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‘Farming has to be made sustainable’

Vijay Thakur |

Former Agriculture Secretary Siraj Hussain is one of the key persons behind the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favourite crop insurance scheme, Pradhan Mantri Fasal BimaYojna, which was introduced in January last year. He was also behind starting procurement of pulses at market rates under the Price Stabilisation Fund. An IAS officer of the 1979 batch, Mr Hussain served in various positions in the government. During his 35 years of service, he was Chairman and Managing Director of Food Corporation of India, Vice Chancellor of Jamia Hamdard University and Managing Director of the UP State Industrial Development Corporation (UPSIDC).

His last assignment was as Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare. In the Agriculture Ministry, he contributed to streamlining Agriculture Trade Policy, the National Agriculture Development Project, Natural Resources Management and Agriculture Extension. He had also initiated the much talked about E-National Agriculture Market (E-NAM). In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, Mr Hussain spoke about the performance of the Modi government in the agriculture sector. Excerpts:

Q: The Modi government has set an impressive target of doubling farmers’ incomes.  Do you think it will be able to meet the target and what more is needed to achieve it?

A: Actually, the government should first bring more clarity on what they mean by doubling farmers’ incomes. Do they want to double the real income of farmers or do they want to double the nominal income of farmers? If it is the former, the government needs to do much more.

But all this is not very easy. First, the government should take large-scale initiatives to diversify cropping pattern ~ from cereals to other crops. Farmers should be encouraged to diversify from cereals to horticulture, dairy, fisheries. Secondly, marketing of agricultural produce should be much better organised.

We have recently seen how badly farmers were affected due to demonetisation. The prices of vegetables have gone down considerably. There were few takers for pulses in some areas as there was a bumper crop. Government has to devise a mechanism to ensure farmers receive the correct price.

Thirdly, farmers should be encouraged to use better technologies. Besides adopting good farming practices, the seed replacement ratio has to be achieved, from conventional seeds to new hybrid and GM crop seeds. Lastly and most importantly, efforts should be made to bring down expenditure of farmers to make farming more sustainable.

Here we should also not forget that the Indian agriculture sector depends mainly upon the monsoon. If in the next five years there is good rain, farmers’ incomes may double provided government takes some special initiatives on diversification of crops, and better marketing strategy. Having said that, I would say this sector mainly depends upon good rains. If like in previous years we face two or three bad monsoons, it would not be easy to double farmers’ incomes.

Q: Pradhan Mantri Fasal BimaYojna (PMFBY) was introduced when you were the Union Agriculture Secretary. How do you see its performance?

A: The crop insurance scheme has been quite successful in some respects. The sum insured under PMFBY has now reached Rs1,36,000 crore from Rs 69,000 crore last year. It is good that the sum insured has increased substantially. But the area insured has increased marginally from 3.38 crore hectares to 3.80 crore hectares, only a 12 per cent increase. Special stress should be laid to increase the crop area.

When this scheme was introduced it was presumed that modern technologies would be used to evaluate crop damage in time and more accurately. Unfortunately, this has not happened on the ground and little use of technology is visible in crop assessment. It was thought that all the revenue staff would be provided with smart phones; live satellite data and drones would be used to gauge crop damage so as to bring down administrative expenses. But government has made no headway in this direction. As a result, accurate and transparent assessment is not being done. If accurate assessment is not made and farmers show inflated losses, the crop insurance premium would go up next year. This would defeat the very purpose of crop insurance. States and the Centre should take up this issue urgently and address the problem.

Q: The government has introduced Soil Health Card in a big way. Do you think it would really help the agriculture sector the way the government is projecting it?

A: Soil health card is a wonderful scheme and it give useful tips on how to improve soil fertility and stop excess use of fertilisers. But with this we need to introduce more reforms, mainly in the present fertiliser regime. Prices of fertilisers are so skewed in favour of urea that unless the pricing is done right, farmers would continue to use excessive urea.

When the Modi government came to power, we presumed that fertiliser prices would be increased and direct benefit transfer scheme (DBTS) would be introduced in this sector as well, but so far no progress has been made to pay subsidy directly to farmers through DBT route.

Though 100 per cent neem coated urea introduced by the present government was a very good step to prevent diversion of subsidised urea to some other areas, use of DBT route to transfer subsidies would make farming more sustainable.

Q: You have worked with the UPA as well as with the Modi government. Which government do you think has done better for the agriculture 

A: Agriculture sector is very important for the country. It contributes employment for almost half the working force. Even though its contribution to GDP is only 14 per cent, the number of people this sector supports is very high. Boost in agriculture sector is very important to reduce poverty in rural areas as no other industry can reduce poverty as fast as the agriculture sector.

All governments try their best to make policies to help agriculture and the rural sector.  It would not be appropriate to comment or compare between the previous and present government. The previous government had introduced MNREGA and increased minimum support price of cereals.

This government has also taken some good steps like crop insurance to protect farmers from the uncertainty of nature, introduction of neem-coated urea to enable them to use fertilisers in a more balanced manner, e-national market scheme to give them better marketing facilities, issuance of soil health cards, electrification of villages, opening of farmers’bank accounts, and introduction of DBT scheme for some subsidies.