. Those benefitting from the sch­eme will fret about how little they are getting(Rs 16.4 per day does not even cover the price of tea) while those not benefitting will fume they got nothing. And while Aadhaar will not be compulsory for the first instalment, from the second instalment onwards, the disbursal will be linked to Aadhaar, and the same issues that currently plague Aadhaar-linked PDS might affect PM-Kisan too.

Professor Sukhpal Singh, an agricultural economist at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, says the scheme is based on the misconception that there are three cultivating seasons everywhere in India, hence the Rs 2,000 per season per farmer family. What it fails to factor in, says Singh, is the fact that most small and marginal farmers in India, especially in rain-fed regions, do not grow even two crops a year. Therefore, it is clearly not an investment support but just a modest direct cash subsidy. PM-Kisan, he says, is a poor cousin of the Rythu Bandhu scheme of Telangana, which grants farmers Rs 8,000 per year per acre.

Professor Ashok Gulati of ICRIER agrees. It is a drop in the ocean. States like Telangana and Odisha have done much better with their Rythu Bandhu and KALIA schemes respectively, he says. The state schemes are both more generous and better structured to encourage productive investment.

Moreover, the DBT is not linked to any fertiliser or input subsidy. This leaves the use of the money credited to farmers’ accounts open-ended, and it may not necessarily be spent on agricultural purposes.

Already the criticism about the paltriness of the relief seems to have stung the government. In a post-budget statement, Arun Jaitley offered that as the government resources improve, this [amount] can be increased. There is speculation that the amount might be doubled to Rs 12,000.

Brushing aside all scepticism, agriculture secretary Ashok Dalwai is all praise for the first direct income scheme [from the Centre] in India. He admits land ownership records may not be up to date in many states, but the scheme could trigger centralised digitisation of farm ownership records. What about tenant farmers and agricultural labourers, who number 144.3 million according to the 2011 census? The scheme has nothing for them.

A day before the 2016 budget, the prime minister, while addressing a rally in Bareilly, promised to double farm incomes by 2022, perhaps in response to the rural distress caused by back-to-back droughts in 2014-2016. Or was it only a political response to electoral reverses in Bihar and Delhi? By the same token, are the current budgetary concessions a reaction to the losses in three Hindi heartland states and a desperate bid to win over the farmer? Welfare measures can certainly help governments return to power as MNREGA did for the UPA in 2009.

While PM-Kisan is unlikely to deliver actual relief to culti­va­tors in the run-up to the election, given the meagre profits India’s marginal farmers reap, the modest handout they have now been promised could still be sold as a mark of the government’s goodwill in the poll campaign. All the more if the amount is revised upward. Even so, PM-Kisan will require considerable campaign rhetoric to reap the harvest of votes it is intended for.


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