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Wider canvas for agriculture

By limiting both state and market interventions to two major staples, we are damaging the long-term economic and ecological foundations of agricultural growth.

Wider canvas for agriculture

This is the third article in the series on breaking the rice-wheat duopoly in agriculture and my general thesis that every other agricultural commodity is borne out by the milk producers' agitation across the country – from Maharashtra where they have threatened to block the supplies to Mumbai to places like Berhampore and Siliguri in West Bengal where the procurement to the co-operative sector is showing a marked decline. By limiting both state and market interventions to the two major staples, we are damaging the long-term economic and ecological foundations of agricultural growth.

The big issue in the government is that we are looking at the production, procurement, and market operations of our agricultural commodities in distinct silos. Thus, agriculture continues to look mainly at production and feels that having achieved self-sufficiency in the production of pulses for two years in a row is a cause for celebration. However, despite a substantial increase in MSP, the growth momentum in pulses is under stress because in many parts of the country, especially the eastern region, Bihar did not take up any procurement and West Bengal could only procure a fraction of its total produce even though the production shot up this year on account of the increased emphasis on alternate crops on account of the wheat holiday in the two districts of Malda and Murshidabad to prevent the onslaught of wheat blast disease from Bangladesh. As such this year, the total sown area under pulses is less than in the previous year, and one only hopes that a normal monsoon will ensure stable production.

The procurement of pulses and the consumption within the state of procurement continues to be the big issue. States like MP have done very well in procurement, and have thereby avoided farmer distress. In fact, MP has picked up nearly 16 LMT gram of the 27 LMT procured by Nafed, followed by Rajasthan at 6 LMT, 2 LMT by Maharashtra, and 1 LMT by Gujarat and AP of the total production of 112 LMT. In the case of Toor, while Maharashtra and Karnataka have picked up 3.5 LMT each of the 9 LMT procured from a production base of 42 LMT. This column has taken Gram and Toor as representative samples because substantial amounts of the total produce are being procured, and this has a direct impact on markets. The procurement of Urad, Moong, and Masoor is between 10-15 per cent of the total produce, and therefore the impact does not have the salience witnessed for Gram and Toor.

Are we, therefore, saying that farmers in other states should not get into production of pulses? The reason for not introducing pulses in the PDS is that the government would not be able to bear the very heavy expenditure because the subsidy involved would be very high. However, the counter-factual is that if the stocks are liquidated in the open market, there will be a glut, and in the coming years it will be difficult to distinguish the new crop from the old crop. We also have major warehousing constraints.

What are the reasons for such a logical step not seeing the light of the day? Observers feel it is a policy of abundant caution: what happens in a drought year? The country will have to import pulses for PDS. In any case, there is a precedent that whenever the prices of pulses, or for that matter even onions have crossed a certain threshold, the government has asked Nafed and other agencies to go in for imports, including those on a short tender basis. Rather, if there was an assured offtake of pulses under the Food Security Regime, Nafed's operations would become more streamlined – more like those of FCI, as a result of which there are no sudden fluctuations in the prices of the prized and privileged commodities, viz wheat and rice.

One must also place on record that if procurement of a commodity has to be done on an ad-hoc basis, the costs are substantially higher, and sometimes it becomes a logistics nightmare. Where are the godowns expected to appear for the 35 LMT of pulses that Nafed has procured? How will the additional requirement of gunnies be met? It would, therefore, make a lot of sense for the government to have a stakeholders dialogue – the Zilla Panchayats in the districts with substantial production of pulses could be asked to build godowns, the schools in these districts should have this a compulsory component of the Mid-Day meal scheme, and the co-operative societies must receive assistance under RIDF or the RKVY to establish grading/sorting centres, drying machines, and electronic weighments. Unless these steps are taken the operations of the Price Support Scheme will not touch the lives of the poorest farmers who grow pulses. And they are the ones who need this the most – but because the numbers are scattered, and because the production takes place at different times of the year, unlike wheat (Rabi) and rice (Kharif) – the marketing seasons are not clearly defined, and therefore, it is administratively more complex to intervene in pulses .

Should this be a challenge to overcome? Yes, if we want to look at agriculture, ecology, and nutrition in a holistic manner, and so this column will continue to apprise the reader of commodities other than wheat and rice so that our debate on agriculture is on a wider canvas.

(The author is Director General, ATI & Additional Chief Secretary, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Sanjeev Chopra

Sanjeev Chopra

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