INDIAN agriculture has been in the news over the past year or so for reasons right as well as wrong. Famed for its resilience, this was the only sector that withstood the disruptions caused by the Covid-induced lockdown and managed to prop up the tottering economy. However, the contentious farm laws triggered an agitation by farmers, who have been camping at Delhi’s borders for the past over two months. Despite several rounds of talks between the government and the farmers’ unions, the stalemate continues. The Budget was expected to address the thorny issues, and it has ‘removed all apprehensions in people’s minds’ about the new laws, as claimed by Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar. But the budgetary proposals have failed to inspire confidence among farmers’ representatives and farm policy experts. The most glaring, hard-to-justify step is the reduction in allocation for flagship schemes, including Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, by no less than Rs 11,000 crore. The allocation for agricultural research and education has been hiked, though only marginally.
The government keeps harping on its grand goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022, but the Budget has little to offer in this direction, barring the proposal to introduce an agri cess on petrol, diesel and other items to create post-harvest infrastructure. The Finance Minister has proposed 10 per cent hike in the farm loan disbursal target to Rs 16.5 lakh crore, a move that will increase the farmers’ purchasing power but could also push them deeper into the debt trap. The decision to extend the Agricultural Infrastructure Fund to APMC mandis is clearly aimed at reassuring protesters that the existing system is under no threat from the new laws which, in any case, the government has offered to put on hold for 18 months.
According to the FM, the MSP regime has been improved to ensure that the procurement price is at least 1.5 times the cost of production across all commodities. Though few and far between, such confidence-building measures are welcome. Whether these will help in putting an end to the current imbroglio is anybody’s guess.