Is there is a pattern in the Finance Minister’s agriculture-related announcements in the budget? There is a thrust of nudging farmers towards cultivation of high value crops. This is evident from the outlay of Rs 2,200 cr for making quality and disease-free planting material of horticultural crops available to them. As India prospers, it will consume more fruits and vegetables. The focus on high-value horticulture is apt.
There is a Rs 6,000 scheme for value addition in fisheries. This is a sector that has grown by an average of 7 percent annually and contributes 6.7 percent to agricultural GVA. As people become prosperous, they consume less of cereals and more of proteins. So the thrust on fisheries meshes with the changes in consumption patterns.
The finance minster has also emphasised digital infrastructure for agriculture. This builds on the success of digital payments that ride on Aadhar identification, mobile internet and the proliferation of no-frill bank accounts. Digital technologies can be a force multiplier in agriculture. They can help in dissemination of agronomic information and practices, monitoring of crop health, estimation of crop acreage and output, analysis of soil composition, agricultural marketing and in making inputs, credit and insurance accessible. But the finance minister has made no allocation. She has promised an agriculture accelerator fund for agritech start-ups. The Economic Survey says there are more than a thousand of them. Again, no allocation has been made.
Some announcements are quite perplexing. The finance minster wants to raise the productivity and output of extra long-staple fibre cotton. India is not a large producer of this variety. It’s of Egyptian origin and is susceptible to pests and diseases, C D Mayee, former Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, says. The variety is grown in some pockets of Tamil Nadu and Telangana. In 2021-22, India imported 231,000 tonnes of raw cotton valued at $386 million, which presumably includes extra long-staple fibre cotton. But India also exported a larger quantity – 1.26 million tonnes – of raw cotton worth $2.8 billion. The cotton whose production the FM wants to promote is not a major import item.
The Finance Minister’s focus on millets is welcome. She calls it Shree Anna. The rebranding is required because millets were called coarse grains as they are slow to digest and were the staple of the poor. But they are nutritious and have been called nutri-cereals. Since at least 2016, Karnataka has been selling them under the ‘Siri” (meaning rich) brand. Millets are preferred by urban consumers with lifestyle diseases like diabetes. But they are an acquired taste. The FM wants to make India a global hub for millets. It is already the largest producer. Does she want production and productivity to rise substantially? For that, a big marketing thrust is needed. Innovative millet products will also have to be crafted. The productivity will have to be raised from an average of 2.24 tonnes per hectare. And area will have to expand as demand rises. India produces an average of 48 million tonnes of millets which is a fifth of the combined production of rice and wheat. But the FM has not made any allocation for these objectives. All she has said is that the millet research institute in Hyderabad will be supported.
(Top photo of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressing a post-budget 2023 press conference, courtesy of PIB)