Yet Another Task-Force!

On the 16th of March, the Central government set up a task force under the aegis of NITI Aayog in order to develop a framework to revive Indian agriculture. It was decided at the first meeting that all states would set up two task forces each—one on agriculture development and another on poverty alleviation. The agricultural task force, functioning under the aegis of NITI Aayog, is supposed to recommend resuscitating strategies for reforming the agriculture and inventing successful experiments from which all states can learn.

According to a government order, the task force will be chaired by Arvind Panagariya, the vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, along with a panel of members including Bibek Debroy, Ashok Gulati, Ramesh Chand, and secretaries of related departments such as agriculture, land resources, water resources, fertilisers and food processing.

The national task force on agricultural development, whose primary role will be to coordinate and develop synergy between central ministries and state government task forces is supposed to collate status reports from state task forces by 15 June and use these to prepare its own report by end of June. The two week (too weak!) time limit proposed for the task-force to prepare its report raises a concern for timely conclusion of the reforms and innovation in the sector. Otherwise, the actions would be left to promulgated with a ‘not-so-alien’ – pell-mell manner of our political systems.

If we look at the NDA government’s previous tenure and we are to believe the spin doctors as per whom it did an outstanding job in accelerating India’s development, but trend rates of growth tell a different story without any ambivalence. The performance of the Indian economy deteriorated under the BJP led NDA during 1998-2004. GDP growth in agriculture fell down from 3.4 percent in 1992-93 to 1.9 in 2003-04, juxtaposed with the agricultural population rising by 50 percent between 1980 -2011 and about two-thirds of India’s population still depending on agriculture for livelihood. The India Shining campaign backfired and led to the doom of NDA.

The NDA has been trying to project a pro-farmer image after being stigmatized by opposition parties over the amended land bill, which critics say sacrifices the interests of farmers. Modi sought to refute the criticism hastily in his last radio address to the country. Indian farmers are under stress this year. Earlier, many of them lost their crops in the kharif season, which was almost a drought with monsoon rains falling 12 percent below their long-period average. Now unseasonal rains have impacted them adversely in the rabi season. Agri-GDP growth this year was estimated to be a meagre 1.1 percent before the unseasonal rains, may fall flat to just zero, if not negative along with spiked farmer suicides.

The Finance Minister gave us a Deja-vu in his budget speech intending to work with the states this year at NITI Aayog, for the creation of a so- called “unified national agriculture market”- audaciously called so for 20 years. Such proclamations do not seem to bamboozle the sense of anguish among the farmer groups as was also seen at the Punjab Bhawan in New Delhi in early March, where farmer leaders were clearly agitated on the present blaring issues of Land Acquisition Act Ordinance, NDA government U-Turn in the WTO and the recent report of the Shanta Kumar High Level Committee for restructuring of Food Corporation of India.

In such a scenario, does adding one more task-force to the list help or further centralise power? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already reorganised key cabinet committees under his leadership and is highly criticised for this centralising.

Thus, in the light of the fact that allocations have been reduced under the union budget for several programmes like the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the National Food Security Mission, on grounds that states will contribute more for these programmes from the increased tax devolutions awarded by the Fourteenth Finance Commission, the question is again of implementation. Will this task-force be any different to earlier plans on agriculture?

The answer to this is that in the absence of any blueprint for implementation, agriculture will keep getting hollow words with such task-forces being just a nine days’ wonder and farmers will be left to merely look up to the sky for “achhe din” to arrive soon.

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