‘A cruel joke on farmers’

This Budget is in line with the policy framework that India adopted in 1991: imaginary carrots to peasantry, cake to service classes

A man with only 10 flowers is given a challenge to decorate his room in the best possible way. He juggles with his kitty, toys with new permutations, and finally settles down with one.
I felt finance minister Pranab Mukherjee was akin to that man, who, while reading out the Union Budget on Friday for the financial year 2012-13, was trying hard to sound good — by resorting to statistical jugglery.

The bottomline, however, is: This Budget not only comes as a huge disappointment for the entire peasantry, struggling against the markets, nature and policy vagaries for decades now, it actually comes as a cruel joke.
Like the previous budgets, this Budget too pays lip-service to the peasantry but in reality does exactly the opposite. Pranabda — despite his promises — continues to rob Peter to pay Paul.
The oft-repeated tools of intervention that Pranabda praises are food security and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS). They, however, won’t do any justice to farmers.
On the one hand the government gives higher wages to its own employees and widens the economic rift between the organised and unorganised classes, and on the other, it boasts of giving `2 per kg wheat to the poor. Pranabda can’t deny that the poor would spend more money on crushing that wheat into flour.
Mr Mukherjee praises the MNREGS saying it has helped bring down poverty, but he shies away from telling us exactly how much he has allocated to the unorganised labour. We don’t know how many more man days are being generated through the MNREGS and at what wage per day. If we knew that, we’d know how much a poor finally is earning. For, against the backdrop of rising salaries of employees under the wage commissions, the `125 per-day wage of a labourer under the MNREGS is too puny and unfair.
Mr Mukherjee emphatically boasts that the provision of `300 crore for the second green revolution for the eastern parts of India in the last Budget yielded good results. Paddy production, he says, went up enormously.
I want to humbly submit that increased production does not necessarily mean higher income for farmers, something that Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices chairman Ashok Gulati, too, has recently admitted. Paddy farmers all over the country are selling their produce at distress prices far below the already dismal support prices. Pranabda’s Budget — like all his previous ones — doesn’t even address the crisis of farm incomes.
On the contrary, he has very tacitly pushed the agenda of FDI in several sectors, while calling this a Budget of farmers. For instance, he says FDI in retail will ease the burden on farmers. Reality is exactly the opposite. Take but one example of his own state of West Bengal. In a fertile district like Birbhum, where cold storage facilities are available, paddy and potato growers are killing themselves at a sickening pace. They are not even able to pay for the rent of the storage, forget recovering their investments.
This Budget speaks about the farmers getting a negotiable instrument for six months against their produce kept in storages. The moot question is when a farmer brings his produce to the local mandi, will he have the guarantee of higher prices? For, it has to account for his storage losses, transportation charges and additional interest on his crop loan for the time the produce is in storage etc.
Mr Mukherjee says the fertiliser subsidy will continue, and be transferred through the Aadhar cards directly to the farmers. But so far the peasants don’t have Aadhar cards.
Mr Mukherjee says the government has not reduced the fertiliser subsidy, but it has capped the potash and phosphate subsidies, and higher prices are to be borne by the farmers. The price of DAP was `485 in June 2011 and today it is `1,050, despite subsidy. Barring urea prices, prices of all the other fertilisers are spiralling. It’s not clear if urea prices will remain stagnant.
The Budget allocates `300 crore for irrigation in the Vidarbha region. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a special package for the beleaguered farmers of Vidarbha. It included `2,150 crore for irrigation. That money could bring no succor to the region’s cotton farmers. How will this puny amount bring relief when 85 per cent of the land there doesn’t have protective irrigation?
Mr Mukherjee speaks about the need to increase the production of pulses and oilseeds, but has not revealed how much money he has earmarked to motivate farmers to grow pulses and oilseeds. His bias against Vidarbha is obvious as he gave Echalkaranji, a textile and powerloom hub in western Maharashtra, `70 crore but gave short shrift to the handloom weavers in cotton growing area like Vidarbha.
The Budget gives more riches to the rich. Those who earn `10 lakh annual income will save more than `22,000 under direct tax sops, more than the annual income of lakhs of monsoon-dependent farmers.
It is, therefore, clear that this Budget has disappointed farmers — more particularly a majority of the monsoon-dependent farmers who grow only one crop. It’s in line with the policy framework that India adopted in 1991: imaginary carrots to the peasantry, cake to the service classes.

The writer is the coordinator of the Inter-State Coordination Committee of the Farmers’ Movement

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